Back in college, I wrote for our school newspaper. After a semester as a staff writer, I gained some responsibility and was promoted to co-editor in chief. I held this position through my sophomore year. Fall semester junior year, Tyler – our instructor and de-facto editor – took a new job and left the college. I was ultimately promoted to editor starting that spring.
Spring semester my senior year, Roger Puchalski took over the class. His style of teaching was quite the contrast from Tyler’s. Tyler was a recent graduate of the college. He taught me the way the class had been taught over the past four years. Roger, on the other hand, had over 30 years of experience with newspapers. He was going to teach the class as if we worked for The Buffalo News. It was an adjustment, but a necessary one.
One of our first priories as a class was to figure out the timing and content for our first paper that semester. Being the longest tenured writer on staff, Roger peppered me with questions about previous content for the paper. He asked for examples from previous semesters, paging through to see the layout, content, style, and grammar. After gathering some context, he was pretty blunt: As a class, we had a lot to work on. We didn’t have a lot of time or experience to work with, either. If we were going to put together something we were proud of, it was going to be no one’s fault but myself. Roger was going to help me, but he wasn’t going to do it for me. It’s exactly what I needed.
To start, we had to figure out content. The sports section was typically the highlight of the paper, due to the efforts of myself and one of my best friends Cole. The tough part was figuring out everything else. We went around and inquired about interests, campus events, and other newsworthy topics that would be worth featuring in the paper. Once we had our stories, we started to assign them based on interest. We allotted space for each one and gave general guidelines for word count, visuals, and basic layout. The only thing left at this point was assigning deadlines. This is where I learned a lesson that I’ll never forget.
As editor of the paper, Roger turned the focus back to me. “When do you need these stories by?” I thought for a moment and responded, “Probably a week and a half before the paper goes to print.” He stopped me. “No, they need a date. You have to assign a deadline.”
As weird as it sounds, this question kind of caught me off guard. When Tyler ran the paper, we didn’t really have hard deadlines. We had a general timeline of when the paper was going to be put together. There was never a hard date for submission. It might have worked, but Roger was absolutely right. I had to do something I was uncomfortable doing at the time: I had to create a deadline.
It was my first experience learning how to leverage Parkinson’s Law.
Back in 1955, Cyril Northcote Parkinson published an essay in The Economist – a British weekly newspaper. In the essay, he detailed a common phenomenon he observed through his experiences in the British Civil Service. He described it using the tale of two women. The task was filling out and mailing a post card. One woman completed this task in just a few minutes – about what you would expect. The other woman milked this task until her day had been filled. She needed an hour to find the card she wanted, a half hour to find her glasses, 90 minutes to actually write it, and 20 minutes to decide if she needed an umbrella to deliver it to the post office – on top of the time she actually needed to drop it off at the post office. His observation has since been described as Parkinson’s Law: Work expands to fill the time allotted for completion.
We all know someone like the second woman: They’re the procrastinators. If the project takes two months to do, they’re going to use all two months to complete it – even if it only required one week of work. If you’ve ever put off an assignment because you knew you had time to do, you fall into this same pattern of behavior. The deadline for completion is the motivation for action. The further away the deadline, the less likely we are to get started now. It’s Parkinson’s Law at its finest.
I’ve recently been going through Robert Greene’s best-selling book Mastery. He alluded to Parkinson’s discovery by describing the “need for tension.” He said:
“The feeling that we have endless time to complete our work has an insidious and debilitating effect on our minds. Our attention and thoughts become diffused. Our lack of intensity makes it harder for the brain to jolt into a higher gear. The connections do not occur. For this purpose, you must always try to work with deadlines, whether real or imagined.”
This is something Roger intuitively understood from his time working on newspapers. We weren’t quite under the same constraints, but it didn’t mean we couldn’t create them – as Greene mentioned. Once I understood this, the decision became a lot easier. Assigning deadlines didn’t turn into a complex process. It just became a process of picking out a date on the calendar that gave me enough breathing room to put together the paper. They didn’t need to know it wasn’t an exact science. They just needed to know when I needed – not wanted – their stories done by. You can’t afford to have room for misinterpretation – especially when you’re the one that has the biggest deadline of them all.
