Life in the Beehive

There are lots of reasons people give when asked why they’re so busy.

Work. Kids. Hot Yoga and the double shower-time that inevitably follows.

There is no shortage of reasons we have for why we feel busy, over worked, and stressed all the time.

In response to the stress of being in a state of constant busyness, many of us have opted to protect ourselves from the dizzying out-of-control feeling it gives us by adopting a kind of battle-weary pride. The busy trap we’ve built for ourselves threatens to overwhelm us at every turn, so to make us feel like we have some semblance of control, we pretend to own it. We wear it like a hard-earned trophy. Our busyness becomes a symbol of our worth to the world and our worth to ourselves. After all, why would I be so busy if I wasn’t so valuable to the world?

Deluding ourselves is something we do all the time, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. However, when we’re all doing it to justify our inner miserable-ness, it’s time to wrench the illusion away and turn some hard bright light on it to see what it really is.

The truth is that we’ve forgotten about Parkinson’s law.

Parkinson’s Law

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

Parkinson’s Law was coined in The Economist in 1955 in reference to the tendency of bureaucracies to expand over time despite their unchanged mandates. However, it quickly proved to be applicable anywhere humans were putting things together, and it provides a fantastic lens into which we can peer deeper into the lives we live and the companies we create- to show us where productivity ends and busyness begins.

Tell me if these situations sound familiar.Scene 1: It’s Monday. Your superior at work asks you to prepare a report for her board meeting at 1:00PM on Friday. You do a little preliminary research that afternoon, forget about it on Tuesday, write a draft on Wednesday, send it for a second opinion Thursday, and proof and finalize on Friday morning before delivering it at 12:30PM Friday.

Scene 2: It’s Friday. Your superior at work asks you to prepare a report for her board meeting at 1:00PM on Friday. You make the report and give it to her right away.

Let’s take a look here. Both scenes have the same amount of deliverable work. They have the same result. But, there are vast differences in the time and mental resources the project occupied as it went from not existing to existing. This is Parkinson’s Law in action.

Now, you may recognize other people falling victim to this phenomena but say, “Colin, everyone else does this, but not me. I’m efficient.”

You’re probably right. You might be efficient. But you’re probably not effective. And being efficient is of little consequence when you’re not set up to be effective.

Effective (adj.): Adequate to accomplish a purpose; producing the intended or expected result.

Efficient (adj.) Performing or functioning in the best possible manner with the least waste of time and effort.

Being busy feels efficient. We’re always doing things, and it feels like we’re getting things done. However, most of the time (as with the board meeting report), we’re creating work that needn’t be created and that add little to the end result that we’re working to create.

To rephrase Parkinson’s Law, “the demand upon a resource tends to expand to match the supply of the resource.” We give most tasks more of our time than necessary, and therefore the tasks take all that we’re willing to give.

The Fix (for you)

There’s a simple way to fix this that borrows from the Lean Methodology. It might be painful at first, but it will make you so much more effective AND efficient.

(1) Take your task.
(2) Estimate how long it will take you to complete.
(3) Half that time, and then half it again to arrive at x time.
(4) x time is how long you have to create a shippable version of your product/task.
(5) Do the work in x time.
(6) Review what you did. Does it meet expectations?
(7) If yes, ship. If no, go back to (2) and repeat.

The Fix (for your company)

Constraining resources forces efficiency and productivity. Startups use this exact same philosophy to disrupt large corporations. When corporations have a problem to solve, they throw resources at it. Time, staff, budgets. As Parkinson said, no matter if the problem requires it, the demand on these resources soon match the supply the company gave it. Often, this leads to asking for higher budgets, more staff, etc. The cycle continues.

However, the startup down the road doesn’t have the resources to throw at the problem. How do they compete?

Simple. Startups throw creativity at the problem rather than resources- creativity that can only thrive when no other choices are present. If you have less time, less money, and less people, you’re forced to be ruthlessly effective. Not just efficient, but making the right moves with the only goal being to accomplish your purpose.

I Am My Own Guinea Pig

Now, to be clear, I don’t write this with any illusions about myself. I fall prey to my own internal bureaucracy as well. In fact, I sat in from of this exact document yesterday for a full 50 minutes with one sentence written, not knowing how to construct a storyline about Parkinson and connect it to people’s lives and the wider world. I was frustrated. So today, I took my own advice. I set my iphone alarm to forty minutes from now and said “I’ll have a draft done by then and then I can stop.” I went over by ten minutes, but only because I found my flow and found there was more to say about it than I thought.

Some people say the definition of creativity is freedom within constraint. Centuries of painters have pushed the limits of human understanding using only tight-woven fabric and four-cornered wood to hold their ideas. Let out a bit of your inner Picasso and do better work and take control of your time. It’s the only resource you won’t get back.