What do the ancient monks of Tibet, history altering world leaders like Gandhi, celebrated self-help authors of the west, gold-medal winning athletes and era redefining businessmen like Steve Jobs & Elon Musk have in common? They all in fact can attribute their success to one thing that they do which the others are unable to do. And that’s breaking mental barriers. Its the ability to realize that somethings are possible which are currently considered beyond the realm of achievable according to conventional wisdom. They have all broken mental barriers in their own respective fields. They did it because that was required to be done to take the human civilization forward.
Alas, productivity is not a profession
Why can’t we all be like our exemplary role-models? There is one issue effecting the common man which is common across fields but has a mental barrier associated it and which needs to be broken. But alas, there is no single visionary pioneer who is held in public eye to lead the way for others (probably because time management is not considered a detailed enough field to merit its tag of being a “profession”). 1
The mental barrier in the common man’s mind is that we can only work on high-efficiency for x hours a day or that their capacity for highly productive work is limited and a rare resource to be called upon only on occasions of an impending deadline. Cyril NorthCorte Parkinson, in a way set out to break that mental barrier by coming out with his seminal paper on Parkinson’s Law.
In the years of the publication of Cyril Northcote Parkinson’s seminal article, several people came to this realization & expressed various other implications of Parkinson’s Law in various fields. Few of these generalizations are mentioned below:
“If the price is zero, the demand upon a resource tends to expand to match the supply of the resource. The reverse is not true however.”An example of the above phenomenon is the distribution of free cookies, free pamphlets, etc. However many you distribute, they get consumed. A cookie frenzy can easily ensue!
“The amount of time that one has to perform a task is the amount of time it will take to complete the task.”
It is a mere rewording of Parkinson’s Law. With advent of such diverse interpretations of PL in varying fields, scholars realized the extent to which this phenomenon was embedded into the inefficiencies of various human enterprises.
Famous Corollaries of Parkinson’s Law
Not to be undone, various scholars came up with their own versions of the law. A few note-worthy variants worth pondering over are:
Stock Sanford’s corollary
“If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.”
The above statement gives another outlook to the PL where it emphases that we should wait till the last minute to do a job as that is all that is required. A logical extension of this is that we should allocate lesser time to tasks than we already do. So, by knowing the nature of PL, we should be able to do more no. of tasks by allotting lesser time per each task thereby deriving the maximum out of our time.
“Work contracts to fit in the time we give it”
The above statement gives emphasis on time as being the more important variable. According to this, in a human non-robotic setting, work should adapt to time, not vice-versa.
“In ten hours a day you have time to fall twice as far behind your commitments as in five hours a day.”
A play of words emphasizing the need to divide work across time slots. This yields itself to time-blocking method of productivity where tasks are assigned times in which they have to be completed.
“Data expands to fill the space available for storage”
In the computer corollary time is considered akin to computer memory space. Data is considered akin to work or effort [Time:Memory space:: Data:Work effort]. Just like time is needed for work to be done, memory space is required for data to be stored. In both cases however, how much time (or memory space) is required is subjective. Efficient use of the resource (time or memory space) can lead to the goal being achieved with lesser amount of resource used.
Lets think about his for a second. The implications of the above simile of resource-usage are very contemporary & huge. Don’t we have so many files in our laptops or cloud services which we do not need but keep anyway? Don’t we all lose track of the relevant files in a sea of all the junk that we have stored in our data systems? This concept yields itself to the philosophy of Minimalism 2 which emphasis on simplicity being the key. It is against storage of irrelevant things & information.
SIDE NOTE ON SIMULATION
Parkinson’s law of Money
“Expenses will always rise in direct proportion to income, bringing zero or negative balance at the end.”
Related to financial prudence. Haven’t we all heard of stories of freshly minted rich people and lottery winners who squandered away all their wealth in a short span of time. Haven’t we noticed our own spending trends rise in the first half of the month soon after credit of salary into our accounts? There can be, of course, many more corollaries. The more we think, the more we can encounter. For the sake of relevance & practical utility, for the remaining duration of this article, we will focus on the core concept itself with emphasis on a more contemporary work setting in a modern-day organization with the goal to maximize time utilization.
The mental barrier
The bound mule
We need to only look at our animal friends for a more vivid example of the mental barrier phenomenon. It is common knowledge to any farmer or someone who domesticates cattle or animals that once the animals can easily be trained into believing that they are bound when in reality they might actually not be. For this, a farmer (say) who has a domesticated mule which stays in the cattle shed. Right from early childhood the mule sees that it is bound by a rope on its neck which is in turn tied to a grounded pole.
