Parkinson’s Law is an old aphorism which basically means that work will expand to fill the time allotted. In other words, no matter how much time (within reason, of course) we leave to complete a task, we will get that task done. For most of my life this notion has served me quite well, though at times it has resulted in an undue amount of stress and is the likely reason my hairline began receding in my twenties. When it comes to household chores and home-improvement projects, Parkinson’s Law is the way to go, but where it has really demonstrated its real value for me personally, has been in the world of academia. High school is stressful enough for an adolescent boy trying to come to terms with the onset of mysterious body hair and freshly acquired urges that had me spending an awkward amount of time “combing my hair”, to be overly concerned with tests and research paper deadlines. Teachers gave us way too much time to complete our work, thus amplifying the anxiety I felt to get the work done because it was spread out over long, unnecessary periods of time. Parkinson’s Law permitted me to put most stuff off until the night before when the pressure could come to a head and create an environment whereby learning needed to get done…like NOW! It was this purposeful shrinking of the amount of time I granted myself to complete undertakings that saw me successfully navigate my way through three university degrees, as well as working my way through executing this blog every two weeks. It would seem that like with coal, the more pressure I place on myself by shrinking the amount of time I have to finish by the deadline, the more diamond-like is the result. Shit, I only finally completed writing my Masters’ thesis the morning I had to defend it in front of a panel of experts and an open audience. That, I’ll admit, was cutting it a bit close, but I did pass, and I now have a couple of useless letters following my name on my curriculum vitae.
Yes, Parkinson’s Law, it can be said, has been A, if not THE driving force behind how I get most things done, from teaching to training and from learning to laundry, but there are two aspects of my life that I have found, after years of trial and error, whereby it breaks down and results in rapidly diminishing returns and me getting embarrassed, to say the least.
The first of these comes into play this time of year: Christmas shopping runs a serious risk of not getting done well, or at all, if the amount of time allotted for it is too short. Technically speaking, the window of opportunity opens to its widest on December 26th of any given year. From that moment forward, it begins to close at an almost imperceptible rate. Like the hour hand on the clock in a ninth-grade math class, it seems to move so slowly as to appear that it has frozen forever. As the months pass, the speed at which the Christmas shopping window closes picks up, though initially not so rapidly as to cause panic. Most people don’t even pay it the slightest notice for months and months, though there are some who get to work right away. My girlfriend is one of these people: when she sees an item that she knows someone on her list will enjoy, she purchases it, even though it might be January or February, and stores it in her bedroom closet where it will wait for the rest of the year. The biggest problem people like her have is that, from time to time, because it has been so long since the gifts were purchased, they forget about them and end up buying more gifts than necessary.
No, most of us do not begin to even think about Christmas until November 1st when the stores replace the pumpkins, Fall colours, and cinnamon sticks with boughs of holly, jingle bells, and peppermint. On this occasion the shopping window goes from wide-open to half-shut in a single day. It is noticeable, even uncomfortable, but no reason to be alarmed for there is still plenty of room to simply duck a bit to sneak through and get it all done. At this point Parkinson is still in control. The month of November is pretty big for shopping and advertisements on television reminding us, ad nauseum, to get on with it, but most years the weather outside is not ‘frightful’ enough yet to get us into the mood. We cannot head out to the meadow to build a snowman, the nights are neither Silent or Holy, and, therefore, we do not feel the urgency to rush out to box stores, malls, and on-line mega-sites because we, correctly, feel that there is still so much time to think about the perfect gift (not just any gift) for each special person in our lives. Mostly, our intentions are good, at this point, for putting off the buying spree for we want what we buy to be extra special and appropriate. For an entire month people like myself deal with the vicissitude of emotion like a wave. One moment we calmly go about our day doing our jobs and worrying about daily responsibilities, only to be shocked out of our workaday stupor by a television jingle telling us that “Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without Canadian Tire” (like that actually makes any kind of sense. Is anyone really going to get tires for Christmas?). For a brief moment the heart-rate spikes, our breathing gets shallower and quicker, and the smallest bead of sweat appears on our brow until we notice the date and realize that it is still more than a month before stockings will be hung by the chimney with care.
