Time Management: Pomodoro Meets Parkinson’s Law

Struggling with Time Management?

We’ve all heard of Parkinson’s Law:  Work expands to fill the time available. It’s Cyril Northcote Parkinson’s satirical notion published in a 1955 Economist article. In the article, Parkinson lampoons the British civil service for creating more jobs and then creating more work for those in the jobs to do. These days Parkinson’s law is generally used to describe time management: our relationship with time, work and procrastination. It does seem to be a basic human tendency to dedicate more time than is necessary to a task.

Time Management

Spiral Clock by Robbert van der Steeg used under Creative Commons license.

The Key to Better Time Management:

Parkinson describes the act of writing a postcard, which if you have nothing else to do, can take up the whole day.  But the thing is we do have something else to do. Lots of somethings to do. So why are we still allowing small tasks to take over our days? If work expands to fill the time allowed, is the converse not also true? Can we reign in the time we dedicate to a task and therefore accomplish more in a given day? I think we can.

I will never forget my university’s opening convocation in which the Dean urged us to “use out 10 minutes-es.” What she meant was for us to not assume we couldn’t accomplish anything in short periods of time. I certainly did my share of wasting time in college, but in the nearly 30 years since I heard that speech I have come to realize that she was right.

Take Pomodoro, one of the time management strategies that I have embraced for the past few years. The basic idea is that you set a timer for about 20 minutes and get down to work. When the timer goes off, you take a very short break, then you set the timer again for more work. In addition to getting you focused and working it’s supposed to teach you how long it takes to accomplish varying tasks, i.e. “I can write a blog post in 3 Pomodoros.”

It’s true, I can write a blog post in 3 Pomodoros. I can outline a few blog posts in one Pomodoro, then write a blog post in one Pomodoro, then edit it in a third Pomodoro. Or, I can choose to not set my timer and stare at a blank page for a while, get distracted, and perhaps outline a single blog post in a day. I am always amazed at what I can accomplish in 20 focused minutes if I use the notion of time pressure.

Time Management is an Active Task:

A few years back I decided to consider how long it actually took me to complete certain tasks. I chose to look at a few tasks I hated–blow-drying my hair and washing dishes by hand. Convinced that each of these tasks must take an hour to complete, I was really surprised to learn that it was just 5 minutes. Perhaps it was how much I hated the tasks that was making me think they took much longer. Perhaps it was my notion of time that was unreliable; after all, we say often talk about time in inaccurate measurements–have you ever actually timed one minute when you are sitting still? It seems like an eternity. And it is a decent amount of time.

In a recent Lifehack.org article they suggest assigning the time that you think a task will take, then dividing that time allotment in half to actually complete the task. This seems like a worthwhile experiment. They also suggest identifying those tasks that tend to suck up a lot of time and reducing the amount of time you allow yourself to spend on them.

Elastic Time Management:

Parkinson himself wrote, “work is elastic in its demands on time.” Why not turn his theory on its head and make it work for you? Work can expand to fill the time available, but it doesn’t have to.  Control the time you spend on tasks and you will have more time to spend.

Have you found ways to effectively manage your time? Do you control the time you spend on tasks? I’d love to hear about what time management strategies work for you. Are your time management skills letting you down? I can help with that. Contact me to find out how!

Productivity Tools (Personalized Productivity, part 2)

Productivity Tools–Using Your Mission:

In part 1 of this series I wrote about the importance of establishing your mission statement.  Of all the productivity tools available, clarifying your mission is the most important. Your mission statement can be used to inform your goals. This ensures that your goals support your mission. Once your goals are aligned with your mission the tasks that comprise them will also reflect what is truly important to you.  Doing tasks that have personal importance is a whole lot easier than doing tasks that do not have personal meaning.  Your mission can also help to filter other tasks.  We receive many tasks through email and other communication modes that are not necessarily related to our goals.  By using your mission and goals as a filter for these tasks you can delegate, defer or simply refuse the ones that do not support your mission.

The Productivity Ninja offers this great workflow diagram for managing email.  This productivity tool could actually be used for any task that comes your way.  When a task lands in your lap the very first question to ask is, “is this important to me at all?” That is the time to compare it to your mission and goals.  Does the task align with your mission? How does it get you where you want to be?