After the initial few months, when the mule tries to break free from the rope and fails, the mule hypothesizes that whenever he/she is in the cattle-shed, he/she is bound to the pole and hence he cannot walk freely. The mule is then mentally trained to wait for its master to arrive at predesignated walking time-slots where it can walk out in the open. Over time the mule simply doesn’t try to free itself from the rope when inside the shed. The mental barrier has been successfully created!
After an year of this training, the master now even doesn’t bother with trying the mule to the pole. The mere act of placing the mule near the pole triggers the response mentally within the animal that it is bound. So the animal behaves! The mental barrier has been established successfully and the master can go on with his/her daily errands in peace without having to worry about the mule wandering about in someone else’s property. But the interesting question is, can the animal be untrained from his mental barrier. Unsurprisingly the answer is yes, and its not too tough either. It just requires recognition of the barrier and constant reminder that its breakable.
You’ll be tempted to think that a horse or mule is merely an animal and that’s why they can fall prey to such a trick, but humans can’t. After all, aren’t humans far too sophisticated to fall for such a trick?! Well, think again. As humans, why do we procrastinate? 3 Why do we resist in moving into action mode and finishing each task as they come? In other words, why does Parkinson’s law hold true in humans? The answer may lie within our minds. If we see trends across various fields, we observe that there is a peculiarity trait in humans and other animals: We form mental boundaries where none exist in reality.
Examples from sports
– In 2009 Usain bolt breaks Michael Johnson’s 12-year-old world record in 100m sprint by 0.2 seconds. Justin Gatlin breaks Usain’s record in 2016 by 0.14 seconds.
– MS Dhoni makes record of 9 consecutive victories across formats for the Indian team in 2012. Dhoni had broken a record set decades before. But in a mere 5 years, Virat Kohli equals Dhoni’s record by registering 9 consecutive wins as captain. Not to be undone, Rohit Sharma score 3 double-centuries in international cricket within 1 year where it took Virendra Sehwag an entire career to make 2 double-hundreds!
Breaking the mental shackles
There are countless more examples across sports & formats which showcase how a record which had held its own for long periods of time & which got broken once, was soon broken several times in quick succession afterwards. Why is that? Is it because suddenly the players in that field suddenly got more talented? Unlikely. The closest explanation to it is that a mental barrier surrounding the record got broken which made it easier for new people to break that record.
Of course that doesn’t remove the limits to human physical or mental endeavors. But the fact remains that most of the times, human’s are not operating at peak efficiency in various domains in their lives. 4 There is a large scope for improvement. PL acts as a similar mental barrier limiting the individual’s performance to sub-optimal levels.
The serial breakers
Let’s consider a few people who have, in generally known wisdom and on a regular basis, broken previously held mental barriers for themselves and for others and, in the process uplifted those around them for the better:
Gandhi broke several mental barriers in his life-time. He abolished untouchability in India. Untouchability was a practice of the Indian caste system wherein a few lower castes in the ancient Indian caste hierarchy were not even allowed to be touched by any other so-called higher-caste people. He broke the mental barrier of the masses that they will get impure if they touch another fellow human being. He also broke the traditional mental barrier prevelant in the Hindus at the time that going overseas (abroad) would make them unholy.
Not only that, when he was thrown out of a train in South Africa because the people at the time didn’t allow other races to be seated with the white South Africans, Gandhi started a movement to get equal rights for native Indians and Africans. He was so accustomed to breaking mental barriers that he might actually hold some sort of world record in this. He convinced Indians to promote indigenously made cloth and abandon usage of western yarn so that local industries can blossom and old belief of inferiority of indigenous industries would be broken. Can you see a trend here? Much like a serial entrepreneur, Gandhi was a serial mental barrier breaker!
Almost anybody who follows the start-up and tech world knows the story of Elon Musk. How he co-founded a revolutionary new payment gateway “Paypal” where people could trade/transfer money online. This was at a time when people only believed in paper money. He then went on to break the pre-conceived notion that space exploration can only be done effectively by governmental agencies by founding Space X.
Elon also founded another company called Hyperloop with a vision to transform the 2 dimensional road-way system. He reckons that a zigzag way of tubes/tunnels transporting people can accommodate more people connectivity in densely populated cities. Continuing his juggernaut, he also founded Neura-Links, a firm which aims to act as a computer-brain interface in the increasingly digital world. The previously held notion of a sacred separate body-mind and identity concept itself will then be shattered.
