* Mental Model #28: Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of everything is crap, so be selective with your time and energy. Start with the 10% absolute non-crap and slowly work your way out. This is a more restrictive version of the Pareto Principle in some ways.
* Mental Model #29-30: Parkinson’s Laws: First, triviality can easily set in because it feels good to feel productive (even in minute ways) and voice your opinion. Know your real priorities and ask if progress is actually being made toward them. Second, work expands to fill the time it is given, so give it less time. Wanting to work at a relaxed pace often just causes self-sabotage.
Keep the words flowing by buying me a coffee.
Use to be more discerning and protective of your mental resources.
Originally called “Sturgeon’s Revelation,” this guideline was first brought to mind by science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon (1918-1985).
In a 1958 column, he found himself defending his chosen genre, since science fiction of the time hadn’t quite begun to transcend its reputation as mere pulp fiction. Sturgeon felt that critics were basing their opinions of science fiction on its worst examples. “Using the same standards that 90% of science fiction is trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap.”
And thus, Sturgeon’s Law was born: “90% of everything is crap.”
The maxim took on a life of its own after Sturgeon used it to describe art and products. It came to mean that since the heavy preponderance of what we consume, read, watch, or review is crap, we need to spend much less time obsessing or even regarding it. Instead, we should focus on the 10% that’s meaningful and enlightening or otherwise beneficial to us in some way.
Sturgeon’s Law is basically a more colorful, more restrictive version of the Pareto Principle. And just like the Pareto Principle, it can be applied to just about every aspect of life. Sturgeon’s Law just sets an even higher standard for us to aspire to.
For the purposes of our discussion, Sturgeon’s Law means that the vast majority of information is low-quality. You could even say that 90% of what we think about on a daily basis isn’t worth the time. And that’s true to an extent. Our brains make a million neural connections every day – certainly most of them aren’t necessary or even useful.
With clear thinking, Sturgeon’s Law works in a twofold way. First, consider that much of the information we might use to assess something is inessential, poorly constructed, insignificant, or just plain wrong. Second, we shouldn’t get too consumed by how terrible these parts are; rather, we should focus on the thinking and processes that are good.
When we’re trying to solve a problem or understand something, therefore, we should concentrate on the most vital components or the most reliable, provable information. Don’t waste a lot of energy on the most common flaws or the most disparaged elements. Sturgeon’s Law says its low quality makes it unimportant, so it’s dispensable. And as Occam’s Razor suggests, giving too much attention to the inessential will only knock essential thinking off-course.
There are a couple of caveats to Sturgeon’s Law, of course. Everyone’s standards are relative, and some things we personally consider to be crap will be someone else’s gold. The ratio can vary, too: in certain cases, you may only have 75% crap. And within that 10% of non-crap, not all of it will be absolutely great. Some of it is only slightly better than crap.
But as a way to clarify and streamline one’s thinking, and to counteract some of our mind’s tendency to wander in petty or irrelevant directions, Sturgeon’s Law is definitely a non-crappy approach you can take. Find the definitively non-crap 10% and work your way out from there. In the end, this mental model preaches selectivity with your time and energy and being perpetually skeptical about what you allow into your life.
MM #29-30: Parkinson’s Laws
Use to stop procrastinating and get more done in less time.
British historian Cyril Parkinson was a man of many talents, but for the purposes of this mental model, we’ll focus on the two eponymous laws that were eventually named after him, both of which were related to productivity.
The first of these laws is called Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, also known as the bike shed effect. The story behind the law is that there was a committee tasked with designing a nuclear power plant. This was obviously a large undertaking, so appropriate care had to be taken in addressing the safety mechanisms and environmental implications of building a new nuclear power plant.
The committee met regularly and was able to quell most safety and environmental concerns. They were even able to ensure the nuclear power plant had a pleasing aesthetic that would surely attract the best engineers.
However, as the committee met to deal with the remaining issues, one issue in particular kept popping up: the design of the bike shed for employees that commuted by bicycle.
This included the color, the signage, the materials used, and the type of bike rack to be installed. The committee couldn’t get past these details – details that were meaningless in the greater scope of a functioning nuclear power plant. They kept fixating on small, trivial features that were a matter of opinion and subjectivity.
Parkinson summarized the bike shed fiasco in the following manner: “The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved.”
Therein lies the essence of Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. People are prone to overthinking and fixating on small details that don’t matter in the grand scheme of a task, and they do so to the detriment of larger issues that have infinitely more importance. People unwittingly give a disproportionate amount of time and attention to trivialities; these are the tasks that, if you were to take a step back and evaluate, would compel you to ask, “Who the heck cares about this?”
This is the classic case of not being able to see the forest for the trees (remind you of another mental model from earlier in the book?) and unwittingly keeping yourself from the finish line. There are two main reasons for this phenomenon.
