First introduced my Cyril Northcote Parkinson in an essay in the Economist, Parkinson’s Law is as follows:
Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.
Wise words that we often don’t think about when we work. For example, if you take on a project and give yourself 24 hours to complete it, the time constraint forces you to get creative and focus on the bare essentials. In the end, not only do you get the work done, but you often innovate along the way.
On the other hand, if you have a week to complete the same project, you build it up in complexity and unnecessary distractions. In the end, you still don’t get a lot of the real work done until closer to the deadline. Imagine the same situation for a project that is due in 2 months or even without a deadline – sounds like a disaster.
How can we take advantage of this? We need to embrace constraints and use them to our advantage. When this happens naturally, such as when we have a task that requires immediate attention, simply go with the flow and get it done.
More often than not, our work lacks that immediate urgency. In these cases, we need to manufacture our own hard deadlines and by doing so, we can eliminate our tendency to procrastinate.
For those projects that are larger in scope, we need to break them down into clearly defined, manageable chunks, and use a similar approach.
Ultimately it comes down to creating urgency for your work that may otherwise not naturally be there. So the question becomes, how do you create urgency?
You’re completely immersed in the task at hand, your ideas arrive one after the other, and everything is coming together perfectly. You see the path forward with clarity and the more you work the more excited you get.
You’ve lost track of time, you’re tired, and haven’t eaten in awhile, but nothing is distracting you from your work.
You’re in the zone, you’re in a state of Flow.
What Is Flow
According to psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (I have no idea how to pronounce that), flow is described as follows:
“being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
The key to flow is being in the correct work state, which makes all the difference in how productive you are. These work states are broken down into 8 regions that are reached based on the challenge and skill level being engaged.
You can see the 8 work states below and how they related to each other.
Your work state is determined by the level of skill being used and challenge being faced; flow is achieved when you have the highest skill level and challenge to engage with.
You can adjust your activities to enter the appropriate work state, as the key is having a challenge that is difficult, but still attainable based on your skill level.
For example, if you find yourself doing something very challenging, but don’t quite have the skills yet, you’d be in the Arousal State. In this situation, you’re challenging your curiosity and developing your skills. You could either attain the skill level you need or take on a slightly less difficult challenge for which your skills are better matched.
As you can see, it’s all about the balance between challenge and skill.
How To Achieve Flow
1. Challenge/Skill Balance: Find something challenging for you, that you enjoy doing, and that you have the skills to be successful at. Too easy and you’ll be bored. Too difficult and you’ll be frustrated.
2. Set Clear Goals/Tasks: You need to know what you want to accomplish. Understanding the tasks and goals makes it easier for you to progress as you engage in the activity.
3. Focus Like A Laser: You must focus on that task at hand, no distractions, no divided attention. The task is your one and only goal and everything else should be shut out.
4. Allocate Enough Time: If you’re trying to achieve flow, you need to give yourself enough time, not only to enter it (which takes about 15 minutes according to research), but to take advantage of it once you’re there.
5. Good Energy: You want to have enough energy to tackle the challenge you’re facing, but also have a clear mind that won’t be distracted or stressed about other parts of your life.
6. Drop The Ego: The activity should be meaningful for it’s own sake, it’s all about creating and NOT specifically the outcome. There should be no fear of failure or anxiety. It’s all about the process.
Want to know more? Check out the book and TED Talk by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.
I recently read Do The Work by Steven Pressfield, the latest book from Seth Godin’s Domino Project. The e-book is free for download on Kindle, so you should definitely get a copy. Anyways, there was one concept he touched on in the book that resonated with me and that I have noticed about myself lately.
I love to learn, increasing my personal knowledge, discovering new concepts, ideas, and truths. Doesn’t sound so bad does it? Well my problem is, I get into this routine where all I do is spend my time learning: reading books, exploring my RSS feeds, watching TED Talks, so on and so forth. As much as I’d like to think of this as productive, it really isn’t, its just another form of busy work or procrastination.
In Do The Work, Pressfield talks about how research (or learning) can essentially be a form of the ‘resistance’ or a force that prevents you from getting work done. I completely understand what he means. What’s important in all this is striking the balance between learning and creating, and more importantly, accepting that learning is great, but creating is better.
