Parkinson’s Law and Time Boxing

In my last post, I gave 4 truths to help my sister manage her anxiety about school and family related time management. They were:

1. Worries are not facts.

2. Worries are not destiny.

3.  So, stick to the Pareto Principle

4. Remember Parkinson’s Law and Time Box

…and you’ll be okay.

Today I will write about Time Boxing, a concept that I can gush over to an embarrassing degree.  You can read about Time Boxing from Wikipedia or Steve Pavlina’s Personal Development Blog.  In short, Time Boxing is

a technique where we place deliberate, prior, artificial  limits on the time to perform a given task. Within reason, the tighter (shorter) the time limits, the better.

I’m using this quote for a reason. This definition comes from the fabulous and colorful blog, All Japanese All the Time. While the author mostly focuses on learning Japanese and Chinese, he is an absolute fan of multiple time-management gurus and frequently blogs about how to apply them to language-learning.  In other words, “management” books aren’t just for expanding your business but can be applied to any number of personal goals.

Moving on…

Firmly allotting a small, fixed amount of time for any given task is vital when you consider Parkinson’s Law – the old adage that your petty task will expand both in complexity and importance to fill whatever time you give it. We all know this phenomenon! If I have a whole day to mow the lawn…I’ll end up spending the whole day mowing the lawn. My dear friend won a prestigious post-doc that she didn’t quite plan for and she had to churn out her whole dissertation in 3 months. She did it! I am still puttering away simply because, (un)fortunately, I can.

When you combine this with the fact that so many people fritter away time on trivial tasks (see my post on the 80/20 rule), you can see why everyone around you feels so overwhelmed.

In his most succinct piece of advice, Timothy Ferris said we can increase our productivity by simply combining 2 approaches.

1. Limit tasks to the important to shorten work time (80/20).

2. Shorten work time to limit tasks to the important (Parkinson’s Law).

This is how I’ve applied it to myself.  As I wrote in my last post, I clarified which 20% of sources were critical for 80% of my dissertation.  Every other source was time-boxed away — how much time I spent skimming the argument or writing them up.  And even for my important works, I still time boxed (though at a more generous pace) to get through my discussion.

As a personal example, I’ve found Time Boxing to be a nice alternative to the Pomodero Technique, where you give yourself set periods to work and set periods to break.  While Pomodero has helped me build up my concentration muscle, it does not stop me from the dreaded “drag-out” perfectionism.  I can do 50 Pomodero sessions on 1 task.  Time Boxing destroys perfectionism.  You just got to do it, in the time you give yourself!

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