Overcome Parkinson’s Law to get more done

Parkinson's law

On a 2018 episode of NPR’s Planet Money podcast called The Laws of The Office, hosts Kenny and Sarah dive into Parkinson’s Law. They explain that they have an entire week to finish the Parkinson’s Law segment, which in theory, should take one day’s worth of work to complete. They mention that since they have an entire week until their deadline, they’ll probably spend time looking for archival tapes, doing extra interviews, and dragging out the segment over the week's duration.

When I first listened to this episode, I was semi-familiar with Parkinson’s Law, but I hadn’t considered how and where it shows up for me. Take writing blogs, for example. I write blog posts like this one all the time. Sometimes it takes me days — and even weeks — to finish one post, but other times, I can crank out thousands of words in the hours leading up to a deadline without hassle. 

The reality is that nobody is immune to Parkinson’s Law. And since we aren’t immune, our best course of direction is to understand what it is and how to implement strategies to combat it. This post tells you everything you need to know about Parkinson’s Law and how to use it to your advantage. 

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What is Parkinson’s Law?

Parkinson’s Law is the famous adage that work expands to fill the allotted time we set aside for its completion. Or in other words, if you set aside four hours for a task, it will take four hours. If you set aside four weeks for the same task, it will take four weeks.

So, where did Parkinson’s Law come from? Cyril Northcote Parkinson, a British naval historian and author, introduced Parkinson’s Law in a satirical essay he wrote for “The Economist” in 1955. In the essay, Parkinson shared a humorous story about an elderly lady sending a postcard to her niece. 

How long would you guess it takes to send a postcard? How many minutes would you give it if you added this task to your to-do list? Consider how much time you think this task would take before diving into the rest of the story below.

As the story goes, the woman had an entire day to send the postcard, so it took a whole day. Here’s a breakdown of how the older woman spent her day:

Searching for the postcard = 1 hour 

Hunting for spectacles = 1 hour

Searching for her niece’s address = 30-minutes

Writing a note on the postcard = 1.5 hours

Deciding whether to take an umbrella to the mailbox = 20 minutes

Total time = 4 hours and 20 minutes

Given her circumstances, it took the woman over four hours to complete the postcard task. Parkinson writes, “The total effort which would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil.” 

The simple act of sending a postcard expanded into an hours-long extravaganza simply because the woman allotted an entire day for its completion. While this is a more extreme example, we all experience Parkinson’s Law across various tasks in our lives. 

It’s also worth noting that many people acknowledge that Parkinson’s essay was a joke summarizing his observations in the British Civil Service. He was commenting on the growth of bureaucracy, not making a blanket statement about work expanding for all of us. However, his initial observations transpired into the broader concept of what we know Parkinson’s Law to be today. 

A metaphor that helps me understand and explain this phenomenon is that of a balloon. Work expands to fill our time in the same way we could keep adding helium to a balloon that already has enough to rise into the air. When we add more helium, the balloon grows larger and takes up more space — just like the task in our schedule. 

Parkinson’s Law of Triviality 

Most often, we think about Parkinson’s Law in terms of how it impacts our productivity at the personal level. If you think back to the woman sending a postcard, she was the only one affected by her multi-hour sending. However, Parkinson’s Law isn’t afraid to sneak into group settings. 

Parkinson’s Law of Triviality suggests that people in organizations, and organizations, give disproportionate (and often unreasonable) attention to trivial and minor topics. Parkinson shared an example in which a fictional committee needed to approve plans for a nuclear power plant. When the committee gathered for discussions, they spent most of their time working through small details, such as the types of materials they needed for the staff bicycle shed. 

I know what you’re thinking — what the heck does a bicycle shed have to do approving the nuclear power plant? That’s the point of the Law of Triviality. The complex task of reviewing the nuclear power plant plan is far more critical than which materials to use for the bicycle shed. But sometimes, we can’t help getting caught up in counterproductive discussions in group settings rather than focusing on the real matters at hand. 

You might also hear Parkinson’s Law of Triviality referred to as the bicycle-shed effect, bike-shed effect, or bike-shedding. These terms serve as a reminder of the details of Parkinson’s example — don’t waste time focusing on the details of the shed, but rather, the actual plan approval task itself. 

Let’s look at where and how we might see this come into play. You and your team are presenting to the board of directors in three weeks. The team has a general idea of the content and data they need to gather for the slide deck, but you still need to finalize the full agenda and content. 

You schedule a handful of planning and preparation meetings leading up to the big day. Your team knows there’s more than enough time to get the details hammered out for the first two weeks. So, planning meetings turn into design discussions around what fonts and colors to use in the slide deck. While these conversations may lead to a beautiful slide deck, the content itself is more important, and the team should’ve spent more time discussing it during the meetings. See how quickly group productivity can tank? 

How and why does work expand?

Studies support the idea that tasks expand to fill the time we give them, but why? For starters, procrastination runs rampant, and comes in many forms. You aren't alone if you’ve ever caught yourself wasting time scrolling through your social media feeds, rewriting the same email, or surfing the internet. 

Aside from procrastination, every project manager’s worst nightmare — scope creep — also comes into play. Sometimes the size of a project or task changes over time, especially if the deadline is far down the road. Tasks become increasingly complex when there’s more time than necessary to do them. 

And finally, we’d be remiss not to mention the effects of notifications and distractions on our productivity. Too many distractions, whether work-related or otherwise, prevent us from maintaining a sense of focus. 

