Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Why to-do's take forever to get done

My One Word for 2012 is CREATE. Here’s what I can tell you: A creative piece of work never feels entirely finished to its author. (In fact, I’ve heard of famous painters being banned from museums to keep them from continuing to add to their masterpieces.) So I tend to want to give myself as much time as possible to work on something.

And that’s a problem because: Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.

I talked about this proverb known as Parkinson’s Law the other week.

Parkinson’s Law means that if you give yourself a week to complete a two-hour task, the task will seem to increase in difficulty-to-get-done so as to fill that week. Even if it doesn't fill the week with more work, or endless tweaking, it will with the stress and tension of still needing to get it done. And remembering to get it done.

The remedy is to give yourself short deadlines. Shorter than you think is necessary, or comfortable.

I once read a response to Parkinson’s Law insinuating that if it were an accurate observation, you could assign a time limit of one minute to a task and it would become simple enough to complete within a minute. No. Parkinson’s Law a truism, not a law of physics.

It’s a truism because people generally give certain tasks more time than they really take to be completed. 

Why do we do that? 

4 Reasons Parkinson’s Law is in Effect

1) WE DREAD. It’s a task we’re dreading doing, so we keep putting it off. We convince ourselves it will be so dreadful and time-consuming that we can’t possibly deal with it right now. Surely tomorrow will be a better time to tackle this.

2) WE’RE TIME-CHALLENGED. It’s not that we don’t have enough time available to complete the task; rather we’re not good at determining how much time this task needs. Plus, we lallygag, daydream and get off track rather than focusing and getting it done – so it seems to take forever. (Personally, I can be a terrible judge of time.)

3) WE’RE PERFECTIONISTS. We assume that the longer we work on something the better it will turn out. And we want it to turn out as perfect as possible. So we give ourselves lots of time to work on it. And in the meantime, the task grows in complexity because we’re trying to do the best possible job at it. (Note: not everything needs to be "just right," many things just need to be done.)

4) WE STRESS. We live with stress. We don’t enjoy it. So we’re always looking to avoid more stress. We think that giving ourselves the buffer of some extra time to do the task will reduce our hurry and stress. Yet it often does not. Instead we stress all week over getting a two-hour task done, then we hurry to complete it last minute.

Any of this sound familiar? I am guilty of all four of those.

Parkinson's Remedy

By assigning ourselves (or our kids or employees) a short but doable amount of time to complete a task, we can gain back wasted time. Time spent dreading, postponing, daydreaming or trying to do something to an unreasonably or unnecessarily high standard. Then we can restore the perceived complexity of the task back to its true state—and reduce our stress.
So I'm working on giving myself short deadlines and getting to-dos done rather than tweaked twenty times or postponed. I'm completing more, faster. And that's upping my enthusiasm for my work. As Martha Stweart might say, "That's a good thing!"

Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. ~ Romans 12:11


  1. Loved your post, Rachel, as it reminded me of my new goal to finish what I start (and soon!). The dread, as you said, is many times what trips us up. Sometimes I try to look at my 'to do' list and do the thing that I dread MOST so I will be more willing to return to my list. I try to remind myself to do that thing that I will be most pleased to have finished, first. It doesn't always work that way, but I can try. :-) I need the Lord's help, that is for sure!
    brenda colville johnson

    1. Hi Brenda. Thanks for the positive feedback. Your do-what-you-dred-most method is both wise and effective! I practice that too. But I usually do a small dreaded task first - a "warm-up" - and then I head right for the biggest hairy task I have. And I aim to slay it.

      Hope you have a productive day!

  2. Interesting post.

  3. I have been seeing this principle a lot on the blog world lately. I forget what Anne called it, Pomodoro, I think.
    I have done something similar to motivate myself. Just give myself 20 minutes to complete a room and work as quickly s possible. I may not be through, but mentally, if I think it only takes 20 minutes, I can get started. Then if the task truly takes longer to complete, I am already in motion and can complete the task. The Pomodoro technique that Anne was talking about uses 25 minutes portions of time and breaks tasks down to a maximum of around 2 hours, I think.
    Thank you for your post. I enjoyed it and I love your word for the year! Create! You have inspired me! I think my word for the year may need to be "Organize!" Then next year, it can be "Create"! I love to create!

  4. Sharing a link to this post on my business blog, www.ykpllc.org. It is really good for my clients to see. As long as for me to see!

  5. It is so true that work expands to fill the time of its completion. I deal with this daily with my girls at work but we have gotten ahead of the game by setting deadlines for everything. My goal at work is to do everything "as unto the Lord", and I don't think the Lord would encourage procrastination. Your post is very thought provoking. Loved it! Now I just need to get it under control in my private life.

  6. Your last two posts really sparked me into action. As a compulsive planner, I spend much time scheduling and preparing to accomplish tasks. Lately, I felt very inefficient.. After reading your last posts, without scheduling or preparing I added several large items to my weekend to do list. Not only did I get everything done, I felt liberated and less stressed.

    1. I'm so glad! Thank you for taking the time to come back here and tell me. Your comment made my day.

  7. Thanks for sharing! Wow, I think those 4 apply to me as well. Definately going to shorten my deadlines.


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