In this article, I’ll deal with perfectionism, time management, procrastination and how to defeat it, whether you’re preparing a speech, a presentation or any kind of work.
The Art Of Waiting For The Very Last Moment
Ah, procrastination. The avoidance of work that must be done, tasks that must be completed, things that must be accomplished, until the last minute. Until it’s too late, sometimes.
I guess we’ve all been guilty of that, although to a varying degree.
At school first, when we waited the very last minute to do our homework, even if the teacher told us to not wait for the last minute. But we procrastinated anyway, and did all our homework at the very last moment, just before the due date, and then complained we didn’t have enough time to finish everything. Bullshit, and we knew it.
But even when we become adults, most of us keep procrastinating. Why do we do it? Because we value short-term gratification more than long-term gratification. Give me the choice between eating a cookie right now or being fit and healthy in several months, and my first impulse will be “the hell with Future Me, I’ll eat that cookie”. Or “Oh, yeah, I must finish that presentation, but that’s a daunting task, I’ll do it later, let’s check my inbox instead, I might have new e-mails.”
Now, sure, I can hear some of you shouting:
“Not me, Fabien! I’m not a procrastinator! I always do my work ASAP, way before the deadline! I hate working under pressure!”
Well, guess what? I trust you. Not everyone is a procrastinator, it depends a lot on your personnality. But you’re more the exception than the norm.
For instance, the vast majority of taxpayers wait the very last moment to do their taxes. Does it save them any money to do so? No. They just procrastinate. I don’t know how it is in other countries, but here in France, the administration set up not just one but three deadlines for taxpayers, depending on where yu live. Because… Their servers couldn’t handle millions of procrastinators doing their work at the same moment, sometimes the very same minute!
Parkinson’s Law Explained
Oh, and since we’re talking about administration and procrastination, have you heard of Parkinson’s law?
“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” (Cyril Northcote Parkinson)
Parkinson wrote this quote in a famous essay in The Economist, in 1957. The article was about work in any administration. If you give any complex organization 2 months to perform a task, it will take 2 months, no less, because you just need a few procrastinators in the team for the work to be completed on the very last moment.
Let’s say there are 2 tasks, A and B, that must be performed in that order: A, then B. Each task can be performed within three weeks, but are each given a full month by the project manager, since the work is due within the next 2 months.
Well, if you’re a procrastinator and you are in charge of task A, not only will you take your whole month, but you’ll also probably go above the deadline, because you know task B is not that long to complete after all. And then, because of you, team B has to work under pressure and will finish just on the deadline, since they had no time left. All because of you. And then they hate you.
Ask me how I know.
But, Fabien, How Can I Defeat Procrastination Then?
There are several techniques to become less of a procrastinator. I can’t mention them all here, as I don’t want to overload you with information. So, let’s start with the first technique, which is…
Turn Parkinson’s Law Upside Down
Let me state Parkinson’s law again:
Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
So, if you’re at the beginning of your 8 hours work day and have one task to complete before you go back home, and it’s a hard deadline, you’ll be thinking “OK, I have 8 hours to complete this task.”
Guess how long it will take you?
Right, 8 hours.
And what should yu be thinking if you want to complete it in, say, 4 hours, and have 4 more hours for the other tasks you should complete? That’s easy too:
“I have 4 hours to complete this task.”
OK, you’re right, easier said than done. You must be convinced you only have 4 hours and not 8. How can you do this? There are several techniques:
You can say to your boss or your colleagues “yeah, I know this work is due for this evening, but I’ll give it to you at noon, I have other things to do this afternoon.”
If you like to work under pressure, just do the opposite: work on something else in the morning, like some work that is already late, and just give you the afternoon to perform the task. Yes, this is risky, as you might be late if you underestimate the time needed to perform the task, but guess what? You would have been late anyway.
Now, this is not magical obviously. You can’t say “oh, Parkinson’s law is great, I’m giving myself only 10 seconds to perform the task” and hope to do it in 10 seconds or, to be more realistic, stop after x hours because you only gave yourself x hours, even if you’re not done.
It doesn’t work that way.
There is obviously a lower limit to any task. Use your own judgement.
