07/28/2014 12:21 pm ET | Updated Sep 25, 2014

Beat Procrastination Before It Beats You

No one is immune to procrastination. At one point or another, we've all succumbed to distraction and taken a little more time than we've needed to get things done. Yet procrastination and decreases in productivity are the natural enemies of the entrepreneur. So why is it that not even the entrepreneur is immune to procrastination?

Imagine you're going to a party in honor of a friend. You've decided to pick up a card for that friend, so you head to the store the day before the party. You take your time browsing the cards -- some relevant, some not. You check out a couple of magazines too. Maybe some knick-knacks near the checkout aisle. You change your mind and decide to try a different store. At the next store, you do more of the same leisurely browsing. Finally, you settle on a card you think is perfect, and, pleased that this store had the perfect card, you decide to do more browsing before you buy the card and go home. You go home, and the next day hand the card to the guest of honor at the party. Mission accomplished, right? And it only took you about an hour?

But what if you decided to get the card on the way to the party? Knowing that you had to get there at a certain time, you certainly wouldn't have the luxury of shopping at two stores, much less leisurely browsing. Instead, you focus on the task at hand, find a card that you think is perfectly acceptable, buy it and head to the party to hand it to the guest of honor. Mission also accomplished, and this time it took a little more than ten minutes.

Same task, same result, different time to complete. How does this happen? The answer to this and much of the reason why we procrastinate can be found in something called Parkinson's Law. Parkinson's Law states (roughly) that the amount of effort required to complete a task will fill the time allotted to complete that task. Simply put, we take as much time as we're given to do something, even if we don't really need all that time. This makes sense. When you have unlimited time, distractions are abundant, and distractions lead to procrastination. It's easy to fall into the wormhole of distractions and procrastination if there's no pressure to actually finish a task. This can be a huge hindrance to productivity in the workplace.

"Shortening the amount of time to complete a task will increase your productivity." @AlexCharfen

So what can we, as entrepreneurs, do to combat Parkinson's Law and make sure we're spending our time effectively and productively?

Here are a couple of quick tips:

  1. Set deadlines. If you have a task with an ambiguous due date, the tendency is to keep refining and refining it, even when more refining isn't needed or cost beneficial. Setting deadlines can provide the good pressure you need to avoid distractions and get focused. If you have a deadline for a particular task or project already, challenge yourself and compress it. Remember that you can always extend a deadline if you need more time to complete something, but you can never retrieve time wasted.
  2. Eliminate distractions. We live in a time in which distractions are all around us. But some distractions we choose. If you really want to get leverage over your time, put away your phone, log out of your social media sites and internet and don't open email. Eliminating these things will help keep your eyes and mind from wandering and keep you focused on the task at hand.

Some of you may be thinking that getting things done more quickly may compromise quality. This isn't the case. First of all, when you set or compress a deadline, you can always extend it to give yourself more time if you need it. Secondly, it's a misconception that the only way to achieve quality results is with more time. True, there are some high-quality products that need more time to create, but that doesn't mean that more time will make any product better. Voltaire once stated that "better is the enemy of good." Anyone, if given all the time in the world, might refine a product or a task, making negligible improvements, ad infinitum. But many times the greater value lies in getting the product or task completed, especially because this means you can reclaim some of your time.

Time is the most precious commodity we have, but distractions and procrastination rob us of that time. By using time effectively and productively, you'll end up with more of it, which you can apply to your business or even your family. Combatting Parkinson's Law will not only benefit your business, but can give you a better life.

Alex Charfen is the CEO of the Charfen Institute.