Examples of Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s Law applies across industries and job roles. Even if you’re aware of Parkinson’s Law and why it happens, you aren’t immune to its impact and may fall victim to it occasionally. The first step to overcoming Parkinson’s Law is knowing how to identify it. Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Studying for an exam the night before

We run the rounds with Parkinson’s Law long before entering the workplace. One classic example is the old “I haven’t studied for my exam tomorrow yet,” sentiment. Whether in grade school, college, or for a certification program — if you’ve ever waited until the day before an exam to study, you were under the Parkinson’s Law spell and may not have even realized it. Some refer to this as student syndrome, and it impacts us even when our days as students are up. (And if this never happened to you, please teach me your ways!) 

Presentation preparation (or lack thereof) 

Suppose you’re a marketing director working on a rebranding for your company. Your leadership team set a launch date, and you have three months to pull the full rebranding presentation and materials together. This task is in addition to your regular to-do list items, so you do your best to balance all of the work on your plate, knowing that you can put the rebranding presentation off until it gets closer.

But as the deadline approaches, and you have weeks and then days left to finalize it, you realize you need more time to pull it together and are scrambling at the last minute. You end up pulling it off, but not without long nights filled with cups of coffee the week of, a general sense of disarray as you work on it, and a couple of typos in the final version.

Administrative tasks on overdrive

Many of us complete administrative tasks as part of our regular workload. This example is for you if you work in nearly any office role. Imagine you have a task that involves updating a spreadsheet by the end of the week. Your workload is lighter than usual this week, and your to-do list is relatively short. Your spreadsheet update is a familiar task that you complete every couple of months, and most of the time, it takes you somewhere between 30 and 45-minutes to finish. Since you have a lighter schedule, your quick task somehow spreads itself out over three full days (with distractions, breaks, and other work in between). Your updates also look fancier than usual this time around because once you finished the data entry aspect, you spent (unnecessary) time playing with fonts and formatting.

Length of the workweek

Many employees work a set number of hours per week. Whether it’s 40-hours, 32-hours, or another workweek structure, the point is that employers expect employees to work for a set period. Time-based workweeks assume that individuals should fill their workweek with tasks (even if one person works faster than another or does less complex work that requires less time). Sure, there will always be more work to do, but the trouble with this is that when employees don’t need a full workweek to complete their current to-do lists, they must fill their time. That’s where Parkinson’s Law kicks in. 

What Parkinson’s Law means for time management 

Overcoming Parkinson’s Law is no easy feat, but you can do it with the right tips and tricks. The best way to combat Parkinson’s Law is to become a master of your time. Think of it this way, in order to prevent work from expanding to your fill time; you need to obtain control over how you choose to spend your time. Get started with the four tips below.

1. Start tracking your time (and be honest about it!) 

Consider utilizing a time-tracking tool if you don’t already track your time, or at least have a general sense of how long a task should really take to complete. When you track your time, you’ll have better insight into how to strategically plan your work ahead of time. When you know ideally how long a task should take to complete, you can create better daily to-do lists and set milestones leading up to your final deadline along the way. For example, suppose a presentation will take you approximately four hours to complete based on previous data. In that case, you can split the work up over four different working sessions within your schedule. 

Note: If you haven’t tracked your time before, make sure you’re honest with yourself in the beginning. After reading this, you may be more aware of Parkinson’s Law in effect and feel tempted to press pause on your tracker while you scroll social media. Try to avoid cheating the system and observe your behavior rather than try to influence it while it’s happening. 

2. Leverage deadlines, even if they’re self-assigned.

Have you ever been assigned a task and given a “sooner rather than later” deadline or “sometime soon?” In these scenarios, it’s no wonder it takes longer than usual to complete a task knowing that a firm deadline for completion doesn’t exist. 

Even when you have set deadlines, if they are too far out in the future, Parkinson’s Law might tap you on the back at the last minute. Instead of buying into “I have plenty of time to do this,” start setting self-imposed due dates for specific actions. Even if they’re part of a larger project with a due date in the future, shorter deadlines will help keep you on track and keep you motivated to make progress. Tight deadlines can help boost motivation, improve productivity, facilitate teamwork, and boost confidence.

3. Try the timeboxing method. 

Timeboxing is a time management technique that’s quite literally the anti-Parkinson’s Law. With timeboxing, you determine how long you will spend working on a task or set of similar tasks before you start. Then, you get to work, and once the time is up, you move on to your next duties. Timeboxing counteracts Parkinson’s Law because it limits the amount of time you spend on a to-do item. (Pro-tip, you can use Clockwise to carve out a set number of Focus Time hours per week that you can repurpose for your timeboxing tasks).

4. And if timeboxing doesn’t work, try the Pomodoro Technique.

The Pomodoro Technique is another time management technique we love for getting ahead of wasted time. Put simply, the Pomodoro Technique emphasizes working on a task for 25-minutes straight, without interruption. After 25-minutes of work, you take a break for five minutes and then start another working interval (that’s one Pomodoro). After four or five Pomodoro sessions, you can take a more extended break of 15, 20, or 30-minutes. Much like timeboxing, this method helps insert finite boundaries into your work, helping to ensure that your tasks don’t take up more space in your schedule than they need.

Going forward 

Parkinson’s Law suggests that work expands to fill our time — but that doesn’t have to be the case. You can beat procrastination, scope creep, distractions, and other barriers that contribute to Parkinson’s Law. Overcome it and use it to your advantage by tracking your time, leveraging deadlines, and leaning into time management methods that center around time limits. Clockwise can help you set aside specified periods for your tasks and help you overcome Parkinson’s Law.

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