Have you ever heard of Parkinson’s Law? No matter what you work on, you should.
Parkinson’s Law was developed by Cyril Northcote Parkinson. Thus, the name. It is the part of the first sentence of an essay published in The Economist in 1955. It has since been quoted many times.
What is Parkinson’s Law?
The law is this: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
Understanding Parkinson’s Law can push your productivity to new heights. If you know how to leverage it to your advantage.
Parkinson studied the growth of employees in the British Colonial Office during the decline of the British empire. He noted that the number of employees in the office rose despite less and less Colonies to administer. He explained it like this: “An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals” and “Officials make work for each other.”
That is why, in a bureaucracy the number of people (=the total number of available work hours) rises “irrespective of any variation in the amount of work (if any) to be done.”
A bureaucracy in this understanding is not only public institutions. Any organization is in part bureaucracy: A global corporation, an NGO, a start-up company, even neighborhood club.
Applying Parkinson’s Law to your work
Parkinson’s law not only explains the growth of organizations. It also sheds light on many aspects of procrastination. It is a warning call to over-engineering, paralysis by analysis and excessive planning. If plenty of time is available, we tend not to focus completely on the task at hand but to daddle around. Having a lot of time also intensifies excessive planning and unneeded perfectionism.
The good thing is this: If you are aware of Parkinson’s Law, you can leverage it to your advantage.
Using Parkinson’s Law on a personal level
As work fills the available time, the first thing to do is to limit the time you have available for every task at hand. Even if you are already productive, you can usually still increase your output by reducing the time you allow yourself. There are several ways to limit available time. I will discuss the most effective here. Of course, the can all be combined.
Deadlines are golden
Many people see deadlines as dreading. You should see them as your friends. If you are in a position where others do not set deadlines for you, the first thing to do for every task and project is to set a deadline yourself. Prefer shorter and challenging deadlines. If you get external deadlines, you might consider shortening them for yourself. Only with a clear commitment to a deadline, you can be sure that you have a cut-off time where work must end, and the output is ready.
Increase commitment to your own deadlines
The effectiveness of external deadlines comes from the fact that they are controlled. Something bad happens when you break them. You can increase commitment to your own deadlines the same way. Find an accountability partner who controls your deadlines.
Make sure to find the right type of person. You should respect him or her and feel bad about disappointing them. And it shouldn’t be a nice guy. Your partner must have the guts to push you hard. If you want to get super committed, you could also hand it out a significant amount of money to this person. Ask him to donate it to an organization you do not want to support in case you fail. This could be the NRA if you are an opponent to gun ownership for example. Important: There are no negotiations afterwards.
Other, less drastic ways are publishing your deadlines or making them a game through using habit trackers.
Set budgets to get the positive effect of Parkinson’s Law
Related to setting deadlines is defining budgets. While a deadline gives you a fixed day or time at which you need to be finished, budgets define the amount of work input that is allowed for a project or task. Obviously, this sets a limit. Estimating the needed time is difficult, however. That is why so many projects are way off budget. On a personal or task level it gets easier. Setting budgets will give you the most value in this area.
You probably also have some tasks which fall in the category of what I call “infinity tasks”. These are tasks which could, theoretically be done forever. They have no clear end and perfection can never be reached. Examples are “doing research on topic x” or “refining my article on y”. If you do not limit the time for these topics, you will likely end up using more time than necessary.
Reduce time allowed for recurring tasks
Measuring the time needed to perform a regular tasks and chores can be the start to a continuous improvement process. As soon as you know the time needed, you will enter a competition with yourself. Reduce the time allowed by one to five percent each time you do this task. Do this until you are sure, you’ve reached your physical limit. This can even be fun and make tedious tasks more interesting.
Time blocking means reserving a specific time of a day for a specific task or project. As you need to define a concrete time slot to be able to block it in your calendar, it supports setting a budget. As soon as you not only understand the block as a reservation to be able to work on a project, but also as your commitment to finish it in this timeframe, it sets a healthy constraint to yourself. This triggers efficiency and creativity.
