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Your personal productivity may be dependent on your unique needs, personality, and circumstances, but there are still general “laws” governing time management and potential output that apply to pretty much everyone. Economists, philosophers, and scientists have spent a lot of their own time researching what practices make a person more productive. Here’s an overview of the rules all that research has given us. 

Law one: The Yerkes-Dodson Law

The Yerkes-Dodson Law says a person is most productive when they have just the right amount of stress pushing them—not too much and not too little. It models the relationship between stress levels and performance, resulting in an upside-down, U-shaped curve on a quadrant. Across the X axis, you have your low-stress moments on the left, really high-stress moments on the right, and a peak of productivity in the middle. The Y axis shows your peak performance at the top, which is aligned with times when you have just a the right amount of stress behind your work. 

This means that you shouldn’t give yourself too much time to do a task, but should definitely not wait until the last minute. The way to do this is to create airtight to-do lists. Try the 1-3-5 method, which has you structure your day around one major task, three medium-sized ones, and five little ones. By breaking your day down and timing it just right, you can make sure everything gets done when it needs to, optimizing your stress in honor of psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson.

Law two: Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s Law is another one that governs how long you should spend on any given task. C. Northcote Parkinson popularized it in a 1955 essay for The Economist, concluding that however long you give yourself to do something is precisely how long it will take. You’ll ultimately procrastinate or over-complicate the task, dragging it out by not working on it enough or working on it way too long. 

Try shaving the amount of time you give yourself to do things. If a project is due a week from now, don’t give yourself a whole week to get it done. Give yourself a personal deadline of five or even four days from now, instead. Setting private deadlines ahead of your real ones is a good way to give your work some urgency while leaving a little wiggle room in case you don’t finish up in time for your personal deadline. It stops you from procrastinating or getting too in the weeds on busywork at the end. 

Law three: Illich’s Law

The third law here is cautioning against the same thing as the first two: You shouldn’t have too much time to work on any one thing. The reasons behind all three laws are different, though, which means the solutions to overcoming them are unique, too. Illich’s Law, or the Law of Diminishing Returns, says that after working for a while, your productivity decreases. Eventually, it goes negative, meaning your work isn’t even good anymore. 

To defeat it, don’t just cut your deadlines down; cut down how long you have to work on each task on your to-do list. Use time-tracking software or a simple spreadsheet for two weeks to track how long your usual duties typically take you, as well as when you start feeling bored or unproductive. After two weeks, cut the time you give yourself to do each task, ideally down to exactly how long it takes you to get bored or unproductive. In the gaps that appear in your schedule, make sure you take breaks. What Yerkes-Dodson and Parkinson’s Law don’t fully account for is the value of breaks to productivity. Giving yourself set times to work and set times to chill is foundational to all kinds of productivity methods because burnout is an output killer. You can (and should) always get back to work once you’re done with a little personal time. 

Law four: Carlson’s Law

Finally, the fourth law, Carlson’s Law, is all about how you work, not how much you work. Swedish economist Sune Carlson’s assertion was that interrupted work is always less effective and more time-consuming than uninterrupted work. If you’re distracted, your work will be of a poorer quality and take longer—and as you can tell, work that takes longer is no good, for all kinds of reasons. 

Like the other laws, the trick to nailing this one is to schedule carefully every day. Not only do you need to schedule your day based on what needs to be done and how long it will take, but on when you can reasonably do it all without distraction. Timeboxing, or the practice of scheduling every minute of your day in your calendar, blocking it all out down to the minute, is central to basically every productivity tip—and when you’re aiming to defeat Carlson’s Law, you should take the extra step of making sure your very thorough calendar is viewable by others in your organization or anyone who might interrupt you. If you’re likely to be distracted at a given time, don’t try to work on anything important then; wait until you can give it your full attention. In addition, never multitask. You can’t do two things at once. That’s just another form of distraction. Move from chore to chore, one at a time, to make sure you’re being efficient at all of them. 

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