The first reason is procrastination and avoidance. When people want to procrastinate on an issue, they often try to remain productive by doing something that is perceived as productive. Trivial details are still details that need to be taken care of at some point, and they are things that we can tweak endlessly. We feel that we are doing something instead of imitating living the life of a couch potato.
This is why we clean when we are putting off work. We’re subconsciously avoiding the work but making ourselves feel better by thinking, “At least something productive got done!”
Fixating on the trivial is the equivalent of cleaning the bathroom to avoid work. You are being productive in some way, but not in a way that aids your overall goal. That’s why when the committee members were stuck on how to tackle all of the safety issues, they defaulted to something they could theoretically solve: a bike shed.
Trivial tasks need to be addressed at some point, but you need to evaluate when you should actually address them. Triviality can easily sneak into our lives as a placebo for real productivity.
Second, and this refers more to group situations, the Law of Triviality may be the result of individuals who wish to contribute in any way they can but find themselves unable to in all but the most trivial of matters. They’re on the committee, but they don’t have the knowledge or expertise to contribute to more significant issues.
Yet everyone can visualize a cheap, simple bicycle shed, so planning one can result in endless discussions, because everyone involved wants to add a touch, show contribution, and demonstrate their intelligence. It’s completely self-serving.
The main and only reason to call meetings is to solve big problems that require input from multiple people. Locking people in a room and letting them brainstorm is a fairly proven method for getting things done – if you have an agenda that you stick to. Anything else should be addressed independently; otherwise, the level of discussion inevitably falls to the lowest common denominator in the room.
If somebody starts talking about something that’s not on the agenda, you know that triviality is on your doorstep. If somebody is spinning their wheels regarding a tiny aspect of a larger project, triviality is already in the room. If you find yourself suddenly compelled to organize your sock drawer while working on a particularly tough issue, triviality has made a cup of tea and is making itself comfortable.
When you devolve into small tasks that may not need tweaking or do not impact your overall goal, it’s time to take a break and recharge instead of pretending to be productive.
The key to utilizing this mental model and combatting triviality is threefold: (1) have a strict agenda, whether it is your to-do list or calendar or other technique, so you know what you should focus on and what you should ignore; (2) know your overall goals for the day and constantly ask yourself if what you’re doing is contributing to them or avoiding them; and (3) develop an awareness of when you’re starting to lose energy so you can preempt triviality from occurring.
Knowing is half the battle when it comes to beating Parkinson’s Law of Triviality.
Parkinson’s other law is simply known as Parkinson’s Law, and it is arguably more well-known. One of the things that people who procrastinate a lot might say to justify it is that they work better under a time crunch: “I work best with a deadline!”
Parkinson’s Law states that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Whatever deadline you give yourself, big or small, that’s how long you’ll take to complete the work. If you give yourself a relaxed deadline, you avoid being disciplined; if you give yourself a tight deadline, you can draw on your self-discipline.
Parkinson observed that as bureaucracies expanded, their efficiency decreased instead of increased. The more space and time people were given, the more they took – something that he realized was applicable to a wide range of other circumstances. The general form of the law became that increasing the size of something decreases its efficiency.
As it relates to focus and time, Parkinson found that simple tasks would be made increasingly more complex in order to fill the time allotted to their completion. Decreasing the available time for completing a task caused that task to become simpler and easier and completed in a timelier fashion.
Building on Parkinson’s Law, a study of college students found that those who imposed strict deadlines on themselves for completing assignments consistently performed better than those who gave themselves an excessive amount of time and those who set no limits at all. Why?
The artificial limitations they had set for their work caused them to be far more efficient than their counterparts. They didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about the assignments because they didn’t give themselves the time to indulge. They got to work, finished the projects, and moved on. They also didn’t have time to ruminate on what ultimately didn’t matter – a very common type of subtle procrastination. They were able to subconsciously focus on only the elements that mattered in completing the assignment.
Very few people are ever going to require you or even ask you to work less. So if you want to be more productive and efficient, you’ll have to avoid falling victim to Parkinson’s Law yourself by applying artificial limitations on the time you give yourself to complete tasks. By simply giving yourself time limits and deadlines for your work, you force yourself to focus on the crucial elements of the task. You don’t make things more complex or difficult than they need to be just to fill the time.
For example, say that your supervisor gives you a spreadsheet and asks you to make a few charts from it by the end of the week. The task might take an hour, but after looking over the spreadsheet you notice that it’s disorganized and difficult to read, so you start editing it. This takes an entire week, but the charts you were supposed to generate would only have taken an hour. If you had been given the deadline of one day, you would have simply focused on the charts and ignored everything that wasn’t important. When we are given the space, as Parkinson’s Law dictates, we expand our work to fill the time.
Set aggressive deadlines so that you are actually challenging yourself on a consistent basis, and you’ll avoid this pitfall. A distant deadline also typically means a sustained level of background stress – push yourself to finish early and free your mind. Save your time by giving yourself less time.
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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.
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