The pomodoro technique is a very simple, yet effective tool to limit time and get things done. You select a task. Then, you set a timer on 25 minutes. You work concentrated on this task for exactly this time. Afterwards you take a break of 5 minutes. It not only helps to get going, but also allocates a specific time towards working on a task. Thus, it can be very helpful in combination with setting a budget and time blocking.
Timer for calls and meetings
Calls and meetings often get out of hand. Sometimes, you only wanted to quickly clarify a minor topic with a colleague and end up talking twenty minutes about something else. To counter this and get into a habit of focusing on what you wanted, set a timer. As soon as it rings, you know you need to get to finish your call. This is also effective for meetings which tend to take more time than scheduled. You should talk about the timer in the beginning of the meeting with the other participants, so they are fine with the constraint.
Define the output clearly
In all projects there are three constraints: time, cost, and scope. It is essential to be clear about the scope of each task or project at the beginning. If the wanted output, the deliverable is not clearly defined, it becomes a moving target. Thus, you might end up producing much more than intended or even needed. Especially all “infinity tasks” which do not have a clear end point, need an output goal.
Plan and analyze with caution
Planning and analyzing are the two most dangerous infinity tasks out there. The fact is this: There is no perfect plan, no perfect analysis. You could always dig a little deeper, make it a little more precise, add some more data, research a little more. While some degree of planning and analyzing is essential to get direction, excessive planning will inevitably lead to analysis paralysis. Some people even use planning and analyzing as an excuse for not to get going on the real work.
It’s good to understand a situation. It’s fine to plan. Just do not overdo it.
Keep your task management simple
Related to staying lean on the big plans is a healthy skepticism towards complex task management systems. You should not need several minutes to sort, categorize, and schedule a task. If you do, you have propped yourself in an overcomplicated way of doing things. Consider trying a simpler form of self organization. The essentials of a personal productivity system are very lean.
Focus on 80% solutions
In many cases, you can achieve 80 % of a perfect solution with 20 % of the effort. In contrast you often need 80 % of the time to add the final 20 %. Make sure, to keep that in mind. Often, 80 % are good enough. Sometimes even less. And if you can get by with an 85 % or 90 % solution, you still safe enormous amounts of time. Ask yourself, which outputs of your jobs do need perfection, and which do not. Where can you get along with a less than perfect solution, saving time and energy for more important tasks? Whenever possible, do not strive for perfection. Produce the quality needed to fulfill the purpose.
Using Parkinson’s Law with your team
Parkinson formulated his law in relation to large bureaucracies. But of course, it also applies to smaller teams. Here is what you can do to fight the law with your co-workers.
Deadlines are golden, budgets as well
All measures for your personal efforts to make productive use of your time also apply to your team. Make sure to have deadlines and budgets assigned for all tasks. Pay special attention to infinity tasks, planning and over-engineering.
Personal interaction and discussions are necessary to collaborate. Yet, the meeting culture present in many organizations is not. Lengthy discussions and bla bla are often a result of too much available time. Your meetings tend to run in circles and are filled with endless politics? Maybe, they are only too long. Try cutting the allocated time in half, see what happens. Then do it again. You will see that many topics can be dealt with in much shorter periods of time.
Question internal work
Internal work is everything which does not directly benefit your customers. Every team needs some internal work to stay organized, to set directions and to fulfill legal requirements. The thing is, over time new internal tasks, routines and processes are added on a regular basis. If not checked, they will continue to grow and will eat into your ability to get the real thing done. Question all internal processes regularly. Remove obsolete procedures and simplify the rest.
Cut budgets to decrease the time variable in Parkinson’s Law
Cutting budgets is unpopular. Even so, it can be very effective. If your team seems to be too slow in certain spheres of work, consider setting and reducing their budget for it. Especially for internal work, this can work wonders. You should proceed with sensitivity here as you risk cutting motivation with the budget.
Work in iterations
Working in iterations is a good way to make smaller time budgets more doable. You can focus on a minimum viable product and improve it later only in those areas that are really relevant for your customers.
Let us sum up
Questioning the work done, setting deadlines and budgets, and a commitment to simplicity are the key to make Parkinson’s Law work for you, not against you.
Get more done in less time.