On December 1st the window-closing shifts into another gear and everyone really begins to feel its acceleration. We now officially have less than a month to get everything done. At this point we actually begin to think, in earnest, about what to get. We may even leaf through a catalogue or two and do some on-line research. But the internet is so vast, offering so many ideas, that we feel duly daunted and become so overwhelmed by all the information that we take the pressure off and tell ourselves that we’ll begin anew tomorrow. This pattern continues until the 18th of December…exactly one week out. Now it is officially time to push the panic button while constantly trying to avoid having the window close on your fingers. Everything needs to be put on hold while we make shopping the priority. The on-line marketplace is no longer in play and stores are rapidly running out of stock of all the items you have thought about getting. Every day, in fact every hour, that passes causes another patch of hair to turn grey as we come to the bitter realization that we have left it too late and might not make it before Santa shows up. There is a strange cramping feeling in our gut, and we begin to display ticks and tremors. We start to walk funny, in circles, in utter desperation trying to find something good to buy. We lower our chins, shake our heads and say to ourselves, “I fucked up”. As we hear the whooshing sound of the sliding doors open and smell the antiseptic, sterile air of the far-too-brightly-lit Walgreens or Shoppers Drug Mart, we know for certain that we have blown it…again. It isn’t even necessary to say it ourselves because the checkout person, who has seen many others like us that day (December 24th), with no emotion at all, tells us as they scan the 4-pack of regular blue Chap-Stick, family-size tub of Q-tips, and a box of Russel Stover chocolate-covered cherries, “Guessing you waited too long”. The window has officially closed, and we vow never to let it happen again. That is, until next year.
The second area whereby Parkinson’s Law does not apply is the notorious running poop window. Allow me to pause here briefly to say that if you have read my book, My Coworkers Think I’m A Pro (Available on Amazon or wherever books are sold), then you are familiar with my many dealings with this enigmatic conundrum, and if you have not, then you owe it to yourself to order a copy. Unlike the Christmas shopping window, whereby your negligence and procrastination can result in other people being upset, the poop window is a phenomenon that is largely dealt with unwitnessed by other humans (hopefully, anyway). Another major difference between the two windows is that the Christmas one leaves little room for valid excuses because it is open for 363 days, while the other opens and closes on a daily basis and is bound by the biological constraints of circadian rhythms. This, of course, does not necessarily mean that the poop window resets identically each morning. So far as I can tell, and this comes as the result of over thirty years of direct, personal experience, there are four divergent degrees, or levels, of caution at which the poop window can commence its daily opening ritual. (Of course, these levels are based on a ‘first-thing-in-the-morning’ run. I have always preferred to get my running done at that time because all races start early and, though a triathlon begins with a swim and bike, thereby leaving the run until mid-to-late-morning, it is all one event, so it counts as a single activity). If you prefer a late-morning, mid-day, afternoon, or evening run, I’m afraid I am of no help to you for I have absolutely no expertise when it comes to the non-morning bowel movement. That is not to say that I have never produced a PM number two; it’s just that it is rarely as urgent an undertaking as I get while running.
LEVEL 1: For whatever reason, you wake with an urgent need to drop a deuce and, as a result, you are capable of performing a thorough intestinal cleansing leaving your entire digestive system devoid of any residual detritus. A level one means you will most likely be capable of completing a run of up to, and even exceeding, three hours without even the most remote gastric grumbling. Level one is like a warm sunny day whereby the window stays open all day long.
