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4 Simple Tactics For Getting More Done In Less Time

Written by: Prakash Rao, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


When people complain that they have no time, what they really mean is that they have no time to spare. Their spare time is stuck in all the tasks they have to do, and the problem is amplified by Parkinson’s Law (Cyril Northcote Parkinson, “Parkinson’s Law” essay in The Economist, 1955).

Parkinson’s Law states: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

For every task, you have an expectation of how long it will take. This may be an implicit expectation or an explicit deadline imposed upon you. The expectation serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The task takes as much time as expected, which, per se, is not a problem. However, when Murphy’s Law (“If something can go wrong, it will”) strikes at a crucial moment, the task actually takes longer.

Murphy’s Law cannot be “controlled.” It can only be planned for so that when something does go wrong, you are ready with an appropriate response. Parkinson’s Law can be controlled. Here are four of my simple tactics for controlling Parkinson’s Law and getting more work done in less time than expected.

1. Set an Aggressive Estimate

Setting an estimate is the first step to controlling Parkinson's Law. As the Yankee legend Lawrence Peter "Yogi" Berra remarked, "You've got to be very careful if you don't know where you are going because you might not get there." Similarly, if you don't have an expectation of how long a task is supposed to take, how do you know whether you have done it efficiently or not?

Many people just add tasks to their list of things to be done without paying attention to how much time each task will take. As a result, they routinely over-stuff their to-do list and don't finish half the task on the list. Estimating how long each task will take, even a rough estimate, prevents overloading the task list.

Most people are conservative when setting estimates for tasks. I have heard a rule-of-thumb that says, “Determine the most time the task could take and then double it.” Unfortunately, Parkinson’s Law does not favor conservatism. Quite the contrary, even the most conservative estimate is put to the test.

Another facet of this conservatism is to add a little “padding” to the estimate to buffer against Murphy’s Law.

There are two problems with this approach:

  1. The first is that Parkinson’s Law will consume the padding, leaving no buffer against Murphy’s Law.

  2. The second is a little more esoteric. Statistically, Murphy’s Law strikes only about three tasks in ten. However, since one does not know in advance which three tasks will fall victim to Murphy’s Law, the tendency would be to add some padding to all tasks. For one, this leads to about 70% wasted padding. For another, even with the 30% of the tasks that do need the padding, Parkinson’s Law voids the padding.

Therefore, the prudent thing to do is to avoid padding individual tasks but keep aside some time for contingencies.

For any given task, the “true” estimate is the point where your understanding of the complexity of the task meets your understanding of your capability. Let me elaborate on this concept. The thought process that creates the estimate ends with “I can accomplish this task in so much time.” Therefore, the “so much time” is the point where “I can” meets “this task”. This is like the rule in economics where “price” is the point where the supply curve meets the demand curve. If you err on the estimate, it is because you do not understand the task well, or you do not understand your capability.

An aggressive estimate is when you challenge yourself to do more. Carefully challenge yourself to achieve more. Set a limit between 65% and 85% of the original estimate as the new deadline, and, so that you do not treat this artificial deadline lightly, put about 25% more items on your list and challenge yourself to complete everything. Parkinson's Law works in reverse if you give yourself less time on any task, it will shrink to fit the available time (which is why people say that if you want something done, give it to a busy person). Of course, as in anything else, overdoing this will hurt you in the long run. Know your capability and slowly push your limits.

2. Prepare

Preparation is the key to the timely completion of tasks. Any task that begins without adequate preparation takes longer than required. In some cases, it does not make sense to begin the task if the preparation is not complete.

Preparation may involve any or all of the following:

  • Place. The area the task will be performed in may require some adjustments, clearing around or cleaning up of. Some tasks require working room. Some tasks require adequate lighting, air circulation, or temperature adjustment. For example, in the old days of film photography, a "dark room" required special preparation. The task cannot proceed unless the place is prepared.

  • Parts. These include any materials that may be consumed during the task (ingredients) and tools used to work on the ingredients (utensils). I used the words ingredients and utensils to invoke the example of cooking. Again, the task cannot proceed without the materials in place. At the least, even if the task could begin without all the materials, it cannot complete if some materials were not available.

  • People. Some tasks depend on one or more individuals for action, input, opinion, or information. Again, if the individual(s) are not available at a crucial point in the task, the task will be delayed.

