Why You Get Less Done in More Time


Youth ministers seem to be particularly prone to what I will call “Pope’s Window Syndrome”. I stood in St. Peter’s Square a few years ago while a friend told me the Pope’s office window is the last light to turn off at the Vatican, communicating to everyone just how hard the Pope is working for our Church.

PWS hits youth ministers hard, as they wake up early (or maybe not so early) and put in grueling 50-60 hour work weeks, leaving lights on in their office or the youth center long after everyone else has left the building.

And while putting in 60 hours a week may make you feel like you are working hard, not getting paid enough, and completely unappreciated, there is a lot of evidence that suggests the more hours you work, the less productive you could become. (See thisthat, and here.) Not to mention the huge negative impact on your family life if you are married and your sanity if you are single.

Enter Sheryl Sandberg and Parkinson’s Law

Sheryl Sandberg is the Chief Operating Officer at Facebook and the first woman board member of Facebook’s board of directors. Before Facebook, she was Vice President of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google. Before Google, she worked as chief of staff for the United States Secretary of the Treasury. In 2012 Sheryl made the Time 100, a list of the 100 most influential people in the world. My girl Sheryl ain’t messing around.

And Sheryl leaves work everyday at 5:30 p.m.

How? My guess is that Sheryl is intentionally using something called “Parkinson’s Law” to her advantage. Parkinson’s Law originated as a simple and cheeky opening observation by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in an essay in The Economist published in 1955:

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

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Basically, a task will grow in complexity and difficulty if you assign it more time than it really needs.

We’ve all experienced this.

Your bulletin article, which should take at most 10-15 minutes to write, is due Friday and today is Monday. You sit down at your desk and decide to crank out the article early, giving yourself an undefined amount of time to get it done.

10 minutes go by when you suddenly remember that you need to text all the kids and remind them about tonight’s Bible study. You take a few minutes to text them, since this is more urgent and important than the bulletin article. You get back into the bulletin groove and take 10 minutes to look for the perfect picture to include, scanning images after searching google for “pizza monster”.

After 5 minutes distracted by “cats eating pizza” videos, you find an image you want to use. After another 5 minutes of choosing the perfect font, you remember a parent wanted you to include a blurb about the leaves she needs raked from her front lawn.

You take another 10 minutes trying to write two sentences that don’t reveal how frustrated you are with this request.

By the time you are done, a 10-15 minute task has taken 40-60 minutes to get done.

What happened?

Work expanded to fill the amount of time you gave it. A lot of your decisions and a lot of the distractions would have been resolved much quicker if you ruthlessly forced yourself to use only 15 minutes to complete the article.

“Work expands to fill the amount of time available for its completion.”

This one sentence kicked me in the pants and changed the way I do, well, everything. Now when I hear people moan about how late they stayed at the office, or how many hours they worked last week, I wonder if they are busy or if maybe they could do two things better:

1. Get better at saying no and letting things fail.
2. Setting deadlines, time restraints, and accountability to tasks so its impossible to not get them done.

I remember the pride I took in leaving the office at 7 p.m. on a Friday night, sitting in my office doing “work” for a total of 5-8 hours at a time. But if you really knew what went on in my office, you would know that I was being extremely unproductive and inefficient with my time. Not because I planned it that way, and not just because I lacked the ability to tune out distractions, but primarily because I allowed myself to take longer than needed to complete each task, and I allowed myself to stay at work longer than needed if I didn’t complete the tasks I needed to for that day.

If work expands to fill the amount of time available to complete it, then the solution is to take charge of the amount of time available to complete our work. Obviously we can’t assign 5 minutes to get everything done, but we need to get better at determining the appropriate amount of time needed to complete a task, and then ruthlessly stick to that amount of time while ignoring everything else.

Let’s see how this applies to everyday tasks, our work day, the work week, and the whole work year.

The Tasks

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For the more disciplined, taking control of the amount of time your to-do list burns means assigning time limits to each task, setting a timer, ignoring all distractions, making quick decisions, and focusing on what’s most important in order to get each task done in the assigned amount of time.

For the less disciplined this skill comes with practice, and a little help from others. This means doing all of the above while combining outside pressures to force you to get your tasks done quickly. Its hard at first to stick to your own time limits. To help you stick to them, maybe you wait until Friday 30 minutes before its due to begin working on your bulletin article. Maybe you  Obviously becoming more disciplined is the better option, but not all of us can force deadlines on ourselves without being too lenient. This is a disciplined skill that comes with practice. 

