The Value of Constraints
We’re overwhelmed and exhausted. This is the almost universal complaint I hear from the business leaders I work with. There are, of course, many factors at play here. And perhaps just as many solutions to the problem. Too many to describe in this post for sure. So allow me to stick with one – Parkinson’s law. First described in a 1956 Economist essay by Cyril Northcote Parkinson, the law refers to the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Its Latin equivalent is tempus edax rerum, or time devours all things. We see this law in effect at work all the time. Give a team two weeks to complete a project, and the team will almost certainly take the entire allotted time, often scrambling to complete the assignment until the very end (if it completes it on time at all). Think about the last important meeting you prepared for. If you’re like most, you probably found it difficult to discern how much preparation was sufficient, perhaps even feeling a bit irresponsible or guilty for not doing enough. And we wonder why we feel so over-worked, over-scheduled, and overwhelmed.
I had the same feeling writing this post. I knew I wanted to write something about work given how relevant the issue is and the fact that I’m writing these words on Labor Day (yes, I see the irony). But I was stuck about what to write. I then remembered Parkinson’s law. I realized that I had failed to impose a time constraint on my writing and my work was naturally expanding to fill the unlimited time I had given it. I was on the verge of allowing my work (which I love) to completely devour the rest of my day, including my treasured time with family, friends, and self. I remembered that constraints have value and that my current situation was devoid of any. As the American dancer, choreographer, and author once quipped: “Whom the gods wish to destroy, they give unlimited resources.” The solution? I imposed a thirty-minute deadline. I’m at minute 26 right now by the way. The self-imposed constraint has driven a sense of focus and even exhilaration. At the same time, it has forced me to surrender a need for perfection in service of something valuable. And perhaps most importantly, in service of my own well-being.
As you emerge from your much deserved long weekend break, it would be wise to remember Parkinson’s law. Where is it that you can put in place a valuable constraint so that you control and own your time, not the other way around? It’s now minute 28. I hope you find value in this week’s blog. I sure did.
If you’re interested in how to identify and cultivate great talent (and in general about exceptional performance), this blog is a great overview of Tyler Cowen’s approach to finding extraordinary talent.
The recent article in The Atlantic by Arthur Brooks, “The Secret to Happiness at Work,” argues that job satisfaction doesn’t depend on having your dream job. A number of other factors are at work, including the degree to which your values align with those of your employer.