Imagine that your favorite band is coming into town in a few months. You rush to buy your tickets, and the months slowly wind down until the day of the concert.
You head to the arena and patiently sit through the opener until your band finally comes out.
They rock the house for about an hour, the lights raise, and the lead singer triumphantly lets you know that they’re only doing six songs tonight because they’re more productive that way. They can do more shows in more locations if they cut their set list down to an hour.
Thanks! Hope you enjoyed the show!
Parkinson’s and “Productivity”
Parkinson’s Law is a theory of productivity made wildly popular by Tim Ferris in The 4-Hour Workweek. I’ll use his expression of the “Law” since I invoked his usage:
Parkinson’s Law dictates that a task will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for completion.
His suggestion regarding Parkinson’s Law: “shorten work time to limit tasks to the important.”
When I read the 4-Hour Workweek (4HWW) for the first time, his discussion of the 80/20 rule and Parkinson’s Law really resonated with me. And, in some senses, it helped me focus on cutting out wasted time and did, in fact, make me a bit more productive.
I now see things a lot differently, though, when it comes to “work.”
Meaningful Play — Old Concept, New Name
I’ve talked about meaningful play in the past, but I called it “productive play” in previous posts. Ironically, I’ve received a lot of pushback about using the term “productive” ‘in this way from two directions; people who don’t like the word “productive” didn’t like it being attached to play, and productivity fanatics didn’t like the word “productive” being applied to goals across the board. Were it just for the fact that people didn’t like the term, I probably would have stood my ground, but the truth of it is that “meaningful play” captures the concept better and fits into some other things I’m working on.
Meaningful play is just that state in which you’re doing really meaningful and valuable stuff, but your orientation to it is not the same as your orientation to work precisely because it’s much more enjoyable. The Flow that comes from meaningful play is just as powerful as the Flow that comes from stress, but it’s a more sustainable type of Flow.
Given my understanding of meaningful play, you can see why I think one of the major problems with the 4HWW is Tim’s presentation of work. For him, work is solely the stuff you don’t want to do. Sure, we all want to avoid doing stuff we don’t want to do, but that’s almost tautological. Many of us aren’t trying to do less work as much as we’re trying to do more meaningful play.
That said, to do some meaningful play, you often have to do some things you’d rather not do. For instance, I’m not a big fan of inputting appointments in my calendar — but that’s a discrete component of the process of connecting with clients and friends. At the same time, connecting with clients and friends is part of the meaningful play I do, and the day I want to cut calls short because I don’t want to do them is the day that I’ll start figuring out how to stop coaching.
If you’re doing the thing that makes you come alive, why would you want to limit the time you’re doing it? If you understand that the end of creating art is to create art and you’re doing it because you love doing it, then the goal is to spend more time in the process, not less. You wouldn’t want your favorite band to cut their concert by two-thirds, so why would you cut your own concert?
Time Crunching and Unhappiness
For ease of convenience, let’s call Tim’s suggestion “time crunching.” What time crunching does is use time to constrain and channel focus. However, using time crunching as a standard way to work has two negative and inter-related byproducts: 1) it reinforces the association of work with anxiety and negativity and 2) it short-circuits the creative process.
Meaningful play comes with a certain kind of stress on its own, and Tim’s discussion of eustress gets that right. Eustress is the positive stress that is part of the process of growth, change, and risk, and in that sense, eustress is a good guide for determining whether you’re doing something that’s making you come alive.
However, adding anxiety to your work by trying to crunch the time available for your meaningful play is adding a qualitatively different type of stress to your work. What’s particularly problematic is that it’s easy to slip from eustress as a byproduct of meaningful play to distress as a result of anxiety and time compression.
Time Crunching and Stifled Muses
Which leads to the second way in which time crunching as standard practice is problematic: there is a relationship between decreased creativity and anxiety. At a certain level of distress, the creative process is stalled because you’re preoccupied by stressors.