Productivity Tools for Determining Priorities:

The “Wheel of Life” is a simple but effective productivity tool for assessing your fulfillment in various life areas.  You can simply create a wheel yourself or use one of the many wheel of life templates available online.   Keep in mind that you can create whatever categories you wish in your wheel.  Rate each category on a scale of one to 10 and connect the rating dots.  You get a nice little radar chart that indicates areas of your life on which you may wish to focus.  That is to say, areas of your life where you may wish to create some goals and tasks.  Wheel of Life productivity tools


Stephen Covey’s “Time Management Matrix,” also known as the “Eisenhower Box” is another tool that can help to monitor goal and task alignment.  The box simply plots the urgency vs. importance of various tasks.  To use the box, plot items from your To Do list on it, assessing how they stack up in terms of urgency and importance.  Spend your time on important tasks (boxes 1 and 2) rather than urgent ones.  And avoid the “time sucks” of box 4!time management matrix productivity tools


Productivity Tools:  From Idea to Action

An essential productivity tool is time boxing.  Time boxing is putting each action into a time in which you will do it.  Basically, it is making an appointment with yourself to work on a specific item.  One type of time boxing is the Pomodoro technique.  Pomodoro is one of the best productivity tools I have come across.  I have written about this technique before, both on this blog at over at The Productive Librarian. The technique is simple:  set a timer for 20 minutes and work like crazy during that time, then take a break. Repeat as often as necessary.

One of the great things about Pomodoro in particular and time boxing generally as productivity tools is that it will help you to determine how long it takes to accomplish certain tasks.  The ability to estimate how long it takes to do something is really helpful in planning your time.  It can also greatly improve your attitude about certain tasks.  I used to think that certain tasks I hated, like blow drying my hair or washing dishes, took much longer than they actually did once I timed them.  The same is true for work tasks.  Being realistic about time estimates will help you to better plan your day and feel more positive about necessary actions that aren’t necessarily your favorite. And I promise you, many tasks will take less time than you think.

Part 3 of this series provides 10 tips and tools for productivity.

  Have you tried the Wheel of life, the Time Management Matrix, 
Pomodoro or other types of time boxing?   I'd love to hear how they
 worked for you. 

This is the second in a three part series on productivity. It is based on material I presented at Spark 2015 on June 16, 2015, in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. The conference was targeted at women entrepreneurs but the material is really universal. 

How to Get Unstuck: 3 Easy Strategies

How to Get Unstuck

Stuck.  We have all been there.  Maybe it’s writer’s block.  Maybe you just can’t get started. Maybe there’s a deadline looming and you can’t seem to figure out the next right thing to do.  When you are stuck you need easy, concrete actions to take to get yourself moving again.  Here are three strategies to help you get unstuck.

How to Get Unstuck Strategy #1:  Go for a Walk

Ever notice how you get your most creative ideas when you aren’t trying to be creative? One of the reasons I love to attend conferences is that as I sit listening to others talk about their work I get great ideas about my work.  Sometimes they are related, more often they are not.  Maybe you get these ideas in the shower, or as you are falling asleep or at the gym.  I recently read that people became more creative after reading the phone book.  Whatever you do, do something different.  Getting outside and going for a walk can be enough to disengage your brain from stuck mode and get you going again.

How to Get Unstuck Strategy #2:  Set a Timer

Don’t know how to get unstuck?  One word:  Pomodoro.  This is hands-down my favorite anti-procrastination/time management/productivity/getting unstuck technique.  I love it for its simplicity, elegance and easy.  Anyone can do it!  I wrote a short post on Pomodoro last fall.  It includes the basic steps and a handy video from the official Pomodoro website.

How to Get Unstuck Strategy #3:  Make a Mental Map


I recently figured out that getting stuck is part of my creative process.  I am not proud of this but it certainly gives me a lot of opportunities to practice how to get unstuck!  One I recently tried was making a mental map.  The process was quite simple:  I just wrote the topic in the center of a piece of paper and then created a graphical representation of all the aspects of the topic I thought were important.  Not an artist? As you can see by what I produced neither am I!  But the product served as a nice outline and before I knew it my writing was back on track.

Go Get Unstuck!

There is an old joke that goes, “How do you eat a whale?”  The answer is, “one bite at a time.”  Sometimes how to get unstuck is as simple as asking what the one next right step is and doing it.  It is easy to become paralyzed by the big picture.  Keep your thinking small and just do the next right thing.  So the next time you are feeling stuck try one of these strategies to get yourself going again.  Got some other strategies that help you get unstuck?  I’d love to hear about them.

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