What Is Parkinson’s Law?

If you have been doing some research into time management, it is highly likely that you will have encountered some references to Parkinson’s Law.

But what exactly is Parkinson’s Law?

Do a quick search and you’ll find that the commonly cited answer is:

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

In other words, if you have one day to complete a task, you will find a way to get it done in a day.

But if you give yourself a week, it will take the whole seven days to complete what could have been done in a day.

However, the annoying pedant in me does have a bit of a problem with this definition.

You see, this so-called “law” comes from an essay by a now-deceased gentleman by the name of Cyril Northcote Parkinson, published in The Economist in November 1955, the opening paragraph of which is as follows:

“It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Thus, an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and despatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half-an-hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the pillar-box in the next street. 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.”

Cyril Northcote Parkinson from the article entitled “Parkinson’s Law” in the Economist, 19th November 1955.

This is the part that that gets cited in countless articles and books about time management and productivity, but Parkinson hasn’t even got to his so-called “law” yet!

This bit is merely a preamble to illustrate a point about the relationship between time and (clerical) work before he gets into the core of his essay, which doesn’t really have a great deal to do with time management or productivity at all.

The actual “law”, which I sense was a bit of a tongue-in-cheek declaration on the part of the author anyway, was an attempt to explain an observation regarding the increasing bureaucratisation within the British Civil Service.

And that’s quite a specific and very niche topic!

If you’re interested, you can read the whole essay in the Economist archive here, but it won’t help you much with your time management and frankly, it’s not the most interesting of reads anyway.

So, the original intended meaning has kind of morphed into something else within the context of productivity and time management and I have seen it referred to in a number of books, such as “The 4-Hour Workweek” by Tim Ferriss and Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People”, to name couple that I have read so far.

And although I don’t think this ‘law’ as per the now commonly-accepted definition holds up to any real scrutiny due to the fact it is merely an observation that may apply sometimes to some people in some situations over some periods of time, I do think that as a concept, it may offer some value when it comes to managing time more effectively.

How To Use Parkinson’s Law?

How then, to use this “Parkinson’s Law” to better manage your time and become more productive?

Firstly, I think I need to point out (in case you hadn’t realized already) that the “law” does not really imply that the actual volume of work expands to fill the available time.

It’s more that we spread the volume of work across the time available.

And that’s because we all have a tendency to procrastinate, which is why when given a day to complete a task, we can get it done in a day, but if we’re given a week to complete the same task, it is highly probable that it won’t even get touched until the sixth day. (Of course, there are limits – some tasks are so big, that they simply cannot be completed in a day.)

So, there is something about deadlines that has some kind of impact on us mentally. Hence, (the albeit morphed, modern-day version of) Parkinson’s Law.

So, if we are conscious of this peculiar trait we seem to have as humans, maybe we can use it to our advantage?

Maybe we can set our own time limits, deadlines and constraints in order to simulate the focus and attention we can always seem to muster up at those times when the pressure is on and the deadlines are looming?

In other words, summon up this “power” at will?

I actually think we can with a bit of practice.

And here are some of the game-changing techniques you can implement to take advantage of Parkinson’s Law and get your Time Hack Hero powers revved up and become laser-focused on completing your tasks.

1. Time blocking

By scheduling a portion of your day to focus solely on one activity and forcing yourself to do as much as you possibly can within that given timeframe, this is creating the artificial deadline for yourself.

Read more about time blocking here.

2. Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique helps you to break down the block of time you have created for your activity into bite-sized chunks.

As humans, we have quite a limited span of attention, and using the Pomodoro Technique can help us to focus in short, but highly productive bursts, rather than attempt to complete a task over a longer period with frequent interruptions and lapses in attention.

Check out this post: What Is The Pomodoro Technique? >>>

Check out this post: Does The Pomodoro Technique Work? >>>

Make your intentions public. #accountability.
Make yourself accountable / Flickr

3. Make your deadlines public

This one seems to work really well for me personally.

If I have a goal and a completion date in mind, I don’t keep it to myself – I tell someone I know is definitely going to ask me how progress is going and if I have completed it yet.

This puts the pressure on because when I am asked, I don’t want to be embarrassed to say that I haven’t done it yet or that I have given up on it.

I want to be that person who when he says he’s going to do something, he does it.

Putting it out there creates a greater sense of accountability and creates an extra motivation to complete a task in a timely manner.

4. Limit your overall working day

This is a big part of managing your time well.

Allowing work to spill over into personal and family time, staying late in the office and bringing work home is a form of work expanding into the available time.

Don’t make personal time available to your working life and use that philosophy to focus well and work efficiently enough during work hours to ensure that does not happen.

Check out this post: How To Set Boundaries At Work >>>

Time Hack Hero Takeaway

While I believe that the definition of Parkinson’s Law has been skewed over time, the concept that the amount of time we have to perform a task is the amount of time it will take to complete the task is still valid when it comes to time management, regardless of what name you want to give it.

Fabricating a sense of pressure and scarcity of time may provide the impetus to help us to complete tasks quicker and more efficiently. This is because the time limitation then forces us to focus only on those things that produce results, rather than devoting time to the non-essential stuff.

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