This week, I'm in Nashville on a recon mission. Hubby and I are looking at possibly relocating, and Nashville is one of the towns on our short list. We booked one of those extended stay hotel rooms with a full kitchen, so it feels as much like home as possible. Which means I have a sink full of dirty dishes every night after dinner. 🙂
In the few days I've been here, I've scheduled multiple meetings, including an impromptu connection with Tajci Cameron (international performing artist and creator of Waking Up In America - here's a pic of us from last night's Music City Roots show). I've also created worksheets for this week's Creative Freedom Apprenticeship, had some pool time with the fam, read two books, and done a good bit of driving to look at various neighborhoods.
In short, we're very busy and highly effective. My husband has been sleeping in, watching TV, and his anxiety is visibly lessened. The kid is relaxed and easy to manage. Even though we've got a lot on our plates, we're navigating the week with aplomb, and really enjoying our time together.
There's a joke I sometimes hear about how people seem to get everything done just before leaving for vacation. Parkinson’s Law reminds us that work expands to fill the available time. Which means if you've only got 45 minutes to get "everything" done before you hit the road for a 9-hour drive to Nashville, you'll find a way to cram one last plate in the dishwasher so the sink is empty when you get home.
How is it we manage to get so much more done in so little time? And more importantly, how can you channel that kind of efficiency on a daily basis - not just in the 45 minutes before you have to leave town?
In order to really capitalize on this kind of energy, you need to understand two "laws" of human potential: Parkinson's Law and Yerkes-Dodson Law.
Putting Parkinson's To Work For You
In high school, most of my classes were pretty easy for me. I was one of those kids that didn't need to study much, and most projects could be completed in a day or two before the due date. Instead of methodically planning out an easy approach to completing the project over the course of three or four weeks, I'd spend one night figuring out what I was going to do, and the night or two before the due date finishing the project. Looking at the school habits of my teenager and his friends, I know I wasn't the only person to behave this way. But I didn't understand why until I was much older.
As a kid, there was always something more interesting, exciting, or fun to experience which subjugated homework towards the deadline. I was frequently found finishing homework on the bus ride to school, because the bus ride was boring, and there was nothing else to do. So that was the excuse I gave when people asked why I procrastinated. It seemed to be a great explanation, until I understood these two laws.
Parkinson's Law compresses or expands time like a Jedi mind trick. In essence, it's about focus. If you carry yourself as if you only have a bus ride to complete your homework, you'll get more of your homework done in a shorter period of time - even if you're not on the bus. As an adult, I've come to love using a timer. Not only has it helped me get a better handle on how much time it really takes me to accomplish a task, it's also put a little pressure on me to complete projects within the time alloted. I could take all day to draft copy for a sales page, but if I give myself 45 minutes, I get it done because I have "fearsome focus." That's a phrase I picked up from Dave Lakhani's book "How To Sell When Nobody's Buying." By locking down my attention to ONE thing for a period of time, focus is high. Plus, the small amount of "pressure" I put on myself to do the best I can in the shortest amount of time, increases my performance... which is where Yerkes-Dodson comes in.
Yerkes and Dodson who?
While a lot of people have heard about Parkinson's Law, fewer are familiar with the Yerkes-Dodson law, which states that we need a certain amount of mental stimulation to prime the pump on getting things done. But only to a point. when things get too stressful, or we're overstimulated, we shut down and our ability to perform the task at hand decreases significantly.
In the above scenario, the timer gives me a constraint, and puts some "pressure" on me to perform - to get stuff done. The pressure creates enough mental stimulation for me to stay engaged with the task, but not so much pressure that my mind melts down and leaves me sobbing and rocking back and forth in the corner of my office.
For me, the timer is great because if I need more time, I can always add more - so there's "pressure" that I can control. But the threat of the "DING" happening before I've completed my project is just enough pressure to keep my mind stimulated and motivated. It's like a boss giving me a deadline. I've learned that setting my own deadlines doesn't always keep me engaged, but having an externally driven deadline (clients waiting for a call, program release dates) gives me enough motivation to keep things moving... to a point.
Too much pressure, and I crumble.
Ever had a meltdown when your boss is standing over your shoulder? Doing even the most simple task becomes frustrating and difficult when you're feeling too much stress or pressure. My son was watching an episode of Spongebob Squarepants where Squidward had challenged Spongebob to learn everything about providing a completely high-end dining experience. Spongebob ended up unlearning everything else - including his name. So when he was asked for his name by the patron Squidward was trying to impress, Spongebob brokedown in a pool of worthlessness because he couldn't remember his own name. The whole charade fell apart.