“At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.” Hebrews 12:11

You will also find that if you record the amount of time you assign for a task and the amount of time you actually took to complete it, you will become better at estimating the time needed for certain habitual tasks, like bulletin articles.  Check out the Pomodoro Technique for using a timer to blast away your to-do list in the most efficient way.

Here’s a great primer on the Pomodoro Technique by Life Hack

If you work on a Mac, WorkBurst is a great pomodoro app that runs in the background and darkens your screen after 20 minutes, and then resumes brightness after a 5 minute break.

Your Work Day

When you walk into work at the beginning of your work day, you either know when you’re going home or you have decided to let your work decide when you are going home. Either “I’m going home at 4.” or “I’m going home once I get everything done.” While the latter is really tempting, setting a specific time to go home adds a deadline to everything you do throughout the day. Your work for the day will generally tend to fill the amount of time you give yourself that day to get work done.

Did you just waste 20 minutes surfing Facebook? If you have not set a deadline for your work day, you might be tempted to stay 20 minutes longer at work to make up for time lost. These little distraction, and too much time spent deciding between this video and that picture add up. If you know that you only have two hours left in your work day, it is a lot easier to tune out distractions, make quick decisions, and focus on what’s important while working under the time pressure to get everything done before its time to go home. I tell my wife when I will be home each day to give me some added pressure to honor my workday deadline.

Want to get real Nazi-like with your time? Try Rescue Time. Download it, set it, and forget it. It keeps track of the amount of time throughout the day you spend on different applications and websites, so you can’t run from “4 hours on Facebook” or “5 hours on email” at the end of the day.

Your Work Week

Every day of the week is connected to the tasks and demands of the rest of the week. There are events on weeknights, youth group on weekends, personal appointments and meetings, as well as other unexpected activities that occur throughout the week. In order to be most effective with your time, you need to limit the number of days you allow yourself to get things done. This might mean telling your core team you will email them every Tuesday with Sunday’s youth group schedule, so you don’t wait until Saturday to plan youth group. This also means planning your week out ahead of time so you aren’t just going from day to day reacting to deadlines and the next event or meeting.

I use excel to plan out my work week and force myself to ruthlessly obey it. This can be really difficult when 4:00 p.m. comes around and a coworker asks you to do a favor for them, or when the phone rings as you are leaving the office. Obviously some things, like a teen who really needs to talk to you, are more important than your schedule. But it is better to have a schedule to break than to go day to day reacting and not being proactive about your time. I make sure to send it out to my parish staff every Monday, which gives me added accountability. Plus they are more in the know about the crazy youth minister’s work week.

Your Work Year

Its October and you have a retreat coming up in February. You might be tempted apply Parkinson’s Law and think if the work expands to fill the time allowed for it, then you should wait until the week before to get everything done. But this is impractical because it is such a huge project that requires dozens of complicated tasks. The better option is to set deadlines for yourself prior to the retreat. If you are more disciplined these deadlines can be personally enforced. If not, you can use outside pressures to force you to get them done. You might schedule a core team meeting sooner than needed to force you to at least make an outline of the retreat schedule. Maybe you set a deadline for early July to pick a theme for the retreat and announce it through social media.

If its not on the calendar with a deadline, its not real.

Proactive, not Reactive

To sum up: set defined start/stop parameters on your tasks, days, and months. The reason this works is because if you don’t carve out a sacred space to accomplish a task, there will always be more “urgent” or “important” tasks to fill in the extra time. Being proactive with time in this way changes time from just an infinite space we work in to try to get lots done, to a force of pressure that forces us to get more done.

Give yourself 20 minutes today to block out all distractions and work on one thing that is SUPER important, but isn’t life-threateningly urgent. Go home at 5pm. Set a deadline for a project. And you’ll thank yourself later.

“The hardest thing… is spending the most amount of time on the most important thing.” Matt Mullenweg

Edmund Mitchell is a Catholic husband, father of three, and lay minister for the Church. He currently work as the Director of Youth Ministry at a parish in Grapevine, Texas. He met his beautiful bride at Franciscan University, where h graduated with a Bachelors in Catechetics and Theology with a concentration in youth ministry. Edmund writes, speaks, and recently launched a huge project called Reverb Culture. Its a community of young adults attempting to live the catechism in wild ways.


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