Work is an ideal gas

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion – Cyril Parkinson.

You have surely had instances when you hardly get anything done for days or weeks on a particular long-term assignment. On the contrary, when the deadline for the same assignment is at your doorstep, an entire week’s work gets compressed into a day.

It depends on whether you are chasing the deadline or the deadline is chasing you.

Work operates much like a perfect gas – it occupies all the room that it has available. An hour’s work can expand into a day, if we allow it to. Similarly, a day’s work rolls up into an hour, under the right circumstances. The polymaths and prodigies among us have practiced the habit of packing weeks into days, while the bureaucratic government employee has perfected the art of expanding a day’s work into weeks.

One means to cultivate the right habits is to take stock of the one or two substantial things we have achieved at the end of each workday. When I have a compelling answer to this question, I know that I am on the right track. Similarly, it helps to start our day by a maximum of two substantial things we seek to achieve that day. All the other small actions that we do not take note of – replying to texts, checking email, reading our Twitter feed or booking time and expenses, are merely noise.

If I find myself repeatedly struggling to identify a substantial daily goal, I realize that I have room for a new project. If the struggle happens mainly at the end of the day, there is something wrong with my approach to work, and I try and change that.

A compelling corollary to Parkinson’s law is “Work contracts to fit in the time we give it.” You get what you wish for.

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