While I no longer edit newspapers (I miss it dearly), I am constantly working with a population of people who have to operate under inherent deadlines: Hitters. The deadlines hitters face aren’t dates, but fractions of a second. Everything they do has to be “on time.” It is our biggest constraint to action. More time affords us more potential for action, but this increase in action isn’t always effective. Some hitters actually perform much worse when they have more time to spare. It’s the perfect way to explain Parkinson’s Law.
Just think about these two swings:
Here’s the second:
It doesn’t take a lot to see there’s a huge difference between these swings. The sequencing is night and day. The fix was simple, but strategic. We didn’t do any drill work. I didn’t give him a different implement. We didn’t hit anything other than baseballs. I just had to ask him the right question.
In my conversation with this young man, one of the things we talked about was handling velocity. After a couple of decent rounds off flips, I was trying to figure out how I wanted to progress the environment. The swings weren’t quite what we were looking for, but I had a feeling we weren’t going to find them in flips. I asked him about how he felt handling velocity vs. slower pitching. His response matched my theory: He’s much more comfortable handling velo.
While this answer doesn’t make sense on the surface (why would you want less time to make decisions?), it starts to make sense when you dive further into it. Based on what we know from Parkinson’s Law, there’s a big difference between having more time and making good use of it. Just because we have more time doesn’t mean we use it well. In this hitter’s case, he can’t afford to have extra time because of his swing. He’s a loose mover. From a macro lens, this simply means he has a tougher time pulling out slack and creating tension for his muscles to move. The string attached to his bow and arrow isn’t as taught. For him to create the “stretch” he needs, he has to pull the string back further. This constraint to action requires more time.
When he doesn’t have any time to afford, this action happens on time. There’s a sense of urgency. When we’re pressed against a “deadline,” we get done what we need to. There’s no room to be tardy. The problem occurs when this “deadline” gets pushed back. If he has more time than he needs, he procrastinates. There isn’t the same sense of urgency to get his swing off, creating more potential for action. This has an adverse impact on sequencing. When he has more time to use, his swing changes to fill the time allotted for it. It’s the exact opposite of what we want. We don’t want the swing to vary based on the pitching speed. We want the swing to stick regardless of the pitching speed. The paper might be due next week, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work on it like it’s due the next day.
If you’re working with hitters who have issues managing “too much” time, you need to approach it from two angles. First, you need to get them to operate and train under the constraint of time. Velocity is the test. If you can’t hit a pitcher’s best fastball, you won’t hit for long. They need to be comfortable getting their best swings off when they feel like they have no time to work with. This is where you’ll see their best moves. The actions will be simpler, the barrel will make moves faster, and the sequencing will be more efficient. It’s natural selection in its finest: What works will remain. What doesn’t will be eliminated.
At the same time, you need to teach them how to be comfortable handling less velocity. One of my good friends Ryan is a coach out in Oklahoma City, OK. One of his favorite things to do with hitters who “can’t hit slower pitching” (I hate this response, but whatever) is move the distance back. He’ll put a machine at 70’ instead of 60’6”. This forcers hitters to manage a space constraint that they are not accustomed to. It simulates a lack of velocity without taking off too much velocity (simulating speed and reaction time are not the same). This gets “procrastinators” out of their comfort zone. You can’t lunge and go get the ball when you move the distance back. It’s only going to create more time for you to lunge – feeding the mistake we’re seeking to eradicate.
With the recent push to simulate more velocity in hitting sessions, I think Parkinson’s Law should make us consider training the opposite. If we shouldn’t fall in love with one specific environment (e.g. flips), we shouldn’t fall in love with just training velocity. For some hitters, their unlock is going to come from training the opposite. We become so accustomed to hitting speed we lose our adjustability to hit different speeds – the most important test. If we know hitting is inherently unpredictable, we need to train in ways that reciprocate this. Sometimes you need more speed. Other times, you need less of it.
More importantly – don’t let your hitters walk in with the bullshit excuse that they can’t hit softer pitching. Hitters hit. They don’t care what they’re hitting. They just hit.