Also known as Maharaj-ji, he has transformed many lives by his Midas touch. He shattered the notion of separate individual identity and that the present “normal” state of consciousness is the only state of consciousness that exist. The exposure he gave to the knowledge of the existence of numerable higher and lower levels of consciousness with infite complexity but at the same time being complemented by the simplicity of being woven into a single-consciousness totally shattered the world-view of many renowned thought leaders
One of Neem Karoli’s disciples, Richard Alpert’s book “Be Here, Now” took the western world by storm and totally obliterated the notion of drugs being the only or highest source or gate-way of reaching other consciousness planes. He opened the gate-way of Meditation or Sadhana as a way to far higher states of being than what drugs could ever hope to offer. The implications of this for youngsters & addicts was, needless to say, groundbreaking. Maharaj-ji, in his own way was a serial myth-buster!
The trend in barrier-breaking
There are many more people who have, on a regular basis broken mental barriers. But there’s a trend. That same person who has broken a barrier once, tends to break many more mental barriers in the future. They tend to be serial mental-barrier breakers. Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs, Mohammad Ali, King Akbar… The list goes on. The clear trend is that once someone breaks a mental barrier, they tend to do it again. Why is that?
The neural pathways of our brains get strengthened in ways that facilitate repetitive activities to be easily and automatically be performed. That’s why habits once formed are hard to break. But what about mental barriers? Well, one can think of mental barriers as a notion in the mind: a specific neural pathway which has been a particular way for a long time. Because the notion is held for so long, its tough to break. e.g. For ancient people, the fact that earth was not flat was hard to believe. But then, the value of the past lies in learning from it and applying into the present. On studying such great people, one must ask himself/herself, what mental barrier do I need to break today!? The answer to that, for 80-85% people is to break the lazy attitude towards life and to inculcate the habit of utilizing the scarcest, yet ever-present resource of them all: Time!
Squeezing time for all its money’s worth!
Surpassing to the next level in the simulated game of life
Work expands to fill the time available. Data expands to fill memory space available. Expenses expand to fill the budget. Given that time, memory space as well as money (budget) are all resources, can we generalize & say that stuff fills and consumes all resources if let unchecked? If we are simulated beings, if time is also an illusion and if breaking of mental barriers are a proof of the malleability of the rules of the world, then are what other barriers are there that can be broken? Is it like a multi-level computer game that we can conquer?
Timing it right
What are the most valuable resources for humans? The few most critical resources that come mind are: Time, life & life-support systems (food, water & air), fulfilling social dynamics & technology (intelligence and/or wisdom). As the most evolved specie on this planet, is it not our duty to maximize the utilization of all the most critical resources available to us? Maybe its part of our mission/destiny. Time is definitely way up there in list of resources to be utilized.
If each one of us use time judiciously, not falling prey to the vicious mental traps such as Parkinson’s law, then who knows what the human civilization is capable of- both in terms of prosperity as well as in terms of happiness! The foundation stone of human ascent has to be on stretching the limits of resources utilization! Squeezing the maximum out of the time available yields the zen state of ultra-productivity we all aspire to achieve. We just have to break the mental barriers that are blocking our way.
Learning from those who’ve broken free
Once a previously held belief is broken, the neural pathway gets free. The brain responds by getting adjusted to this reality and re-aligning to a new belief or thought pattern. And once the brain does that, that particular brain is in a better position to break its existing pathways if it has justified reasons to do so (e.g. login & reason). 5 A mental barrier-breaker also breaks barriers in the outside world as a consequence. These people hence become the trend-setters. They become serial entrepreneurs, political activists, scientific geniuses and what not! If we all embrace this calculated mental-barrier breaking in all of our lives then the world would indeed an infinitely better place to live. We can do away with bad habits such as drugs, holding illogical prejudices and procrastination.
Rewiring our own base code
Now coming to the issue at hand. If procrastination & Parkinson’s Law is such a widely held bad habit or mental pathway that has been wired into the human psyche for ages, then it will take the act of breaking this mental barrier that will get us rid of it. We will have to actively break the old habits & rewire the new. Breaking an old habit is hard, it takes time. But it is also very important if one is to realize what is at stake. Once we realize that we only have 1 life to do whatever we dreamed of doing and achieving, none of us would trade our time for any idyllic activity. We would want to squeeze the time for all its worth! And we would make time-squeezing a habit! Because we know that time is one of the most important and scarcest resources that we have.