There has been some buzz on the blogosphere about a new book “the 4 hour work week” by Tim Ferriss. I haven’t read the book and am not sure I will, but from the descriptions I have read it appears he has useful things to say about time management. His focus in on effectiveness and highlights Pareto’s principle – 80% of the value of what we do comes from 20% of what we do. His advice is to cut out the unessentials in our lives and focus on just those things that add the most value. He encourages batching of tasks, and blocking out distractions. Some suggestions include the very sage advice to check your email only twice a day, something I often intend to do but have trouble sticking with. There is a useful post here about putting some of these ideas into practice. Another useful point is he suggests asking yourself three times a day whether you are actually being productive, or just being busy – performing a crutch activity, that is avoiding the task that you really should be doing but feels overwhelming or unpleasant.
What I found particularly interesting was that it drew my attention to a name for a concept that I was aware of but didn’t have a name for: Parkinson’s Law. Parkinson’s law states “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”, and Ferriss emphasises that a task will also swell in perceived complexity and importance in direct proportion to the amount of time you allot to it. Parkinson’s law was first discussed in terms of how a manager should assign tasks to subordinates, but it has profound implications for self time management. For academics, a lot of the work we do is defined by our own time deadlines, and we often have a reasonable amount of freedom in deciding when a given task must be done by. Procrastination is one corollary of Parkinson’s law. Have you ever met someone who is bad at managing deadlines, but says that they work best when leaving things to the last minute? The deadline pressure encourages them to focus, block out distractions, and become highly productive. They get a lot done in a short period of time, which without a deadline would have taken them forever to do.
The solution to Parkinson’s law is obvious – limit the amount of time you have to do tasks. I don’t know the specifics of Ferriss’s solution but the method that I have seen employed by highly productive academics is that for every hour of your working day, you have a clear idea of what you have to accomplish in that time. In addition, they have tasks that follow which are contingent about completion of work in the preceding time period. And if you setting up these mini deadlines in conjunction with fixed items in calendar (meetings, talks etc) it gives you a hard landscape in which to help enforce deadline pressure.
One problem in this suggestion is that any estimation of how much time a task will take you also face Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law…