The Peter Principle of Time Management

April 7th, 2008

The Peter Principle is the HR maxim that any person will be promoted to the level of his incompetence- s/he will keep moving up the ladder until s/he no longer has the ability to get the job done. It is rather cynical, especially the corollary that “work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence”.

I work for myself, so the rule doesn’t apply directly to me since there is no ladder for me to move up (or down). Still, I feel like I struggle with a kind of Peter Principle in life all the time. Bijan Sabet posted a note recently about hitting his personal peak of concurrent demands on his attention. I lamented in a comment that there is no great name for this phenomenon of “everything happens all at once”.

The Peter Principle of Time Management is not the whole concurrent-peak-time demand problem, but it is a part of it. My theory here is that we fill our time with obligations until we are no longer able to meet them all effectively. We tend to become aware of the fact that we are overcommitted when all of the people we have promised things to come looking for them all at once.

I run my own business, which demands a huge amount of time and energy. I am also a husband, parent, son and friend. I volunteer time to my kids’ schools and one or two other nonprofit resources. When not completely engaged by any of those items, I practice yoga, ride bicycles and occasionally race them. And I write a bunch of it down here and on my Tumblog. That’s a lot of stuff and I have realized that if I want to be even nominally competent at each of them I need to avoid the temptation to take on more.

I have been reading up on peak energy issues lately, and an analogy to the electrical power grid seems apt. With electricity, power plant construction is driven by peak power demands. I can’t add more capacity, so all I can do is calculate the likely peak load from each activity/relationship I commit to and realize that it is probably going to take capacity away from something else.

Or in Peter terms, commit to only the number of obligations that will permit me to accomplish each of them competently.

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