For example, financial worries can become so powerful that your thoughts and feelings are devoted to managing the stress, which ironically can keep you from thinking about the ways you might work through those financial worries. As a result, your preoccupation with the stress allows the stressor to perpetuate or worsen, so your preoccupation with the stress remains or increases, so the stressor perpetuates or worsens, and the cycle continues until a new condition, behavior, or thinking pattern manifests.
All the while, your creativity is tied up in managing stress rather than generating solutions. While this may seem hyperbolic, consider your thought processes as you approached a stiff deadline — I’ll bet a good deal of your psychic energy was spent on thinking about the deadline and what would happen if you missed it rather than on the work itself.
In other circumstances, distress and time crunching short-circuits the Incubation phase of the creative process. Since you have come up with an idea in a short amount of time, those rich ideas that require some additional percolation stay on the back burner in favor of those simpler and more actionable ideas that can be generated in a short amount of time. However, if every creative block is spent on quick-fire ideas, eventually the rich ideas lose their steam. The result here is that you end up with a bunch of easy ideas, none of which qualitatively compare to the impact the richer ideas might have or, frankly, to the caliber of your intelligence and talent.
Big ideas can be scary. They rarely present themselves quickly or in ways in which it’s immediately obvious that they should be what you’re working on. It’s hard enough to work through creative doubt and expansiveness, but when you add the additional constraints posed by time crunching, the real risk is letting go of the big ideas in favor of low-hanging fruit. Instead of picking fruit, grow trees.
Time as a Container, Not a Constrictor
The odd thing about Parkinson’s Law is that the observation is accurate but the reasoning behind it is either flawed or based on unnecessary assumptions about the nature of work. Work expands to fill the time available for it because we don’t allocate a dedicated time to focus on one thing at a time. Without that time allocation, the work continually slides into the future, undone. Note the difference between time boxing and time crunching — the former is about dedicating time to tasks with specific outcomes, whereas the latter is about compressing time; time boxing is incredibly effective and sustainable.
The irony here is that whether we’re directly or indirectly working on something, we’re still working on it. That work going on in the background impacts our ability to commit our full attention on the one task at hand.
Focus is a funny thing. If you try to force yourself to focus, you can’t. If you don’t give yourself time to focus, you won’t. Try to do too many things at any given time and you can’t focus on any one of them. And if you don’t give yourself enough time to immerse yourself in a creative task, you’ll resist focusing on it in the first place.
Time is not a tool to squeeze extra creativity and productivity out of your head — it’s the container that holds the work we do. Some work requires larger containers than others. Sometimes we need to see that the container is temporary so that we complete the work in the time we have available.
What Tim downplayed was the fact that while he was transitioning between kickboxing, tango dancing, and dragon-slaying, he had time to come up with big ideas. He took time to develop the ideas and write the very book that, on the face of it, advocates spending less time doing the things that make some of us come alive. To his credit, he presented things the way he did because he knew it would resonate with a lot of people and increase the sales of his book, and I’m quite sure that he knows all about meaningful play.
You might not like the work you do and you may be wanting to do less of that — I just encourage you to think more carefully about how much of your time, attention, and energy you want to spend avoiding doing things instead of figuring out the right things to do. Instead of trying to crunch time available for “work” so that you speed it up, focus on spending more time doing the stuff that helps you come alive and minimize or eliminate the rest. Perhaps more fundamentally, though, recognize that meaningful work will always have components that aren’t as attractive as other components, but working through those less-attractive components is the cost of enjoying the meaningful ones.
You have to do some squeezing to get some juice — but just because you’ll have to do some squeezing doesn’t mean you should miss out on the juice.
Christine (@isekhmet) says
Thanks for this.
I’ve been working on reframing my approach to scheduling so it becomes something that serves me instead of something that restricts me (I get v. nervous when my calendar starts to get filled in) and you’ve given me a lot to think about here.
Just thinking of time as a container is so freeing.
