How to Outsmart Parkinson’s Law

parkinson's law “Work expands to fill the time available for completion.”

Parkinson’s Law is the notion that “work is elastic” – that the relationship between the work to be done and the amount of time it will take to do it is related to the amount of time one is given to complete the work (Parkinson, 1955).  

In other words, the deadline for a work project dictates that amount of time you will use to complete that project.  So, if you have 2 weeks to get a report done, you’ll take all of the 2 weeks to complete it; if you have 2 hours to complete that same report, you’ll take 2 hours to complete it.  Or to the extreme, the Stock–Sanford corollary to Parkinson’s Law says that “If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do” (Baker, 2011).  Obviously, you can’t get a report done in a minute – but you see the point, I’m sure.

C. Northcote Parkinson was a British naval historian, the Raffles Professor of History at the University of Singapore, and a scholar who made this observation in reference to organizational bureaucracy. He first presented his law in an essay in The Economist in 1955 (Parkinson, 1955). 

Baker outlined a couple of reasons for why Parkinson’s Law affects us.  One, the sense of urgency decreases when there is a lot of time to complete the work (“I’ve got plenty of time to start on this…”). Two, the time allotted equates to a psychological perception of the complexity of the effort required to get the work done (“I was given two weeks to get this done, so it will require so much energy, more decisions, more planning!”).  Both of these “human tendencies” work against us when we are working on a deadline.

Working Smarter to Form Better Work Habits

First, Be Honest With Yourself.  You know if you tend to procrastinate or leave things to the last minute; there’s something you can do about that!  Identify the work that needs to be done and then be as realistic as possible about the amount of time it will take to accomplish the work. 

If you have a recurring task, you may already have an idea of what’s realistic for you. If not, experiment.  Keep track of how long it really takes you to complete your work projects so that you have a more realistic estimate for future planning.

Reverse Engineer Your Schedule.  I talked about this method in my previous post about the 7 strategies to stay focused.  Work backward from the deadline to schedule the time you need to complete the task. And then commit to keeping to your schedule!  Seriously, once I started reverse engineering and planning which tasks I would focus on each day to get my projects done, I’ve been much less stressed. Buy yourself a good planner system and use it!

“What gets scheduled gets done”  Michael Hyatt

Increase Your Sense Of Urgency.  If you tend to work until the last possible moment before the deadline, Baker suggested that you increase your sense of urgency by decreasing the amount of time you allot to the task.  For example, if you think something will take you 5 days, only assign yourself 4 days to complete it.  Not only does work expand to the time allotted, but the converse, work contracts to the time allotted is true as well!  Seth Godin illustrated this same principle by saying “If you want to do less of something, then, get a smaller bowl.” 

Be Focused!  Use some or all of the strategies I mentioned in my 7 strategies to stay focused post.  Break the project up into small steps; limit or turn off distractions; use a timer to set a dedicated amount of time to work on your project, etc.  See that post for details and other strategies and get the free cheat sheet for quick reference. 

Set An Early Deadline to Build in Buffers.   Parkinson’s Law supposes that if you have a lot of time to get something done, you’ll take every minute of that time.  But if you contract the time you have to do something – that is, give yourself less time to complete the task, thus increasing the urgency of the task – you can get the work done sooner.  

So get in the habit of completing your work before the deadline.  Set a deadline for yourself that is 1 or 2 days before the actual deadline – or better yet, a week before!  “This not only increases your sense of urgency and gets the task done faster, but creates a time cushion for handling problems, making corrections, or fine-tuning” (Baker, 2011). 

I like this time hack a lot – it’s like setting your watch ahead so that you show up for appointments on time.  If you get the project done early – YAY!  You have some time to relax and celebrate – I mean, what a sense of relief!  And you have the luxury of putting the project aside for a day and then proofreading one more time before submission.  This is a win all around!

One Caveat: Don’t Sacrifice Quality For Speed (Baker, 2011)  

While outsmarting your tendency to procrastinate and getting work done early are worthy goals, you still want to produce quality work.  Parkinson’s Law doesn’t mean that more time spent on a project equals greater quality.  How good the final product is is up to you, no matter how much time you had to do it.  You have to figure out how to be effective (producing quality work) and efficient (by working smarter, not harder or longer). 

 

Changing habits to increase your productivity takes time. Use focused work strategies and the life hacks above to decrease your stress and get your work done with time to spare.   Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”  Get started today with just one small step and you’ll be on your way to working smarter and not harder.

Question: Which ways will you work smarter and not harder?  Share your thoughts in the Comments!

References

Baker, J. (2011, November). Fighting Parkinson’s law. http://www.bakercommunications.com/newsletter/articles/timemanagement080111.html

Godin, S. (2015, September 17). Serving size [Blog]. http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2015/09/serving-size.html

Parkinson, C. N. (1955, November 19). Parkinson’s Law.  http://www.economist.com/node/14116121

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