This Fast Company piece was a good, quick read on how to open up more time for creative projects — so, there’s that — but the article also reminded us of Parkinson’s Law.

Parkinson’s Law says that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. In other words: people tend to use all the time they have, even if the work only requires a fraction of that time.

It’s especially true in bureaucracies, but it can describe teams and workloads of all sizes (including one-person teams).

We (especially the self-employed) try to fight Parkinson’s Law, to keep pushing and stay productive even without anyone breathing down our necks.

We idealize the “machines” among us, people who (seem to) never get distracted, never take breaks, never miss deadlines, never overwork things.

We all wish that we could operate at 100% productive power whenever we chose—but you can’t just decide to go do that, with no guiding structure or motivation. Carpe diem be damned: real people don’t just “seize the day” any day they want for no reason. Most of the times we’ve “seized the day,” it was to hang on for dear life.

So what do we do? Where’s the line between Self-Control Struggle Bus and Unstoppable Force of Human Nature?

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Three guiding thoughts on regaining control over your own time:

1️⃣ Productivity is largely a function of motivation. There’s one thing that no task-managing or project-planning app could ever do: make you care.

Systems and apps just help you organize what’s already in your brain so you don’t have to juggle it yourself; they don’t create motivation or willpower any more than they create the tasks!

If you’re struggling to get organized, stop thinking about the systems so much. Instead, ask yourself: why, really, do I care about being organized and productive? You might have to dig a few layers deep, but you’ll know your heart-of-heart reasons when you hit them in words. You might just need to be more specific about what’s needed to fulfill those priorities, both in thought and in task.

2️⃣ Limits and boundaries are useful (even if they’re arbitrary). You might notice that you’re spending too long on something, without realizing that you’re simply spending the time available to you. So if you want to try and make yourself faster at something, adjust the boundaries and make less time available for it. And if your time isn’t already structured in some way, around a calendar or something, that’s probably the bigger issue you should address first.

On the subject of boundaries, two corollaries worth mentioning:

Horstman’s Corollary: Work contracts to fit in the time we give it.

Stock-Sanford Corollary: If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.

3️⃣ You never HAVE time unless you MAKE time. Simply put, the phrase “I don’t have time” is an excuse. Really, it’s a civilized shorthand for “my time is limited and I prefer to spend it on other things.”

Parkinson’s Law suggests that there’s never empty free time just lying around, precisely because our natural tendency is to fill the available time. So it’s a bit misleading to ask yourself whether you “have” time. The real question is whether you can make time—in other words, whether you can add something to your schedule without neglecting the higher priorities already on that schedule.

The key thing to remember: spending less time on something doesn’t necessarily mean you’re neglecting it!

If you “can’t make time” for something because your life is already crammed with (more) important things, then that’s that. But if you “don’t have time” simply because you prefer to stay on autopilot and let your time spend itself, you’re missing out on better things.

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