Really good insights in here, I like the way you have phrased a few things – “Time is not a tool to squeeze extra creativity and productivity out of your head – it’s the container that holds the work we do.” and
“think more carefully about how much of your time, attention, and energy you want to spend avoiding doing things instead of figuring out the right things to do”
both ring true for me. Right now there are two projects I’m balancing, but really, one is just a productive way of avoiding the “real” work I have to do which will allow me to expand the meaningful play side of things. It’s difficult to map either one of them directly on the side of either “work” or “play” because in some sense they are both trying to get me closer to productive, meaningful play even as they both still function as “work.”
Thanks for fleshing out these ideas, I’m sure I will be back to reread this.
.-= MoneyEnergy´s last blog ..Final Stock Market Trading Days for 2009 =-.
Elizabeth Potts Weinstein says
omg this is awesome.
creativity cannot be calendared. when we are marinating on a new big (huge!!) idea, when we are nurturing it, deadlines and goals don’t work. especially for me, as a woman, if I try to set goals it kills the very feminine energy that all my most amazing ideas come from (and the work flows from).
.-= Elizabeth Potts Weinstein´s last blog ..Magic, Energy & Ecstasy Outside the Seminar Room: Post-#Shine Wrap Up pt 3 =-.
Cath Duncan says
This post really resonated for me, Charlie. I’ve been thinking a lot about whole mind living and the role of the right-brain-directed stuff in making progress in life, as well as the ideas around the process of problem-solving when it comes to tricky problems, and the process of unleashing genius.
We’ve been living in a very left-brained world that’s all about high structure and thinking in linear ways that fits into existing categories. And a lot of the time management, goal-setting and productivity stuff that’s popular has come out of the very left-brain way of being.
Here’s where I’m at with it all: if you’re sitting on your ass and you don’t know how to achieve basic goals in life, then the left-brain way is a good place to start to get some movement, but left-brain ways of doing stuff will never be enough to get to genius. They’ll always be essentially coloring in the lines and trying to squeeze your unlimited resourcefulness into a small space. Highly left-brained productivity management techniques squeeze out creativity because they’re too tight for the mess that is creativity.
I love what Max Kaizen said in her recent call with me: “Geniuses have good taste in problems.” If you want to solve interesting problems rather than just following linear procedures to get stuff done, creating scaffolding that encourages right-brain-directed thinking is required. And right-brain-directed thinking is often unruly, surprising, tangential and messy. So I like your reframe of creating the space/ time container for this, rather than being forceful and trying to squeeze all your tasks into spots on your calendar.
Awesome stuff, Charlie, and I think it fits well with a lot of the goodness you shared when I interviewed you about the Bottom-line on A Whole New Mind for the Bottom-line Bookclub.
.-= Cath Duncan´s last blog ..Martha Beck’s Top Tips on How to Unleash Your Genius =-.
I love this statement that you make:
“Instead of trying to crunch time available for “work” so that you speed it up, focus on spending more time doing the stuff that helps you come alive and minimize or eliminate the rest.”
EXACTLY. This is where productivity comes in though. There are certain tasks that we don’t like doing and that drain our creativity so if we can develop some systems to more efficiently handle those activities then more time can be spent on doing what you love.
Sometimes it takes removing yourself from the entire process, including the organizing process. It could even be in the form of a sabbatical. At any rate, I think people need to focus more on how to live their life rather than what to do with their life.
Tim found that. He broke away from the tedious day to day management of his business to focus on what he loves to do best – deconstructing systems. Whether it’s figuring out the most efficient way to run his business, becoming a champion at the Tango, or putting on 20 pounds of muscle in a month (or whatever it was), Tim discovered his passion – analyzing systems, breaking them down and figuring out ways to achieve the end result more efficiently.
.-= Nate´s last blog ..Life Lessons from Steve Jobs: Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. =-.
My boss tells me that, if your time-limit for a task is longer than you need, you will stretch your time to the limit. So…this way you kinda become unproductive. It’s best to shorten your time limit, so that you can finish your tasks faster. :)(and of course, the same quality).
I totally agree that when you are under a bit of pressure, you tend to complete the work really fast, often to an extend that you get surprised at your working ability. I have noticed that I have the ability to complete a task in less than one fourth the time I usually take to finish it when I don’t have a set deadline.