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What to do when work creeps in everywhere

How to put a lid on it (your work, your worry, and everything else that just seems to expand)

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Photo by Christopher Bill on Unsplash
Photo by Christopher Bill on Unsplash

You may not have heard of Parkinson’s Law, but I bet you’ve experienced it.

  • You work into the wee hours because there’s so much left to do.
  • You’re in back to back meetings all day long, without any buffer time in between.
  • You had a whole, glorious, day to get the project completed, and it took right up until the last minute.

Do you see the common thread?

Parkinson’s law is that work expands to fit the time allotted.

And knowing is half the battle, right?

So, if we know about Parkinson’s law, then we can take some strides to combat it and gain back some valuable time for ourselves as well. Here’s how:

Define a Stopping Time

Every day choose a time at which you’ll be done with work, whether the work is “done” or not. (Because, let’s be real with ourselves, the word will never be “done”. You could go on answering “just one last email” literally forever.)

It doesn’t have to be the same time every day (although wouldn’t that predictability be nice?), but if you can define your stopping time in advance, you’ll be able to better plan your day and finish the work in the time you’ve allotted.

If you know how many hours are willing to work in a day, and you define in advance what you’ll accomplish that day, you’ll be much likelier to actually accomplish it. You’ll be working with reality instead of aspirational ideas of what you can accomplish.

By knowing your stopping time, you’ll also be better at prioritizing the incoming throughout the day. If you know, with certainty, when your work day will end, then you have to prioritize those must-do deliverables first, as there won’t be time to catch up on them later if you take that non-essential impromptu meeting you were just invited to.

Audit Meeting Length

Meetings are one of the worst culprits when it comes to Parkinson’s Law. If you’ve scheduled an hour, you’ll find something to talk about for an hour. Same thing for 30 minutes. Why do we schedule meetings for 1 hour or 30 minutes? Because these are the defaults in our calendars.

But what if instead, we thought critically about the agenda, and how much time we think we really need? Maybe our meetings would only need 15 minutes, or 40 minutes.

Here are some tools you can use to help you appropriately allocate meeting time:

SPEEDY MEETINGS

Google Calendar has a great little feature called “Speedy Meetings”; when you turn it on, the defaults will change from 30mins to 25 mins and from 1 hour to 50 mins

To enable the setting. Calendar view > gear icon > Settings. In the Default event duration section, you’ll see a check box for “Speedy meetings”.

MEETING AUDIT

Take a look at your meetings, esp. the recurring meetings. Are there those that are a bit too long? Where you can reduce the length or frequency of the meeting, without reducing efficacy?

Not sure? Try this trick: for a couple of weeks, every time you go to a meeting that feels too long, change the color of that meeting in your calendar to a color of your choice; it’ll be your secret code. Then, after a few weeks, look back at your calendar. If there are meetings where, 3 times out of 4, it’s longer than it needs to be, consider reducing the length.

USE AN AGENDA

Another way to ensure that your meetings take less time is to make sure there is always an agenda, and that you stick to it. Meetings have a tendency to meander, but if you can agree what the meeting is about, what decisions are to be made, then if will be much more clear when the meeting is over.

INFLUENCE MEETINGS YOU DON’T CONTROL

Now, what if you’re not in control of the meeting? You didn’t arrange it; it’s not “your” meeting? Well you can’t go unilaterally making changes, but you CAN suggest to others that perhaps the meeting is too long and propose an experiment that you cut the meeting time. (The language of experimentation is almost always going to win out over the language of change. No one wants to be the jerk that won’t entertain an experiment. But most people are resistant to change.)

OR you can propose that if you cover the content in the shorter period, that you all agree the meeting end early. I guarantee you’re not the only one who’d appreciate less meeting time on their schedule.

Time Blocking

Time blocking a really effective way to plan your day, and to figure out what you realistically have time for in any given day. It probably won’t surprise you to know that I time block my entire day. (Although, you may find it bizarre that my “happy place” involves looking at my calendar a few weeks or months in advance and tetris-ing things into place. Doing this gives me a huge sense of calm.)

But back to you. You might be thinking “I’ve tried time-blocking and it doesn’t work for me”. I hear this a lot. And I believe it.

What’s typically happening when people say this is one of 2 things:

  1. Their time blocks are not specific enough.
    • If you block time for “deep work” or “focus time”, in all likelihood, when the time comes, you’ll see it on your calendar and you’ll ignore it completely. You’ll do what’s right in front of you, or you’ll check email or Slack.
    • Why? Because you’re not clear on what you’re supposed to be doing during this time. This is precisely why I’m always harping on “separating the planning from the doing”. If you get to “focus time” and you’re not sure what to focus on, because you haven’t planned it in advance, then the path of least resistance is to simply work on what’s in front of you at the time. Instead, get specific in your time blocks. As I’m writing this post right now, the time block on my calendar reads “Weekly blog post (topic: Parkinson’s Law)”. So, when I sat down this morning to write this, there was no friction, no time spent wondering what to do. I just started writing.
  2. You’re time blocking in a vacuum.
    • Sometimes, you put a time block for something specific in your calendar, but you don’t factor in everything else on your plate. And maybe those other things are more pressing, more demanding of your attention. When we time block without factoring in the full story, it’s also easy to ignore those time blocks. For time blocking to be really effective, you need to understand the full scope (your list, the relative due dates, etc.). This is why a “single trusted system‘“ for tasks is so important.

Limit “Worry Time”

We’ve got a lot to worry about. There’s the pandemic, of course, but also just normal life stuff.

What if we applied Parkinson’s law to worry?

What if worry wasn’t something that filled the background and that was available for us to tap into at any time?

What if we, instead, we limited our worry time?

In fact, I wrote a whole post about this concept awhile back, but if it’s worth repeating here:

Schedule time to worry. How about 15 minutes a day? Would that suffice for now?

Are there other ways that you’ve been applying Parkinson’s Law (whether or not you knew that’s what it was called)?

I’d love to hear your creative ways of preventing your work from expanding!

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