Like so many things in life, "pressure" and "stress" are relative. Some people thrive with lots of deadlines, while others crumble if you look at them sideways. The trick to putting the Yerkes-Dodson Law to work for you is to recognize which types/levels of stress are motivating and which are debilitating. When I'm working with clients in the Creative Freedom Apprenticeship, I emphasize regularly that you have to understand what works for YOU in YOUR specific situation. One man's stress is another man's stimulus.
If my timer didn't allow me the ability to re-set it, or when my 45 minutes was up someone came in with a red pen to tear apart my work, my results probably wouldn't nearly be as good. Just like when I get home from Nashville, knowing the sink is empty is what really matters. If half the dishes in the dishwasher didn't get clean, I don't care. But if my Mother-in-law called to say she was coming over for tea, I'd be falling all over myself to get the dishes re-washed before she got there (and probably break a few along the way).
Yes, that's my personal baggage talking there, but I hope you see the point.
Accomplish more in less time
Creative entrepreneurs can often agonize unnecessarily about their projects. We lay in anguish for far too long about minor tweaks that just slow everything down.
"my website isn't finished because..."
"the new album's on hold until..."
"I don't have the right/enough..."
While I'm not a big fan of fail fast and often, I do believe we can often do more in less time if we'd just stop tweaking. Sometimes it's a case of perfectionism. Many times, it's a lack of proper motivation and perspective.
Marie Forleo has used what I call the "Oprah incentive" as an example of how to accomplish things faster. She says that if Oprah called and asked for a 3 minute video within the hour you wouldn't procrastinate. You'd get off the stick and get stuff done.
Sadly, that's a superficial assessment. In some cases, yes, you'd flip out your video camera and do the best you can. Sometimes, though, the pressure to perform would be too great. You'd choke up, feel way too overwhelmed and yes, you would procrastinate, because there'd be too much pressure on you.
It's easy to say "suck it up buttercup" but there's a reason why it doesn't always work that way. (tweet this)
So while it's true we can all get more done in less time than we typically believe is possible, it's still important to understand your own level of preparedness, focus, and ability to handle stress and pressure. The more pressure you can/want to take, the easier it will be to double your productivity. But everyone has the ability to accomplish even a small increase in productivity and efficiency by taking advantage of Parkinson's and Yerkes-Dodson.
They're like the Wonder Twins of personal efficiency.
Here are some specific ways you can customize your own efficiency plan and accomplish more of what really matters in less time:
1. Apply Fearsome Focus
Remove distractions - even if it's only for 15-20 minutes at a time. Turn off the phone, the email, the doorbell, and let people know you can't be disturbed. If we can do it for important phone calls, we can do it for our important tasks. Barring a real emergency, don't let other people's priorities become your own. Remember, you train people how to treat you based on what they expect from you and what you've come to accept from them.
2. Clarity is King
Know what you're going after and don't let other things get in the way during your period of focus.
3. Play DUMB
The beauty of D.U.M.B. goals is that the size and scope doesn't matter. Whatever you want to accomplish needs to be Do-able, Understandable, Meaningful, and Believable for you... regardless of whether or not other people get it. Just because I can sit and focus for 45 minutes doesn't mean you can. So focus for 3 minutes, or 3 hours... whatever floats your boat.
4. Apply Optimal Pressure
While this one won't always work (sometimes someone else will impose their own set of pressures and deadlines on you), when you can find your balance point between getting stuff done and falling apart, you'll find your peak performance zone. Just remember: too much pressure and you'll explode; too little and you'll be cramming to get your homework done on the bus ride to school.
5. Check Your Thermostat
Getting stuff done is as much about your attitude as anything else. When I worked in the high-pressure automotive industry, I juggled lots of projects every day with relative ease. Once I moved away from that environment and slowed my tempo, I recognized that I couldn't handle that much pressure all the time (nor did I want to). Likewise, when I go into project launch mode, I know that a certain amount of extra stress and pressure comes with the territory. That means your stress thermostat will likely change over time. Be present to and aware of that. Be willing to be where your at - without comparing yourself to someone else.
Remember, success is a destination and you are already there. What are the tools, strategies, and concepts that help you be most efficient and effective in the world? Share your ideas in the comments and let's help each other do more of what really matters.