We all know this one...
And even if it doesn’t ring a bell, I can assure you, you’ve definitely experienced it before!
Parkinson’s Law; the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”, was first coined by Cyril Northcote Parkinson as part of an essay published in The Economist in 1955. Apparently, it was part of the opening line! Originally part of a mathematical equation describing the growth of bureaucracy in an organization, Parkinson’s Law can be applied to literally everything.
Think about it.
If you’ve got a simple task that might take an hour to do, but you allocate yourself 2 hours, it’s going to take 2 hours.
You’ve moved into a larger house, at first there is a lot of empty space available, soon enough, the house is full of things.
Your needs will expand so that you end up spending that pay rise you’ve just got.
I think you get my drift.
When we feel tasks expanding, there are quite a few strategies you can use to make Parkinson's Law work for you instead of against.
Flip it and reverse it
Interestingly, Parkinson’s Law also works the other way around too. If you take that same task that should be completed in an hour, and give yourself 45mins, it’s very likely you’ll finish that task. This is the case as your focus is intensified.
It’s also likely that the quality of your work is the same. I can say I’ve tried, tested and proved this on numerous occasions!
Set aggressive deadlines.
And revise them as you go.
This is the next step to the flip it and reversing it tip. The pressure of an imminent deadline may be the ultimate jump start that you need. Start with setting aggressive deadlines for the most critical tasks first. Make sure you don't compromise quality - it's important to be realistic, but push yourself! When you're up against the clock, your mind will do what it can to make it happen!
Clarify your role and responsibilities clearly
For all projects, but especially those that involve a lot of people, it's crucial to outline responsibilities clearly. This should be done at the start of the project, but may need to be revisited as the project evolves. Knowing your responsibilities, as well as others, will hopefully help to keep everyone accountable and on task.
What's in (and out of) scope?
Is Parkinson's Law a fancy term for procrastination? Ah, yep.
As work expands to fill in the time, you may be finding yourself filling it with things that are out of scope. Hence, the importance of outlining what is in scope at the project kickoff. Do this as a team so that everyone is equipped to call out what is outside of scope.
Forget the 9-5
Knowing that you have exactly 8 hours to accomplish your work, means you will fill 8 hours. If you had 6, you would fill 6. Again, think about what you want the output to be, rather than the input of your time. It's not about working 9-5, it's about focusing on what matters and doing so with clear deadlines.
Use this knowledge for good
Being aware of (or heck, let's try to break it!) Parkinson’s Law is a useful approach to try to achieve more. A few ways I try to use it to improve my productivity are:
- Time blocking: I’ve been time blocking way before I knew it was even a thing. Block out time to concentrate on tasks? It just made sense to me. When I add a task onto Llama Life, I also have to decide how long that task will take to complete. In that moment I consider, how much time will this task take me, not how much time do I have? Never allow tasks to have open ended timeframes!
- Observe time: Whilst you're time blocking, take note of how long tasks are taking to complete. This is really easy if you use a tool like Llama Life, which has a timer to show you how long you are spending on tasks. This knowledge will help you timeblock more efficiently!
- Have specific start and end times for work: By having set, non-negotiable times I’ve committed to work, it forces me to be really selective with my to-do list each day.
- Use it to fuel competition: For those of us who enjoy a bit of good ol’ competition ☝🏻 even if it’s with yourself 😅 , pick a task you do often, and see if you can do it quicker next time
- For people leaders: If you’re a people leader, consider this law when delegating work and setting deadlines. Put smaller projects into the context of larger goals. Create timelines in days rather than weeks.
Remember, no one is immune to Parkinson’s Law!
But you can anticipate it, find ways to recognise it, and then use it to your advantage.
Don't beat yourself up! Give the tips above a go, and use tools that will help you to be more aware of your time, like Llama Life. If you have other tips to overcome Parkinson's Law, please share 🙏🏼