The most important lesson I learned in graduate school was not on a class syllabus. It wasn’t written in the curriculum and wasn’t even on a bureaucrat’s standardized test. It was, however, very much by design of the attorney teaching business law.
During finals week, the professor handed out a take home assignment that would serve as the final exam.
Interesting…a take home final exam…sounds easy, I thought.
Much easier than memorizing a bunch of crap to dump on a multiple choice exam and forget the following day. Instead of bubbles, we had twenty-four hours to complete the assignment and submit by email. But in reality, twenty-four hours quickly became four when you subtract for sleep, classes, eating and studying for other bubble exams.
When I started digging in, I discovered a multi-page contract and our assignment was to dissect every aspect, explaining how each line of legal ease would impact us.
At first glance, this may sound like the work of a law student, not an MBA program. However, it turned out to be one of the most worthwhile exercises I did in school. In the real world, where we entrepreneurs live and bleed by the bottom line, hiring a lawyer to review each and every contract just isn’t reality, but that wasn’t THE lesson. (As a side note, I highly recommend using good attorneys when necessary)
The lesson I learned was actually first articulated as Parkinson’s Law. Parkinson said that, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” I don’t remember if our professor articulated this principal, but he most certainly taught the lesson.
When I sat down that night, I quickly realized it was not an easy assignment. To the contrary, it was very difficult requiring volumes of research, citations from legal cases, and references to the textbook. We basically had a twenty-five page research paper due the following day.
At the graduate level, most classes culminate with a paper of equal volume; however, you normally get the entire quarter to work on it. It was 8:00 PM by the time I got home, so I had no choice but to get started. My plan was to finish by midnight, sparing six hours to sleep. It seemed impossible to do what normally took three months, in four hours, but what choice did I have?
Four hours later the project was finished and it turned out pretty good—good enough to pull off an A. I learned a valuable lesson that I still use today. Parkinson was right—the more time you have, the more you will spend, but often the extra time isn’t worth it.
Perhaps the paper could have been 10 or 20 percent better had I spent the entire quarter on it, but at what cost? If you can accomplish the desired goal, in this case an A, in four hours, there is little point wasting additional time making it perfect.
This principle has enabled me to repeatedly accomplish more in the current year than in the past ten years combined. For this to work, a few things must occur.
- You must be crystal clear of the desired outcome. There is a huge difference between wanting to lose some weight and planning to lose 14 pounds.
- Set a clear and concrete start and end times. This is critical. Do not allow any wiggle room. The brain is amazing at finding ways to screw up your plans if you permit thought of not finishing on time. Eliminate the word try from your thoughts and vocabulary for the rest of your life.
- During the time you schedule for projects, eliminate all distractions. When I was writing the manuscript for my next book, I committed to 1000 words a day. During that writing time, the phone, email, and internet were off. I permitted zero distractions, and fifty days later the first draft was finished.
Test this theory. Pick something you want and set a date and time that is sooner than you’re comfortable with. Eliminate all distractions and commit to finishing within the allotted time. You’ll be amazed how much you can accomplish in minimal time.
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