My sister who just completed her doctoral program wrote to me about how busy she was now. “How did I ever go to school?” she lamented. I am sure all of us could share similar experiences. The campaign is over, but the candidate is as busy as ever even though he lost. The project is finished yet we find ourselves with no more free time than we had in the thick of the work. When the holidays are behind us, the calendar will still be full.

All these situations are examples of Parkinson’s law: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” It’s a behavioral adage adapted to fit personal and organizational life but based on the scientific principle of the ideal gas law which states that gas will expand to fill the allotted space. Parkinson’s law is why we often get more done when we are busier, and when we find ourselves with extra time we rarely use it to “get ahead.” Instead, we spend more time discussing a topic, debating an issue, procrastinating, revising or in general allowing our tasks to expand since we have the time to do so.

The popular Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard applies this principle to writing. He told the New Yorker: “The secret to getting a ton of work done is having a busy life and short deadlines,” he said. “It’s strange that, with three small children and limited time, I wrote so many pages a day while, before, when I spent all the time I wanted on writing, and even lived on isolated islands and in remote lighthouses, I hardly wrote anything,” he says. It is Parkinson’s in action.

Instead of wishing for “more time” take advantage of the discipline and action-orientation that comes from having too little time. Spend a few moments to start on that work that has to be done and revise it later rather than spending hours seeking perfection. Let tasks go that are not essential. Commit to the important things – like starting a doctoral program or running for office – knowing that somehow you will find time to do them.

Just as gas expands to fill whatever container it is in, so our task list grows to fill our available time. Make sure your to-dos are driven by what is important, not by how much time you think you have to get them done.


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