Don’t Be Too Much Of A Perfectionist
I talked about Parkinson, now let’s talk about another famous rule: the 80⁄20 rule, or Pareto Principle.
It’s been introduced by an Italian ecnonomist, Vilfredo Pareto. The overall idea is that, in any given task, 20% of the work will result in 80% of the result, and the last 20% of results will require 80% of the work.
In other words, if you spend 10 hours on a task, after 2 hours you will be almost done (80% done), but the next 8 hours will be required to reach perfection.
Your mileage may vary, of course. In some instances, it will be 90⁄10, in others 60⁄40, and so on. But the idea is that a lot of work is always required to go from almost perfect to absolutely perfect.
Yes, reaching perfection is a noble goal, and sometimes you have no other choice. I don’t want to guy working on my brain tumor to think “Good, I’m 95% done, let’s stop there”. But in many cases, and public speaking is a good example, being 99% perfect after 8 hours of work is better than being 100% perfect after 10 hours, because those 2 hours could have been used to work another task, more important than that elusive final percent. Yeah that slide is not perfect, maybe you could make the image a little bigger, or use another word here, but why not work on the next slide instead?
Once again, this is not an excuse to be sloppy or lazy. Just remember that every minute you spend on a task is less efficient than the previous minutes you spent on it, and always ask yourself “is it really worth it?”
Now, speaking of Pareto Principle, I can only advise you to…
Use A Todo List, The Lowest-Hanging Fruit To Improve Your Productivity
I once read (I don’t remember where, so I can’t give you the original source) a study showing that using a todo list will improve your productivity by as much as 25%.
Yes, just implementing a daily todo list, with only the tasks that must be performed today, and nothing more, will let you do in 6 hours what previously took 8 hours, leaving you 2 hours per day to work on something else (or simply reducing your workday).
Now, there is a lot that could be said on todo lists, they have their own issues, and there are better, more complex time management tools, but that’s a good example of the 80⁄20 rule: with a very small fix, you can be way more productive. At the end of the day, just make your todo list for the next day, and profit.
The Pomodoro Technique
I’ve talked about Pareto, the Italian economist. Let me introduce you to another Italian guy, Francesco Cirillo.
The idea of the pomodoro technique is that the human brain cannot focus on a given task for too long, and requires short but frequent breaks. It works as follows:
Choose a simple task that must be completed. The simpler, the better. Since you made a todo list the day before (you did it, right?), that’s easy, just take one of those tasks.
Set a timer to 25 minutes.
Work on the task, without any kind of interruption, for the whole 25 minutes. This 25 minutes period is called a pomodoro.
Once the 25 minutes are over, if the task is not completed yet, take a 5 minutes break. Don’t work on the task anymore, or anything work related actually, for the whole 5 minutes. Take a coffee, have a pee, go on twitter, read a book, do anything you like during those 5 minutes.
After the 5 minutes break is over, start a new 25 minutes period.
Once you completed 4 pomodoros, have a longer, 15 minutes break.
That’s easy, right? And that technique works very well with introverts, because it lets us completely focus on a given task. It’s pretty easy to tell your colleagues “please don’t interrupt me for the next 25 minutes, after that it’s ok but please let me focus for 25 minute” , and they’ll usually respect that.
Cirillo originally a tomato-shaped timer (hence the name pomodoro, which is the Italian word for “tomato”) as he developed the technique in the 80s, but nowadays you can find tons of more or less sophisticated tomodoro timers for your smartphone or your computer. You can also use a traditional, mechanical timer, but your coworkers might hate you as they tend to make lots of noise.
As for tasks, you should rather use small tasks rather than complex, big ones. So, if your todo list says “make powerpoint slideshow for next week’s lecture”, split it in several smaller tasks, like “make figure #1”, “find a way to explain complex topic #2”, etc.
Small tasks are great because they make the overall task less daunting, and you can witness progress during the whole process.
That’s it for today. There are many other things that could be said about procrastination or time management. There are whole blogs and books on these topics. But I’ve got you covered here with these basic techniques.
Now obviously you have to implement what I’ve taught here, or it won’t do you any good.