I'm a repeat victim of Parkinson's Law. It's the principle that, like gas in a container, work expands to fill the time available. And it gets me again and again.
Take the article I wrote yesterday. It should have taken me three hours or so. But I had all day to do it – and guess what? It took me all day to do it! A bit longer, in fact, as I was still tidying it up 15 minutes after I should have finished my working day.
I suppose I didn't just write that article. I kept on top of my emails and instant messages throughout the day, did some research for several other projects, and planned a blog that's due next week.
And part of me thinks that switching between jobs like this makes me more productive, because it keeps me energized and on top of all my work.
But another part knows that I could have written that article in one go. If I'd given it my full attention, and only then moved on to other things, it may well have been more coherent as a result. And I'd likely have closed up my laptop on time.
Mind Tools Expert Voices is the podcast series where we explore our 200+ Expert Interviews, on the lookout for insights that are particularly relevant now.
In episode three, "Take Charge of Your Time," my colleague Rachel Salaman guides us through a range of strategies for using our days well, getting more done – and staying healthy and happy in the process.
I've always had a fair bit of flexibility in my role, and I appreciate it – most of the time. I enjoy organizing my own writing and editing schedule for the day, and I'm pretty good at getting everything done and coordinating with my colleagues.
But recently – like many people – I've gained even more choices about how to organize my time. And it's made me look more closely at how well I'm really doing it.
Using lessons learned in lockdown, our company has recently adopted a flexible working policy, meaning that we all get to choose where we work from and, to a large extent, when we do it. It's great: we can plan our time to be as productive as possible. And we can integrate our work and life, so that they complement each other rather than cause conflict.
That's the idea, at least. However, for me, the first few weeks of the policy have shone light on some less-than-perfect time-management tactics.
So I think it's time to be honest with myself.
If I've got all day – or longer – to get something done, why does it need to take that long? In the past, I've told myself that it gives me a better chance to be sure of my ideas, and time to keep tweaking my writing until it’s perfect.
But instead of continually pausing while I flit to other things, what if I just focused on one thing until it was done?
That would make scientific sense, says management expert Dave Crenshaw. "The brain is just not able to handle multiple active tasks at the same time," he explains.
Productivity guru Chris Bailey agrees. "Single tasking is one of the best ways, in the moment, to bring more attention to what's in front of you and not more time. Productivity is the process of working more deliberately and more intentionally."
According to Ashley Whillans from Harvard Business School, instead of energizing me, my task shifting may actually be opening up spaces for time to slip through. She recommends "… being more deliberate about small moments of free time that we often waste, the gaps in between meetings where we'll just answer emails as if they were urgent but maybe not pick up the phone and call a friend."
Since I'm being honest, I'll admit that checking emails is sometimes just a delaying tactic – however much I tell myself that I'm coordinating or collaborating with my team. And when I'm switching between tasks, coffee always seems that bit more tempting!
Maybe I'm valuing my new-found flexibility a bit too much, and not paying enough attention to the value of my time.
Being able to work when and where I want certainly helps to keep my stress levels low. But if I end up taking longer than necessary, and spreading my attention thinly, is flexible working really working for me?
One answer, according to podcast guest Patricia Walsh, is to look more to the bigger picture. A champion athlete – and blind since the age of 14 – Patricia maps her day-to-day tasks to her longer-term ambitions – the things that she's really passionate about achieving. That, she says, helps her to get through her To-Do List efficiently, because she can always see how those tasks are getting her closer to her most important goals.
And performance coach Andy Core is someone else who recommends staying "in the zone" rather than swapping between tasks. "Take one thing at a time," he says. "Plug it in – and don't give up and don't let yourself be distracted."
Maybe that's the way I should be energizing myself, rather than switching between tasks. As well as ensuring that I finish on time, it might also help me to push forward my longer-term goals. I love Andy's description of motivation being "just momentum in disguise."
Forward movement is all well and good, but we also need to know when to stop. Like me, Chris Bailey often fell foul of Parkinson's Law, until he experimented by working some 90-hour weeks, and some 20-hour ones. Although he felt much more productive putting in 90 hours, he found that he actually got only slightly more done than when he stopped at 20.
So, as excited as I am about flexible working in general, I've decided to start being a little less flexible about my use of time.
I'm still going to embrace the extra independence I've got to organize my day. But I'm going to "taskswitch" less, and stay "in the zone" more. And I'm going to use my long-term goals to spur me on through my To-Do List.
I'm hoping that this will help me to recalibrate the way I value time, and become more disciplined about when I switch off. I want to protect my time away from work – so that I'm fresher and more effective when I turn on my laptop again.
That's the plan, anyway. Whether I'll be able to stick to my good intentions... well, I guess only time will tell.
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How well do you use your time? Can you accomplish what you need to, and want to, every day? Is it helpful to have more choices now – or is it harder than ever to make the most of your time? Please find a moment to share your experiences, insights and tips, below.
Mind Tools writer Jonathan Hancock has gone back to the microphone – and brushed up his broadcasting skills – to launch our new Expert Voices podcast.
"Measurement underpins our attempts to impose order and understanding on the world. All that’s fundamentally changed is the technology."
Goals are a great way to measure progress, define priorities, and expand a knowledge area or skill you're passionate about. But it’s so easy to think about what we want to achieve in ambitious, nebulous terms rather than defining the specifics
I’m so glad to have read this. We’ve just returned to the office, although on less hours, but I do find that I am more productive in the short time than I was working flexible hours at home. I’ve also found myself spending more time in the office, leaving later and wondering whether I am more productive in that extra time rather than if I tried to complete everything and leave on time.