Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
That is Parkinson’s Law, first published in The Economist in 1955 to describe the tendency of British civil service to increase in manpower even when the amount of work remained the same.
What does that have to do with freelancers?
In this post, we’re going to explore how freelancers can use Parkinson’s Law to increase our productivity.
If we accept Parkinson’s Law, then it follows that freelancers can get more things done by shortening our work days.
How a Shorter Work Day Makes You More Productive
The rationale behind a short but ultra-productive work day stems from the psychology of deadlines. Whether you love or hate deadlines, they can helps us get more productive, for several reasons.
First, deadlines force us to focus on the most essential tasks. When you’re under time pressure to finish a project, you can’t be bothered with trivial details. Your mind goes into hyper-drive to pick out the most crucial elements of the task at hand, and you focus your energies on those. In short, deadlines make you more efficient.
Deadlines motivate you to resist distractions. Notice how much easier it is to resist Facebook, the TV or your ref when a client deadline is looming? Yet when you have plenty of time to complete a project, every little thing can distract you.
Another way deadlines make us more productive is through their biological effect. Deadlines stimulate our bodies to produce adrenaline, a hormone that pumps up our nervous system. It makes us more alert–ready for anything–and gives us the energy we need to finish the work. It comes in handy when we have to forgo sleep, just to meet a deadline.
Deadlines are also useful for silencing the perfectionist in us. As a writer, I can produce a blog post in 15 minutes… or 15 days. If I gave myself all the time to make a post “perfect,” then I could always find some way to make this paragraph better, or craft that sentence in a clearer way. And don’t even get me started on finding the “perfect” image for the blog post!
But because I have deadlines, I can’t allow myself to listen to Ms. Perfect. As my husband and I always say to our kids, “Almost done is not done.” And “almost done” doesn’t make you money. Another thing: good enough is, well, Good. Enough.
Finally, deadlines help keep you “fresh.” When I was still an office worker, I didn’t believe in working overtime. I told my colleagues, “You’re cheating the company, because you’re getting paid the same after 5 pm, but the quality of your work is no longer as good as it was this morning.”
The truth is, we’re tired, slow, and less creative after working eight hours straight. Deadlines are good, because they force you to stop.
How to Shorten Your Work Day
Are you convinced that giving yourself less time to work will help you actually get more work done? If so, here are some tips for implementing a shorter work day while enhancing your productivity:
- Give yourself a deadline for every task. Most likely, you have a deadline for client projects. If it’s a big project, a deadline that’s several weeks away can feel like a really long time. It’s important to break down each project into smaller tasks and give yourself a deadline for each one. Take note that there are two types of deadlines: public and private. A public deadline is the one you’ve agreed on with your client. A private deadline is your own deadline, for yourself. Ideally, your private deadline is “padded.” That is, it’s ahead of your public deadline and gives you leeway for delays or unexpected problems that could come up. For example, my public deadline for a sales page could be on June 30, but my private deadline is June 28. If I get sick and am unable to work for a day or two, I won’t panic, because I know I have that “extra” time to meet the public deadline.
- Keep your deadlines challenging but realistic. A too-generous deadline won’t make you more productive. On the other hand, a deadline that’s impossible to meet is counter-productive as well. When you feel you’re too late for something, it can de-motivate you from working faster and more efficiently. So you want a deadline that puts pressure on you, but is still humanly manageable.
- Identify the key tasks to be done. As you set deadlines, take note of the most essential elements of each task. For example, when I’m on a time crunch, I can’t spend an hour brainstorming 50 headlines for a sales letter. Or looking for the perfect bullet point graphic. Separate the “must-have” from the “nice-to-have” and use your time accordingly.
- Reward yourself for meeting deadlines. Imagine all the other things you could do, if you had a shorter work day. You could go to the gym, hang out with friends, play video games, work on your novel. What would you do if you didn’t have to work? Plan to do some of that after your work is completed every day. And I mean put it in your schedule. Make it an item on your to-do list. Type it into your Google calendar. That’s the only way it will get done.
- Stick to your deadlines–but remain flexible. Of course, deadlines only work if you actually stick to them. Yet at the same time, you need to have some flexibility. Unexpected things come up, often through no fault of yours. You know what they say, stuff happens. If it’s necessary, adjust your deadline and let your client know right away. (Click here for Freelance Folder’s free template for when you can’t deliver on a client project.)
What’s Your Relationship with Deadlines?
Do you love deadlines? Or hate them? Do you think a shorter work day would make you more productive? Or would it be impossible?
Share your thoughts and experiences below.
Image by fotologic