How to get more done in less time with work compression

Have you ever experienced student syndrome? This is the phenomenon that we've all experienced when we had an upcoming exam. When we got the schedule for the exams we would look at it and say "wow, that's a whole 3 months I have to study" and promptly put off our studies because we had so much time left. Then, as we get closer to the exams, we would begin to stress out a little bit, but things were still far enough away that we didn't really have to worry about it. Until one day the exams began and we would have only a day or two to cram all that knowledge into our heads, and we would pull a couple of all-nighters and cram all that knowledge in and write the exams and promptly forget everything we've learnt…

That's student syndrome at work - put it off until we have no more time and then cram it all into an almost impossibly short period of time.

Parkinson's law

"work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion"
Cyril Northcote Parkinson, 1909 – 1993

Parkinson's law is the flip side of student syndrome. As Parkinson's law states, work will expand to fill available time. We have a certain amount of work to do, we have 3 weeks to do it, and lo and behold - it takes 3 weeks (and usually a bit more) to get it done.

Parkinson's law was coined by CN Parkinson somewhere between 1950 and 1955, and it remains as true today as it was then. We set ourselves a goal to get something completed by a specific time, and somehow we're able to just get the work done in the time we have - or we take just a little bit longer. We're driven by the deadline, just like in student syndrome, but in the working world we start working on something on schedule (rather than wait until close to the end) and the work ends up taking as long as we have to do it.

Student syndrome and Parkinson's law are two sides of the same coin. It's simple but not easy to use these "laws" to get more done in less time. We call this work compression.

What is work compression?

The concept behind work compression is simple:

Cut the amount of time you have to do something by some percentage (usually 10% to 20%). Get the work done in that time.

For example, if you usually work 60 hours a week (not uncommon for entrepreneurs), cut it to 50 hours and force yourself to get the work done in that time. Or, if it's going to take 6 weeks to complete a project, give yourself 5 weeks and force yourself to get the work done in that time.

Alternatively, you can use student syndrome to get the same stuff done faster:

Make the deadline for delivery shorter by 1 or 2 days (or even a week for a big project). Regard this as the official deadline and forget the old deadline. Deliver on time.

Without bounds, I can easily take 2 hours to finish one of these daily articles. By doing some preparation and limiting the time that I have to do this, I can consistently do it in 90 minutes; as much as 25% less than when I work without bounds.

Wouldn't you love to do something in 10% or 20% less time? What would you do with the extra time you now have? It sounds simple, but it can fail quite easily.

How to use work compression to get more done in less time

Work compression can be used at three levels:

  • daily work compression;
  • weekly work compression; and
  • cyclic work compression.

The first two ways (daily and weekly) of using work compression are similar. Look at the work that you've set yourself to do for the day or the week, and "compress" the available time you have for each task by 10% to 20%. Then, use that time as the absolute maximum time you have to get the task completed. You're not allowed to overrun and the "extra" time you've gained is not there as a buffer - you just have to get the work done in the new, compressed amount of time.

Cyclic work compression works in a similar fashion, but works at a higher level. The basic idea is as follows:

Compress 7 to 8 weeks of work into 6 weeks. Plan your calendar so that you have 6 weeks of work, one week of buffer and one week of sabbatical. The buffer week is used to clean up and plan the next cycle; the sabbatical week is used to recharge for the next cycle.

Having a buffer week and a sabbatical week is critical to make cyclic work compression work. You're effectively going to run a series of sprints, and to recover and get ready for the next sprint you need to recharge and refocus. You're going to work very hard when you do, so the recovery time is important so you can sustain this over a long period of time.

How to get started with work compression

In principle, getting started with work compression is quite easy. Take the time you would normally budget for a task, cut it by a small amount (5% to 10%) and complete the work in the new, shorter time.

When you're used to the new rhythm of things (and you've become good at delivering the work in the new, compressed time), repeat the process another one or even two times - until you get to the point where you realise you're going to compromise quality if you try and work even faster.

It's a little more difficult to get started with cyclic work compression. Your current schedule may not allow you to work in 6- to 8-week cycles, your client commitments may not fit into that cycle that well - but you can work up to it over time.

The trick is to plan out your vacations and sabbatical weeks well ahead of time. Block out that time in your calendar, book the vacation (including hotel or flights or accommodation) so that you can't move it, and then plan your work around your new availability. If you do this long enough in advance, it will start falling into place.

My recommendation is to start with booking one vacation well in advance so that you know when you're getting a break. Then work on daily and weekly work compression so that you can start taking weekends off and get used to the idea that there are days where you're not going to be working all the time.

How work compression can fail

Like all techniques, work compression can fail and cause more frustration than the good it could bring. To make it work, you're going to have to get a couple of other things right:

  • Focus: to get more done in less time, you're going to have to improve your focus when you're working on a task. You will have to reduce the number of distractions you allow into your life so you can work uninterrupted on that task; anything that interrupts your flow will make it take longer.
  • Recovery: with more focus comes a higher need to build in recovery time so you can focus better on the next task. We're so used to working all the time that we're not used to this; but it is critical to sustain high levels of focus over long periods of time.
  • Chaos will happen and you have to allow time to deal with it. You usually don't have to deal with it right away; but if you've allocated all your time to work, and you have no time to deal with chaos, you won't be able to stick to your compressed schedule.

So like anything new you take on in life, recognise that you will have to adapt this technique for your own circumstances. Don't expect it to deliver miracles overnight; it will be a bit bumpy to start, but once you've mastered it you will get more done - in less time - and that will reflect back in everything you do.


Work compression is a technique to get more done in less time. The principle is to:

  • reduce the amount of time you have available for a task by 10% to 20%;
  • arrange your environment so you can focus on that task alone during the time you have allocated for it (get rid of distractions); and
  • don't allow yourself to overrun.

If you can plan your work in cycles, you can use work compression to get 7 to 8 weeks work done in 6; take one week to clean up and plan the next cycle and one week to recover and recharge.

Work compression can fail if you allow distractions to take you away from your work or when you don't allow time to deal with chaos.

The good side of Parkinson's law

You've probably already seen Parkinson's law at work in many places; there's a theory that it is one of the driving factors behind growing bureaucracies.  

But we can use Parkinson's law to our advantage; by artificially reducing the amount of time we have available to get something done we can usually get it done in the new, compressed time - and free up time to get more stuff done elsewhere or just kick up our heels and watch the world go by.

What you can do now

You can start with work compression in a small way; just pick a task that you're currently working on, reduce the amount of time you have to do it, and focus on getting it done in the new time. Chances are you will be amazed that you can work that efficiently.

Cyclic working is not new; here's how the team at Basecamp plan their 6-week work cycles.

Routine is a big part of getting more done in less time; this article has more on that subject.

And as always, let me know if you have any questions or comments!

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