The 4 Hour Workweek: Set short deadlines

Another principle discussed in chapter 5 (The End of Time Management) of The 4 Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss is Parkinson’s Law: A task will fill up the time allotted for its completion. Tim puts it this way:

If I give you 24 hours to complete a project, the time pressure forces you to focus on execution, and you have no choice but to do only the bare essentials. If I give you a week to complete the same task, it’s six days of making a mountain out of a molehill. . . . The end product of the shorter deadline is almost inevitably of equal or higher quality due to greater focus.

So in addition to applying the 80/20 principle to limit what you do, Tim suggests that the practical application of Parkinson’s Law is to give yourself short deadlines for accomplishing those important tasks. This keeps you focused by giving you enough time pressure to avoid distractions.

This has some significant implications for me:

  • How I set my schedule for client work: I usually give myself a few days between project milestones and client feedback dates, so basic web projects end up being in the range of a month and a half but sometimes end up stretching out longer because of one delay or another. I could significantly reduce my project timelines for quicker turnaround, although I would need to make sure to communicate with my client to make sure they’re on board, as well.
  • How I knock things off my to-do list: My “next actions” list has some things on there that have been there for a very long time. By setting short deadlines for them, I may be able to motivate myself to actually get them done. For example – I have intended to call the city for two months to ask for a free compost bin, but not until Blog Action Day did I decide to get it done by the end of the week (which is still a relatively long deadline, but it’s done!).
  • How I work on stuff day-to-day: I usually make a list at the beginning of the day with the projects that I need to work on (because of deadlines) as well as things I want to work on, but these usually don’t take up a significant amount of time — a half hour here, an hour there. My daily list looks long and impressive, and most of it gets crossed off. But it seems that I could be a lot more focused by working on projects for longer blocks of time, which would involve restructuring the types of things I work on (batching them so that I don’t need to wait for feedback as often, for example) and prioritizing the “big things” I really want to get done that day. This will involve some client communication as well, as I’ve trained some of them to see me doing a little bit every day; I’ll have to revamp their expectations so they know that I’m putting my full focus into their project on a specific day.

So, how to get started? Let me make a plan:

  • I think the best place for me to start is with my goal to crank on my existing list of small clients. I have two projects that have been delayed and hanging around for months although they are 80-90% done. I’ll work on getting those up and out of my project list first. I also have an ongoing project that I’ll try to get done quickly as well. These three projects will be my top priorities over the next few days.
  • I have two other projects that have been on hold because the clients haven’t gotten back to me, and I have been too lazy to follow up. If I still haven’t heard from them after #1 and #2 are done, I’ll aggressively work on getting those done.
  • I have two more projects lined up for the future, which I’ll try to hold off on until #1, #2, and #3 are done (and see what the status is on #4 and #5) before commencing work on them. These two new projects will be a test case for me to see how I can restructure the project and communications to get things done in a shorter amount of time.

I’m still having a hard time figuring out how to apply this day-to-day, as my work habits are pretty set. This might be worth exploring in another post! In the meantime, if you have any suggestions, please leave a comment!

This is my second full post with thoughts about The 4 Hour Workweek. View other posts related to The 4 Hour Workweek.

2 thoughts on “The 4 Hour Workweek: Set short deadlines

  1. This is an interesting perspective, but not universally true. Many things need attention over a period of time to secure a result. Running a marathon, raising a crop, developing a skill. With all these it would pay to set challenging deadlines for some elements, and to work to demanding constraints overall.

  2. The way I see it is that Parkinson’s law applies in the negative sense, meaning the following:

    Let’s say you have a task that normally takes 6 hours (relaxed development), and you allocated 18 hours for it, the task will take 18 hours (at the very least).

    On the other hand, let’s say you allocated 4 hours for this task, the time will not shrink to fit your 4 hours.

    What I’m saying is that Parkinson’s law applies in both ways probably in all aspects of life, except in Project Management.

    I did publish an article, why 90% of all projects finish late, detailing all the human factors affecting the schedule (Parkinson’s, student’s syndrome, etc…).

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