Accountability and Time Constraints

#11. Set a time limit on your most important goals — apply Parkinson’s Law

As a perfectionist, I can easily spend hours working on something until I’m completely happy with it. For example, after writing an essay I once spent more than 30 minutes creating a title page and debating which fonts and margins to use.

While this perfectionist approach may be beneficial in some situations, it is a very inefficient way of doing things.

Let me use this blog as an example. In the past, I have delayed publishing certain blog posts by months because I wasn’t happy with them. At times I have also devoted 3–4 hours editing and re-editing posts.

Yet the reality is that the amount of improvement from the extra effort is not worth it. It is a law of diminishing returns.

How to overcome this

Parkinson’s Law states that the time to complete a piece of work expands into the time that you allocate it. If you give yourself 6 hours to do a project, it will take you 6 hours. Give yourself 1 hour, however, and you may be surprised to find you can finish it in that time.

But surely spending 6 hours will produce a better result? In actual fact, it’s often the opposite.

Some articles that I have spent multiple hours writing, I look back and don’t think they were very good. In contrast, some of the articles that I have produced under pressure have been much better. For example, I wrote “Give Me Your Attention” in a 5 minute window between a busy day at work and heading out for the evening. This time pressure forced me to come up with something and I was very happy with the result.

It’s true that not everything I write in 5 minutes will be great, but I will come up with many more ideas in twelve 5 minute windows than in 1 hour. This relates to the law of quantity vs quality which I discussed previously.

Applying this in life

The best way is to create time constraints externally. Promise you will send someone a draft at a certain time. Start working on something a certain period before a deadline. Set up a meeting or a phone call to discuss your progress.

The windows of time that I schedule for writing these posts is always bound by a deadline. Perhaps I’m meeting someone for coffee in 45 minutes, or I have a talk to attend in 30. As I write this, I’m looking forward to a birthday meal with a friend.

The more you create accountability with someone else, the more likely you are to pull through. Twin this accountability with deadlines and a fixed schedule and you will be surprised by what you are able to produce.

Data Scientist + Junior Doctor in London, Cambridge medicine grad, striving to improve healthcare through technology and education.

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