In this post, I examine different arguments about how to achieve your goals by doing more of the little things along with it. It may sound counter-intuitive, but using these few simple yet powerful techniques can elevate your personal development levels.

It was the last year of primary school and I, 15 at the time, had a lot of stuff on my mind. I was successfully finishing it (not that it was especially tough, but still) and I was training and playing basketball on a national level. Along with that, I was finishing my 6th year of primary music school and was preparing for a German certificate exam. There was something that kept me going even though I should have probably slept and rested more as a 15-year-old. I thought I had all the time in the world to do these various activities. I managed to achieve them all.

Then came the last year of high school. There, I decided to focus on 2 primary things and not many others. These were the final exams (that would determine if I am going to study medicine) and Vienna medical school admission exams (that would determine where I would study it). I finished playing basketball and I was no longer educating myself in music. I thought I was incredibly busy and unable to do any other things. The outcome was medicine in Slovenia.

So here comes the first year of studying medicine. I looked back and saw this pattern that showed me something. Even though I had so much more time during my high school years, I failed to achieve all of my goals.

Parkinson's Law

I first came across Parkinson's Law on a random rainy day going to school, routinely listening to 4-Hour Work Week audiobook. Parkinson's Law basically says that the shorter the amount of time allotted to a specific goal, the more important it is and the less complex you will make it for yourself to complete. It's just a fancy naming for something that happens to all of us. To put it in words, if you have a deadline for an essay tomorrow, you will be more efficient in doing it. This means that you will be more focused on achieving your goal and you will make it as easy for yourself as possible. This works incredibly well for deadlines set to you by others, especially if strict.

So the amount of work that you have to do, either many activities to do, many deadlines to follow will largely affect your productivity, but even more your efficiency. Efficiency is nothing else than being productive with doing the right things. Deadlines, set by yourself or others, will force you to select the truly important and stick to those and achieve them.

Evolutionary basis

Parkinson's Law works. But the true benefit of it is using it to your advantage. This means setting strict goals for yourself. But we're not particularly good at setting strict goals and following through, right? This is partly evolutionary based. The human brain, similar to our own today, developed 200,000 years ago and for 99% of that time, we were in the so-called "immediate return environment". This meant that we didn't need any plans, nor any deadlines. We didn't need to plan how we are going to develop personally, because we had other things to worry about. When we were hungry we ate, when there was danger we ran and our decisions had an immediate effect on our lives. We were either hungry or dead in that case.

But during the last 200 years or so, there was a sudden change. Suddenly, our society developed a safe environment, where we don't need to run anymore. Where survival is not questionable and we can focus on other things. The human brain, developed to function in an immediate return environment, suddenly had to start functioning in a completely different society. In a society where in order to "level-up" one has to invest in the development of new skills beforehand. And then also be patient and wait for results. This is called the "delayed return environment".  That's where the decisions we make today, will show their effect after some time in the future. We face uncertainty, which causes us to feel anxiety about or problems, habits and results. [1] We can't solve problems immediately and we don't get a result immediately. That's why setting deadlines by ourselves to ourselves is so hard and just because of that of the utmost importance.

Setting deadlines to yourself?

How could you set yourself deadlines? There are a couple of pretty straight-forward ways that have some pros, cons and differences between them.

Enrolling in more activities

The basic premise here is that the more activities you enrol in the more productive you will be with your main one. However, it's important to define this main goal or activity. This is not exactly setting deadlines for yourself. You are filling your schedule with things you like to do (presumably) and in this way you are:

  1. Limiting time for your main goal.
  2. Relaxing and forgetting about your main goal.
  3. If these activities are organised you don't have to set yourself any deadlines, because these extra activities create windows of time for you.

Now it's your job to keep up with them and make sure you still focus enough to achieve your goal up to your standards. More activities also cause less time to think and stress about achieving your goal. This, in turn, causes you to focus more on the process of achieving it, rather than the goal. It forces you to keep up with the tempo and disregard it, not caring about it. [2] But be careful not to simply clog up your schedule for the sake of clogging it up!

Calendar vs to-do list

This is an endless debate in productivity circles. Should you plan your day using a calendar or a to-do list? What makes you more obligated to achieve your goal when it's due? The answer lies on multiple levels.

  1. With putting your everyday events on a calendar you are effectively limiting the time you will spend on a particular goal or activity. If you define it well, exact and realistic you are making good use of the Parkinson's Law and will probably find a way to complete everything. However, the problem arises when you're not exactly sure how much time a specific goal will take. That's where a to-do list comes in. Elon Musk, for example, has a lot of stuff on his mind. [3] The way he keeps up with his day and achieves his goals is to schedule everything in a calendar. In fact, he schedules them accurately up to 5 minutes!
  2. The benefits of a to-do list are its simplicity and overview. One glance and you know exactly what goals you have to achieve on a specific day. It's similar to a calendar, except the goals are not time-bound. Making a list and completing the goals one by one makes it easier to achieve them all since you just do them until finishing them all. A great example is the Ivy Lee method, in which you define a list of 6 goals every evening (prioritising the more important first) and the next day you spend doing them one-by-one until completion. [4] You repeat this every evening and if you fail to achieve all of them you move them over to the next day. This seems like a good idea, but it's not time-bound. Parkinson's Law is defined only for that day to achieve a specific amount of goals.

Which is better? I think magic happens when both are used. But I think a to-do list is generally better for studying, where you're not exactly sure how much time a specific item will take you to learn. A calendar, however, is better when you have a general idea about what you have to do (not learn) and how much time you give yourself. Also, considering using a calendar may be beneficial for the long term events, for you to plan ahead.

Combining different techniques

Used in combination with another technique, measurement, this is almost a winning combination. Measurement of time in this example is beneficial because of the evolutionary basis explained earlier. This will show you exactly how much time you devote to a specific process that leads to a result. In turn, this is a great way of focusing even more on the process rather than the result. It will in a way also lower the uncertainty that is present. You clearly see how much time you put into a process and can have a rough idea as to whether or not you will achieve your goals or not.

If, however, you're not sure if you'll be able to keep up with timing yourself, download a Pomodoro timer app to do it for you. Or, for example, you could use a habit tracker. It's a simple table of dates in one row and habits in a column. You fill the table in with crosses (or whatever) when you complete a habit on a given day in a given month. Use a template I made by downloading it here.

Personal development

Back to the original story and my high school years. I know for a fact that what I thought back then is not true, at least for myself. There are people I know, who, along being on the same or similar program in high school, were able to do many more things and be at least just as successful as I was in high school. So now, studying medicine, I decided to take that path again. I am actively blogging, programming, back to playing basketball and the saxophone and I'm doing great.

I actively use all the techniques described above. From calendar, to-do list, habit trackers, Pomodoro timers and timing. They help me be as efficient as possible at what I do. However, nothing always goes by plans, so be easy on yourself and be patient. But only switching to this type of mindset, that you can indeed achieve your goals while doing other things will do it for you.

Footnotes

  1. https://jamesclear.com/evolution-of-anxiety
  2. Atomic Habits - James Clear
  3. Founder, CEO, and lead designer of SpaceX; co-founder, CEO, and product architect of Tesla, Inc.; co-founder and CEO of Neuralink; founder of The Boring Company; co-founder and co-chairman of OpenAI; and co-founder of PayPal.
  4. https://jamesclear.com/ivy-lee