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Tasks will fill empty time if allowed to do so.Short Term Goals and Down Time Make for a Happy, Productive Worker

“A project or task will expand to fill the time allotted to complete it.” That’s one version of Parkinson’s Law. It is routinely stated in ways to suggest that bureaucracies, job scopes, tasks – anything, will grow to fill the space it can fill. It’s a principle that seemingly applies to messes in a house as well as to goldfish in a tank. Boil it down to: If we leave space to be filled up it will naturally be filled up (usually by what we don’t want.)

In our work-from-home, work-for-ourselves situation we are both the boss and the worker; we impose the deadlines and we are subject to them. We estimate our bid for a job by measuring the cost of the time and resources it will take for us to complete it. So Parkinson’s Law dictates that managers should ask for results from their subordinates in less time rather than more time because the worker will do unnecessary work to fill the time given them.

I don’t know about you, but for me, being self-employed seems to suggest that I should strengthen my internal manager’s resolve and approach so that I expect more from myself in less time and I must discipline my inner worker to comply with these self-imposed deadlines. It’s called internal discipline and if you’re anything like me, it’s something that can always use a little (or a lot) of strengthening. But, I’m starting to think that maybe bringing this hard-ass manager self into my work-at-home life is… bullshit. After all, he’s one of the reasons I left the office in the first place.

My work gets done according to the priority I place upon it. Pretending something matters just doesn’t work for me – whether it be writing a blog post, going on a diet or making a ton of money. Other types of workers might be able to more readily accept the bosses or company’s “mission,” but not me. I assign priorities to tasks from somewhere internally. Procrastination, daydreaming, going for a jog, home repairs, in short just about anything then expands to fill in the remaining time.  I am very efficient at knowing exactly how much time is required to complete a task, and whether I knock it out right away and then fill time with b.s. or whether I b.s. right up until the last minute and then knock it out, I always seem to get it done.

That’s my nature – I’m a no-bullshit – no-busywork type of person.  Give me more time than a task deserves and I will spend the same amount of effort on the task as I would have anyway and fill the rest of the time with Facebooking, or texting, or resenting you for keeping me cooped up in a cubicle with nothing to do.

Set Nearer, Attainable Goals and Allow for Down Time

If we get right down to it, it’s all about happiness. Though I might “waste time” aimlessly I know that when I create a list and finish a list in a day I feel good and things get done. My problem with the office environment was the expectation of consistent and constant work as a measure of worth.

What if alternating downtime with faster turn-around on goals did not stress the worker (or the worker part of ourselves) but actually empower him? If we demand results from ourselves in less time we, just like the cubicle worker, will step up to complete the task in the way we see fit in less time and we will still have time to fix a leaking faucet or pick up a sick child from school. The key is not in over-scheduling or over-expecting but in steady goals performed quickly thus leaving time to enjoy life. Here’s why.

Excess scheduling leads to immediate frustration and nothing attempted. Excess time to complete tasks leads to procrastination and procrastination equals suffering. Excess down time leads to nothing getting done and a crappy feeling at the end of the week. We feel better about tasks if we know they will not hang around our necks unnecessarily but we also don’t feel good about a treadmill that won’t turn off – or at least turn down.

At the home office just as in the office office the importance of balancing time with project priority is key to quality of work and overall happiness. And while it’s important to allow yourself ample time to do something “right,” it’s also important to recognize that we tend to over-estimate the importance of our tasks when calculating the time they will take. Think back to the amount of time you planned something vs. the amount of time it actually required to complete.

More Time Than Needed; More Tasks Than Needed

I remember working in one particular office where my boss would assign me what seemed like tiny little projects with enormous amounts of time around them.  I resented her and also began to feel guilty – as though someone might step into my cubicle one day and expect me to explain how I’ve been spending my time.

I created for myself the task I would have assigned me: I began secretly cataloguing the entire corporation’s website. I made note of every mistake, broken image or broken link I found – every grammatical error and made note of the correction. I added to my secret project until finally – after three excruciating (but lucrative) extensions – my contract finally came to an end. Then I quietly downloaded the 100+ page document to my thumb drive and deleted it from my office work station. I wondered how was it possible that there could exist such an inefficient workplace as this.

A good office manager can intuit the real priority level with the proper amount of time to assign to the task. When I began teaching high school English if I told a class to do an assignment they would often ask how many points it was worth. I experimented by throwing out a range of values… say, 50 points to numbers as high as 500 points. The completely arbitrary value of points could make a student not care at all about a task or just as easily become overwhelmed with it. As an allotted resource Time can have the same effect as points.  A good manager wants to find what seems to be a fair amount of time or money to mirror the student’s (or worker’s) assessment of the task.

Time in Relation to Money

Matthew Crawford describes this in his book Shop Class as Soul Craft, when he explains the “dual bookkeeping system” of the craftsman. I’ll paraphrase. You give a customer a price, say $500 to repair his motorcycle engine based on your calculation that it will take 10 hours to repair. Then, when you dig into it you encounter a few unexpected obstacles to the repair. You make the fix and put the bike back together in the 10 hours but when you start it up you don’t like the way it sounds. Because you care, you tear it back apart and track down the squeaky culprit. You make the better fix and reassemble. You took twice as long but rather than charge the customer twice as much you chalk it up to a learning experience, a better-satisfied customer and a job well-done and done well.

The fact is, for most of us who work for ourselves and deal directly with our customers, we care about our work and we will naturally spend extra time to do it right. We’ll go back to it and polish it. We might even feel inclined to not let it go, which might be bad for productivity but it’s important to us to sell a quality product or service. Here are two ways to better assign time value to tasks.

  • Schedule meaningful tasks but (and this is key!) not too many tasks.
  • Recognize that a reward of working for yourself is down time. Allow for that after goals are reached. (I often find I get lost in my work and ignore the down-time part of my day.) This is called being in the flow and it’s good!
  • Shorten the deadlines for these goals across the board. If a short-term goal was to be completed in a day give yourself two hours. And don’t follow it up with another hefty goal. Remember to leave holes in your schedule.