Do you ever set out to do a task, and 3 hours later you’ve done just about everything else except the thing you originally set out to do? Join the club.
I’ve found myself having a number of conversations recently about productivity. And a quick search online revealed a shed-load of time management and productivity posts and articles.
Due to the wealth of articles and posts out there, I decided to avoid the obvious topic of time-wasters like Twitter and email. And I’ll be giving the ever-popular 80/20 rule (also known as Pareto’s Law) a wide berth too.
I’ve opted instead to compile a short list of other Laws that could be at play when you find yourself dithering.
Law Number 1: Parkinson’s Law
“Work expands to fill the time available”
I witnessed this one myself in my previous employment, running Outward-bound-type team exercises. I’ve given some teams 10 minutes to complete a task, and other teams 45 minutes for the exact same task, and almost without fail, they take the amount of time given.
Sometimes, the ones given more time do a far worse job, and really over-complicate the problem (more on that to come). For now, the answer to this one is to continually set shorter deadlines. 30 minutes is ideal.
Break a task down into the smallest possible chunk, ideally with only one skill involved in each chunk. For example, chunks for writing a short document or blog post could be:
Brainstorm, Research, Draft, Edit, Format, Publish, Promote
Now it might seem OTT to chunk such a small task down, but it makes it seem like less of a mountain and more of a molehill, particularly if it’s a task you’ve been putting off for a while.
If you’re not feeling on top of your game, the thought of creating the whole thing might seem much more daunting than merely drafting it.
During the time allocated, try to get into the habit of working solely on that one thing.
Law Number 2: Segal’s Law
"A man with a watch knows what time it is. A man with two watches is never sure."
(admittedly not that Segal, Or Seagal!)
The mantra to this law is ‘if in doubt, get more information’. Paralysis by analysis – we’ve all been there.
Paralysis by analysis could derive from an over reliance on knowledge and existing resources, and an unwillingness to experiment, and learn by doing. The solution? Grow a set!
That may be a bit flippant, but I’ve heard all kinds of advice on this, but all joking aside, maybe Nike said it best...
Just Do It.
Law Number 3: Gall’s Law
“A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked”
Are you over-cooking things? As Leonardo Da Vinci put it, “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”. If you’ve ever watched Dragon’s Den, you’ll undoubtedly have seen someone present a massively over-engineered solution to quite a simple problem.
There’s a bit of an urban myth about astronauts, which, regardless of accuracy, illustrates this Law well. It’s about the US and the USSR’s solutions to the problem of ball-point pens not working in space. The American’s apparently spent $1,000,000 on a writing device that could handle zero gravity. The Russian’s took a pencil.
The antidote to this Law is really just to ask yourself if you’re overcomplicating things. What’s the simplest way it could be done?
Law Number 4: Coughlin’s Law
This one’s from the philosophical bar-tender/poet in the movie Cocktail - Doug Coughlin. And it goes...
“Anything else is always something better”
Other related phrases include ‘the-bright-and-shiny-object’ syndrome and ‘the grass is always greener’. When a task is getting a bit boring, or we’re reluctant to start it, it often seems that any other task will be a lot more fun.
Choose your top 3 priorities at the start of the day, and if anything else pops up, try asking yourself ‘does this need to be done today?’ If not, stick it in your inbox, and you can process it later and reassess your priorities tomorrow.
If it must be done today, but takes more than 2 minutes, schedule a time to do it. If it takes less than 2 minutes, do it now and move on (GTD fans will recognise this approach).
You could also try scheduling set times (eg twice a day) to handle items like emails.
Law Number 5: Student Syndrome
Anyone remember those days of late night cramming? I certainly do – I remember shaking from so much of a certain energy drink I couldn’t write for the first 15 minutes of one final year exam.
Anyway, the theory behind Student Syndrome is that any time buffers built into a task will be wasted. People only start to fully apply themselves at the last possible moment before a deadline.
For this reason, if you’re delegating tasks that you really want to get moving, it might be an idea not to give them a 2 week target. They will likely do next to nothing on it for the first week.
You could also set more intermittent deadlines for yourself to avoid the onslaught of Student Syndrome, although you'll have to find a way of sticking to them. Self-imposed deadlines are often the first to slide.
There are numerous things you could do to prevent yourself being victim to the Laws mentioned here, and stop the hours disappearing into the Ether. I'm certainly no master of this stuff, but I'm getting better...
What about you? Do you have any little tips and tricks you use to boost your productivity and keep you on track? How do you handle incoming items like email and Twitter?
Time Spiral - Treehugger.com
Social Media Collage - WebAdvantage
Astronaut - Scienceblogs.com
Steven Seagal - Geekadelphia
Student Cramming - Yyelsel Ann on Flickr