Work Both Expands (And Shrinks) To Fit The Time Allotted

One of the most interesting things I find about project management is that many of the supposed “myths” regarding time and work are true.

Work indeed expands to fill the time allotted – if you give a team 2 weeks to complete a project, they will not start working on the project until at least one week. Studies have shown that without fail, most individuals and organizations will luxuriate in the amount of time they have been given to complete a task, thinking that they have plenty of time to complete it until about halfway through. They will then start panicking and really power through the work to get it done in time for the deadline.

This is true in almost 100% of the cases. The corollary is also true – work will contract to fit the time allotted – if you are given a task that normally takes two weeks to complete and is given a deadline of one week to complete it, it will likely get done.

Try it yourself – the next time you have a task to complete- estimate honestly how long you think that task will take to complete. Write that down. Now erase that date from your mind and replace it with half the time. Use that as your new deadline, and I’ll bet that you will very easily be able to complete the work in that abbreviated timeframe. Do you know why this is? I first came across this a long time ago when I was young and dumb.

The amount of time it takes for an airplane to travel from New York to San Francisco is 6 hours. I heard that once, and every time since then, I assumed the amount of time it takes to cover that distance. For some reason, it didn’t click for me that the plane could travel at different speeds – I always thought that the plane would simply attempt to travel at its top speed to get there quicker (kind of how I wish our current roadways could be).

For some reason, I had a mental block on this – but airplanes can travel at different speeds, which, due to the multiplier effect of scale, can add or subtract hours and hours from a flight duration. Humans are similar – we think that we can only work at one speed, but we can easily speed up and slow down our work in reality. We slow down our work when the deadline is way out there – and we speed it up when it’s short. Ideally, always use very short deadlines – as a rule of thumb, cut your deadline in half and see how it goes. I wouldn’t be surprised if you get the same excellent work in half the time.

The real trick is to not reveal the true due date in any way; Ideally, if you can keep true due dates and deadlines secret and only publish the shorter deadlines, you’d be surprised at how many projects magically start coming in on time with little to no loss in quality.