Earlier I wrote that an effective way to manage our time is using the model of long walks. The core idea was that we just do not need time free of distractions but we also need it long enough to be effective on a particular task. Smaller chunks of time here and there can never be as effective as a single contiguous block of time.
A technique to achieve this is ‘Pomodoro’. Pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato but the name of the technique is motivated by a kitchen timer.
What Pomodoro suggests is to work in chunks of 30 minutes. Every 30 minute ‘Pomodoro’ is divided into 25 minutes of actual work and 5 minutes to reflect and reenergize. The key is that in each of such 30 minutes, you should just work on a ‘single’ task. All distractions and deviations should be eliminated.
For example, if I am writing this article, I can dedicate 30 minutes to come up with the first draft. I make sure that I do not check email, attend a phone call or wander in my thoughts to the upcoming vacations. I need to laser-focus on the task I defined before I started.
I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me.
— Noel Coward
Sir Coward was known for his wit. But there is some germ of truth in every humor and this quote is no exception. It is always good to have some time and space to one self.
We tend to get more done when we have uninterrupted time to ourself. Good ideas come in lonely long walks. We solve problems in morning shower. We take a long drive on our favorite country road to clear our mind. Even, a brilliant idea or solution is there as we wake up after a good long sleep!
All this is true. We generally do our best when abetted by solitude and a conducive environment. But these observations do not have to sound as mythical as they do. They are actually grounded in the basic principles of productivity and time management.
There are two common attributes in all these scenarios – the long walks, the picturesque drives, the morning showers and the uninterrupted sleep – that help explain why they are effective for our productivity and creativity.
The United States Congress averted a major tax hike and expenditure cut – the so-called “fiscal cliff” – by reaching a compromise deal just before the deadline of January 1, 2013. “Just before” practically was the start of January 1.
It was a tough milestone considering there was a divided Congress and political polarization on economic issues. However, the deadline was known for ever, practically built into the system and the backdoor negotiations for the compromise deal were in full swing for many weeks. Yet, the deal was reached at the eleventh hour – only when the hard deadline was at the door. Interestingly, there have been similar eleventh hour deals on fiscal deadlines over the last few years.
This is an example of Parkinson’s law in real life – famously known as Work Expands to Fill the Time Available. Everyone involved kept on negotiating and trying to get their way in the deal until they could do that no more. Usually, we expand the work required to achieve some goal based on how much time we have. We adjust our focus and plans accordingly. We define the complexity and scope of the task if we can based on how much time we have.
There are many other real-life examples. Cricket matches finish in the last over. Projects end at the last minute. All news in the world magically fits into the same 16 pages of a newspaper. Meetings consume all their allotted time. We reach office just in the nick of time. Deals are reached at the last minute. Storage requirements increase to fill the storage capacity. Our expenses adjust to fit our income. Given any deadline or constraint, we carve an execution path in such a way that we finish right at the end. Not before, not after.
There are two very interesting corollaries for Parkinson’s Law.