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!


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