  • Prerequisites. Some tasks depend on the successful completion of other tasks. For example, when painting on certain surfaces, it is necessary to apply one or more coats of primer. It is not advisable to attempt tasks out of sequence.

  • Information. This part of preparation could be very critical in certain tasks. Many decisions depend on the availability of information. Without adequate or accurate information, the decisions and ensuing actions may even be detrimental.

Preparation for a task may be considered a task in and of itself. The target task may be prepared for any time before the task itself begins but must precede the target task.

3. Separate Thought from Action

There is another anecdote involving the Yankee legend “Yogi” Berra wherein at a critical point in a crucial game, the manager asked him to “go out there and think.” Yogi came back without even swinging his bat at the pitches thrown to him muttering, “Think? How can you think and hit at the same time?”

It is really very simple. Thinking gets in the way of doing. If you finish your thinking before you begin doing, you will execute the action with more discipline and without incurring too many errors.

There are two kinds of thought: analysis and creation, i.e., scientific thinking and artistic thinking. The analysis allows you to determine what is to be done and to verify your creative process. The creation allows you to determine how you will achieve your objective. There are, therefore, three parts to any task – art, science, and discipline. For every task, determine what you have to do and how you are going to do it, then do it with discipline.

This is a very important tactic to use especially during a crisis. When fighting fires, you are mostly in a reactive mode. It is necessary to act quickly to contain the situation and resolve it. However, to act without thought is a recipe for disaster, and to think while acting may cause you to trip over your own feet (here, I’m paraphrasing some advice I received from a friend: Vision without action is only a dream, and action without a vision can be a nightmare!). Therefore, think quickly and act afterward.

4. Choose Your Distractions

Distraction is a choice. You get distracted not because something external occurs but because you acknowledge the external occurrence. Distractions reduce your productivity. Meditate, concentrate, and focus on your task at hand and get it done.

Your susceptibility to distractions can be increased due to:

a. Lack of interest in the current task. It is not always possible to do what you like. Therefore try to like what you do. I enjoy narrating this parable about two people digging a hole in the ground. A passerby asks them what they were doing. The first replies gruffly, “What does it look like? I am digging a hole in the ground!”

The second very calmly states, “I am working on the foundation for a cathedral.” The second person had more interest in the task because he was looking at the finished product in his mind. This attitude drives your interest in the task. A friend of mine reminded me that some of the mundane tasks we do bring us the income that fuels the rocket ship that will launch our dreams. Think of why you do some tasks, and your interest will grow.

b. Curiosity. Curiosity has its place and value. Much has been discovered by the people who wanted to see what lies beyond that yonder hill. Accord curiosity its rightful respect but keep it away when you are working on a task. While driving along a highway, quite often the traffic slows down because of an accident on the other side! “Rubber-necking” causes nearly as many delays as the accidents themselves. If you are curious about something, make a note to yourself to look it up later. Not during your task.

c. Attraction or desire for something external. People in love usually walk around in a daze with their thought steadfastly fixed on their objects of desire. Just as it is necessary to separate thought from the action so that the thought does not get in the way of the action, it is necessary to stop extraneous thoughts so that they don't get in the way of the task. As in (a) above, use the current task as the fuel for the rocket ship that launches your dream. The object of desire will become the "why" you do certain things, the inspiration for the action. The rocket will not launch without the fuel. The current task is important. Indeed, it is paramount.

d. Too much on your mind. Some people bear the entire weight of the world on their slender shoulders. As in (c) above, worries will get in the way of the action unless the task is the fuel for the rocket that will eliminate the worries.

e. Suboptimal physical condition. Tiredness, lack of sleep, poor health, stress, etc. will reduce your ability to focus. Relax before you act.

For more tactics, check out my book, “Time Management for New Employees” available on This is a goal-oriented, metrics-driven, and process-/action-centric time management system. It has helped hundreds of people move from mere existence to real, fun-filled life.

Follow me on Facebook, LinkedIn, and visit my website for more info!


Prakash Rao, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Prakash Rao is learning skills guru. He transforms middle school and high school students into super learners. After a career in software development and consulting, Prakash pursued his interest in self-development and helping children learn to learn. In this, he is following in his mother's footsteps Dr. Indira S. Rao developed this methodology as part of her Ph.D. program with Prakash as the subject. Prakash is now the preeminent expert in Dr. Rao's methodology and has made it his mission to unlock children's learning potential and unleash the inner genius.



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