I’m sure I’m not alone in getting caught up in this web of knowledge, especially when so much information is readily available to us, but hopefully understanding that these kinds of things are just another distraction, will be the first step to being more aware of how we spend our time.
I enjoyed reading Do The Work, but it’s Pressfield’s other book, The War of Art, that is a must read.
I’ve been working in an office environment for the past 6 months, and under the stringent schedule of working hours, namely 9 AM to 5 PM, although it’s usually till 6ish. Although this is a standard in the business world, I must say I’m not a fan.
Working from 9 to 5 straight with just a break for lunch in the middle, is just not a realistic proposition for anyone and I know I certainly don’t adhere to this rule. I’m here from 9 to 5, but I have to take breaks, do other things throughout the day to keep my energy up and stay productive. I take breaks where I go through my Google Reader, update my social media, read the news, and so on, and these sessions of personal time are just as important as my time devoted to work and of course I still manage to get my work done.
Its pivotal t to allow your employees these privileges as well, because in the end it gives your brain a break from the constant grind of a working environment. Think of the alternative, you would see employees zoning out, not paying attention to their work, and just waiting for it to be 5 PM so that they can leave, not exactly the mindset you want employees to be adhering to.
The Open Office
Furthermore, this formula of arriving to work at X and leaving at Y kills our creativity and spontaniety. Everyone gets inspired to do their work at some point during the day, and why force it to be during set hours that the company determines? I feel that as long as the work that is assigned gets done by the deadline, then there’s nothing else we can ask for.
To clarify, I’m not saying to get rid of the office by any means, but allow it to be an open office, a resource that is utilized when necessary, and always an option. A few things would be needed to ensure this works: consistent reports/updates with deliverables that show progress in assigned task, a clear understanding of the employee on what is expected, a method to assess quality of work and time spent, and of course weekly meetings or discussions to stay on track. All of this is really just to keep your employees motivated and not slack on their work.
Now if we can ensure deadlines are met, employees are not procrastinating, and communication is open (not an easy task, but feasible), then what is to stop us from implementing this open office environment?
Being at a startup I feel that it kind of just happens where you find yourself involved in every department of your business, from sales to marketing, business relations to research and development, you’re there and adding value and learning as you go. Doing this, I began to think of the value of such practice for all employees… now is there benefit to this practice, being involved in more that one area of your business?
And the answer is…
YES, from my perspective it is a useful practice, but needs to have some boundaries to optimize the benefit. When I say boundaries I mean it should probably be limited to only 2 areas of focus initially. Now the question is why. First of all, when we’re doing the same things over and over again, every single day of the week, we get tired of it, and very quickly. Now one way to circumvent such repetitive and mindless situations is to have somewhere to turn when you’re getting to this limit. This allows you to diversify your work load and when one aspect of your work isn’t holding your focus, switching gears to something that feels fresh can recharge your batteries and keep your productivity high.
Furthermore, your employees also get to expand their horizons, as you’re building their capacity in something that’s most likely not their specialty, but holds some interest to them. From this perspective their benefiting not only from the exposure, but also learning more about the internal workings of the business, which hopefully leads to a more efficient work place.
Being more creative
Finally, its a great way to inspire innovation in the company for two reasons. First you get a fresh perspective from someone who is not continuously focused on the task at hand, and we all know that a fresh perspective is all thats needed at times for progress and great ideas. Second you’re creating an environment for the intersection of thought processes between the two areas. This in itself is one of the best ways to innovate, and if you’re interested in this method you should definitely check out The Medici Effect by Fran Johannson.
In the office
In terms of how it would work, you would assign an employee a primary job to focus on, and then a secondary one that they can lend time to during the week, with a point of contact in that department. Just two areas, as I feel thats more then enough to reap the benefits and not be overwhelming at the same time. Also, the point of contact is important to keep you up to date and not require you to play catch up continuously. I know I’m already doing it here, with not only more than two areas, but two jobs! Now there are definitely flaws with such a practice that could lead to insufficiencies and such, but if implemented clearly there is a real benefit to the employer and the company. What do you think??