LEVEL 2: On these days you wake up needing to move your bowels, but you’ve probably got a little ‘laying around in bed’ time before needing to get up. On these mornings the urgency to go to the bathroom is less extreme than on a level one day. You may even have time for a brief, “good morning, Babe” exchange with your bedmate before putting on a shirt and heading for the WC. Generally speaking, this is a successful dumping that flushes away most of the previous evening’s nutritional debris but is not quite as prodigious as on a level one day. Upon finishing up, you have a low level of concern that you might have left one in the chamber. On a level two day, you should be able to complete a run of up to 90 minutes before the possibility of a trail poop. The window begins to close upon exiting the bathroom, but the rate at which it shuts is quite slow and should not cause any cogent tension.
LEVEL 3: A level three day begins with your gut feeling as though it has quite a large bun in the oven, but when you sit to release it, no amount of Lamaze breathing will give you the satisfactory feeling that you’ve done a complete and proper voiding. There is evidence of some action in the toilet, but, though you don’t feel capable of passing anything else, your GI tract hints that ‘there’s plenty more where that came from’. You need to worry on a level three day because the poop window closes rapidly and often without significant, or even sufficient, warning. There are no time guarantees on a level three day; you might be able to get through anywhere from a fifteen-minute jog to an hour easy tempo run. You need to do a significant warmup before attempting any intervals when you’ve reached level three.
LEVEL 4: Level four calls for your sphincter to be on high alert and you are definitely going to need the full scope of your wits about you. Make sure that all superficial, esoteric issues have been worked out before you head out the door because you will need all synapses firing brightly with no frivolous interference. Mind and body need to be on precisely the same page. Level four is the day when you’ve eaten far too many three-bean burritos the night before and you just know that every millimetre of your digestive system is so overloaded with biohazardous waste and is distended to its breaking point that your cerebral cortex cannot make sense of it and simply will not permit your bowels to move until it can get more information from other parts of your body. Even coffee, normally a powerful early morning poop accelerant, is incapable of coaxing any intestinal movement. On a level four day, you leave the house at the mercy of forces beyond your control and in such terror that you have no choice but to do your run ‘off-road’ and in the most deeply wooded area you can find because you will need to be alone when the levee breaks (and make no mistake, it will break). Level four means that the poop window will close with the velocity, force, and unpredictability of a trailer-home door in a late-summer Oklahoma tornado.
The four levels depend entirely on the science of probability and in no way are there any guarantees either way. You may head out the door on a level four day and complete a 20km run, making it safely home before you feel any real urge to go to the bathroom. Unfortunately, you may only get 2km into a level one day when all hell breaks loose, and you realize you’ve made a grave error in trusting that innocent-seeming fart. A common theme, especially with levels two and three, is that you’ll get through most of the workout more or less unscathed and capable of having random thoughts having nothing to do with the poop window, only to get about 15-10 minutes from home when you begin to feel relatively serious grumblings. At this point you need to walk/run the razor’s edge of pace VS. poop. Logic dictates that you should simply pick up the pace making your arrival at home happen a little sooner. Your rectum, however, will not fall for such simple trickery and will lose its grip strength in an inverse relationship to the speed of your leg turn-over, so speeding up the running pace decreases the amount of time your bowels will hold on before relaxing and releasing their contents. There are also days when the irritation begins two minutes in, thus giving you ample opportunity to turn around, head home, and poop in your own bathroom. The worst times are when you are 30-40 minutes from home when you start to receive the first scouting report from the poop-impulse sensors, because you will have to try to adopt the mental and spiritual acuity of the Dalai Lama. You have unwittingly entered an intense, multi-layered mental gambit that will consume your every thought. It is a multi-dimensional intellectual game that is part math problem, part psychology problem, part geographical awareness problem, part ecological/botanical problem, and if you leave the woods before you poop and end up needing to do it somewhere remotely public, a criminology problem. If any of this happens while visiting a foreign country, then you can probably factor in a language problem as well.
If you have a deadline to reach at work or a paper due in school, trust that you will get the work done, and done well, no matter how late you start actually getting down to business. But, if you are Christmas shopping or trying to avoid splashing a tuna whilst out for a run, it is better to start the planning process way earlier than you might think. Parkinson’s Law will not come to your rescue.
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