Parkinson’s Law says that your work will expand so it fits the time you have available for its completion. But what causes Parkinson’s law?
I think Parkinson’s Law is caused by elements of your life that are ‘springy’. Springy life elements are elements of your life that expand and contract to fit the amount of free time you have available.
They’re part of the reason many people still have no free time even after they retire, go on vacation, or when the week is over. Springy life elements take many forms, like:
Cleaning your house
Hanging out with friends
Reading the latest news about Rob Ford
Listening to music
Playing video games
While some springy life elements are very valuable, I’d argue that all springy life elements need to be tamed. Springy life elements aren’t inherently bad, but if you don’t deal with them properly they can zap you of your time, energy, focus, and motivation.
Why you should tame your springy life elements
They leave you unfocused, unmotivated, and unhappy
Springy life elements are like water in your schedule; they fill the gaps between your scheduled commitments, expanding and contracting to fit the free time you have available.
That isn’t good. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the dry-but-quite-valuable book Flow, you are the most focused and motivated when you structure your time. “[I]f left to their own devices and genetic programming”, most people just do stuff like “worry about things or watch television”, and it’s times like these that people become unfocused, unmotivated, and unhappy, and begin to “ruminate and feel like their time is being wasted”.
Springy life elements are usually unstructured, so by their very nature they zap you of your focus, motivation, and according to research, even your happiness.
They rob you of your time
Since you don’t often consciously structure spending time on your springy elements, and they expand and contract to fit the free time you have available, springy elements rob of you of your time–arguably the most important and valuable resource you have.
They can also force you to always run at 100% capacity, which means the other elements in your life don’t have room to breathe. This causes you unneeded stress, because you start to feel like you’re no longer in control of your time and attention.
They have a large opportunity cost
Many springy elements have another huge cost, in addition to your time and energy–what you could otherwise be doing with your time. After all, the predominance of springy life elements are low-return, and every 15 minutes you spend on Facebook is 15 minutes you could be spending on something much higher-leverage, like reading or investing in your learning.
When you don’t tame your springy life elements, they can take up the spare capacity you could have otherwise invested into better, more meaningful things.
How to identify springy life elements
Just as one of the best ways to make corrections to your diet is to diary what you eat, I think the best way to identify springy life elements is to track how you spend your time. How can you do that? Here are a few suggestions that have worked for me:
Keep a time diary. I prefer a good, old fashioned paper diary. A time diary lets you calculate what activities you spend the most time on. I find that keeping a time diary allows me to not only see patterns and trends in how I spend my time, but it also forces me to second-guess spending time on some activities in the first place. I’d recommend paying special attention to how you spend your unstructured time.
RescueTime is a free app for your computer that tracks which websites and applications you spend the most time in. (I wrote about my thoughts on the app here.) RescueTime naturally won’t account for your whole life, but if you spend a lot of time on the computer, it will cover a good chunk of it.
Be mindful of how you spend your time. The most productive people I know have a ‘double loop’, where they constantly check and reflect on how they spend their time, energy, and other resources. When you constantly reflect on and are mindful of how you spend your time, it is much easier to separate the elements of your life that expand to fit the time you have available for them from the ones that don’t expand.
How to tame springy life elements
Springy life elements are unstructured, which is why they can expand so easily, and when you don’t provide a structure for the springy elements in your life, they’re going to suck up a lot of your time and energy. Therefore, I think the best way to tame them is to provide them a structure to exist inside of. This basically means limiting the amount of time you spend on them.
What to do with the elements you don’t want to tame
First thing’s first, though–there are no doubt springy elements in your life that are very valuable that you’re not as interested in taming. Every single person has valuable springy elements (like hanging out with friends and family, relaxing, and watching House of Cards). These activities are valuable, fun, high-leverage, and productive. If you have time to dedicate to these elements, there’s naturally no reason for you not to do them, though I would constantly be mindful of how you spend your time, and think about how much time you’re devoting to each element and the opportunity cost of that time. It is also worth structuring that time (even if that structure is relatively loose), because even loosely structuring your time has been proven to provide you with more motivation, focus, and happiness.
How to tame your springy elements
For springy life elements that are less meaningful and productive, the key is to compartmentalize and limit the amount of time you spend on those elements. Here’s how:
Create a time box for the elements. Limit how much time you’ll spend on a springy element of your life (for example, how much time you spend reading the news every day). After you create a time box around a springy life element and force yourself to stay within those limits, something magical happens–you force yourself to expend more energy over less time to get as much done as you need to.
Schedule them. When you schedule spending time on your springy life elements, you act with more purpose and don’t spend your time mindlessly. This naturally also places the elements within a time box.
Remove them from your life entirely. If you can, and want to, removing certain springy elements from your life (like cancelling your cable subscription, downsizing your smartphone, selling your gaming console, or deleting your Facebook account) is a great way to make room for bigger and better elements to take their place. Just be careful that other unproductive springy elements don’t take their place!
Say ‘no’ to them in the first place. This may go without saying, but the best way to tame springy life elements is to not introduce them into your life in the first place. Run more interference against taking on low-return bullshit.
Remember: perfect is the enemy of good. Many springy life elements are springy because you try to make them perfect. For example, your house will never be exactly 100% clean–no matter how hard you try, something will always be out of place, and there will always be a few specks of dirt on the floor. While it might take you 1 hour to get your house 85% clean, it might take you another 3 hours to get your house 95% clean.
Disable access to certain websites. Two great apps that will help you avoid distracting websites: SelfRestraint (for Windows); SelfControl (for Mac).
Consider creating a time box around entire hotspots. I wrote about setting minimums/maximums for the seven different hotspots you invest your time and energy into (mind, body, emotions, career, finances, relationships, and fun). If you find that most of your springy life elements come from a certain hotspot, it’s worth considering time boxing the entire hotspot.
Even though some springy life elements are important, finding ways to structure them, compartmentalize them, or remove them from your life entirely will, at the end of the day, make you more productive, happy, focused, and motivated. Plus, chances are you’ll find you have a lot more time on your hands.