Thursday, March 7, 2013

Parkinson's Law

Status update: looks to be another short story and I'm about a quarter of the way done. Caffeine supplies plentiful and tasty.

I'm a big fan of procrastination.

It's not only my hobby--you could think of it as one of my key strengths. If I were a superhero, I'd probably have a big letter P on my chest and would specialize in last minute saves. The first 31 pages of my comic book would be me taking naps and looking at pictures of cats on the Internet. It would probably sell poorly.

Over the years, I've just had to accept that I'm not one of those smug bastards who'll start working on a homework assignment two months in advance. Usually I'm banging away at it at the very last minute, hopped up to my eyebrows on caffeine. Given a hard deadline, you can generally calculate where I'm at by figuring out my hourly work rate and then subtracting the number of hours that I could reasonably be considered to be awake and on task between now and said deadline. Yeah, I suck.

So, I've had to think around it. I set milestones and then make myself accountable for them. Have a plot sketched out before Tuesday night. Be at least a few pages in by Thursday morning. Be done with Act 2 by Saturday afternoon.

I'm usually in a haze of panic as I struggle to meet these deadlines, the level of panic being suffered in direct proportion to the importance of said deadline.

And, in my opinion, this is a good thing. Some of my best work gets done when I'm under pressure because I don't have the luxury to deal with such illusions as writer's block. I find myself reaching for solutions, wracking my brains for nonlinear workarounds. And when I hit the somewhat drab parts of a project that every project has to have, I admit to myself that I have to just pound through it to a more interesting part. If I  didn't have that looming tombstone of a deadline coming up fast, I'd be tempted to gather wool, maybe rethink my approach. I'd start over again with a different, more "fresh" viewpoint and then never get anything done. And then I finish it, look over it all and a lot of it's actually pretty good, for the most part.

Tim Ferriss, author of the pretty-amusing-and-useful-but-not-nearly-as-useful-as-people-say book, "The Four Hour Workweek", misquotes it as Parkinson's Law and uses it as a productivity tool. This is actually a very, very powerful idea. Give yourself a hard deadline and then take the rest of that time off to do more fun things. When you're under pressure to perform, it narrows your focus. A narrow focus means you get more stuff done in a unit of time. You've deliberately backed yourself into a corner and you're using your lizard-brain fight-or-flight instincts to increase your output.

Some people don't work better under those conditions (probably the aforementioned smug bastards), but it works for me. I've just had to outwit myself. I break the work up into more manageable chunks. Instead of one ghastly/awful huge deadline where I do EVERYTHING at the last minute, I have a cluster of subdeadlines that force me to break up projects into little, more easily achieved bits.

Incidentally, Parkinson's Law is actually more about the bureaucratic tendency to expand to achieve a maximal state of inefficiency. It gets misquoted and appropriated a lot by writers/humorists. It's the sort of thing that drives pedants insane, which I approve of thoroughly.

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