We say time is our most precious resource, yet our behavior and actions suggest otherwise. We waste time with haphazard and unfocused behavior but complain about how busy we are. We agonize over losing a few dollars but disregard the immense cost of poor time management. Only when we face an impending time crunch do we realize the cost of our wastefulness. Parkinson’s Law helps explain why we are so ineffective at allocating our time.
Cyril Parkinson, a British naval historian, first mentioned Parkinson’s Law in The Economist magazine in 1955. Parkinson’s Law states – “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” As Parkinson stated, “It is the busiest man who has time to spare.” (1) Parkinson extensively researched the growth of bureaucracies in Great Britain. Parkinson found that just as the growth of bureaucrats had little relationship to the increase in the actual amount of government work, the time allocated to a project had little relationship to the actual work necessary to complete the project.
As Parkinson describes -
Thus, an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and dispatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spend 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 nearest mailbox in the next street. The total effort that 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. (1)
We’ve experienced the effect of this law in our own lives. If given 4 weeks to finish a project, we’ll take the full 4 weeks to finish the project. We’ll spend the first 3 weeks going through superficial tasks and then spend the last week in a hyper-focused sprint to meet our deadline. Ultimately, the work required one week’s time, yet it expanded to four. So why didn’t we get the work done in that first week? Parkinson’s Law highlights a few uncomfortable observations about our behavior and habits.
First, our behavior is often on autopilot – we do what we are accustomed to doing without ever challenging the reasons why. We don’t examine our actions because we don’t receive adequate feedback to reveal our inefficiencies. We don’t engage in deliberate thought to decide if what we are doing really makes logical sense. We need to create feedback and strategically choose what we do.
Second, we rely too much on willpower. Those who struggle with time management often blame themselves and resolve to “work harder” next time. However, this reaction is shortsighted. We believe we can “willpower” our way to efficient performance, but studies show that willpower is unreliable and exhaustible. It’s rarely there when we need it.
Third, we neglect the role of our environment on our actions. Most people assume the outside environment has no effect on what you do. Once again, our intuition is incorrect. For example, the ease of access to our phone and Internet delays hard, focused activity by substituting frivolous and mindless media consumption. In addition, we fail to create deadlines and schedules for our critical activities. We assume we’ll just get to our major projects, but instead allow ourselves to be dominated by emails and emergencies. The rule is - if we don’t schedule it, it won’t get done.
Deadlines improve our performance. They provide external motivation and a necessary goal to direct our effort. It’s hard to engage in focused work if we don’t know where we want to end up. Also, if we don’t have urgent deadlines, we lack a sense of urgency to get things done. We allow urgent, but unimportant tasks, to fill our time. Our brain is always looking for the easiest path. If a project requires significant strategic thought, our brain will want to shift to an easier task, such as mindless internet use. This tendency stalls any progress on meaningful projects. Deadlines and definitive schedules nudge our behavior in the right direction.
How do you use Parkinson’s Law to your advantage?
The goal of understanding Parkinson’s Law is not to dwell on our mistakes but to understand how our mind and environment can lead us astray. How can we use Parkinson’s Law to improve our own life? What internal bureaucracies hinder our development and how can we remove them?
We create our own personal inefficiencies because we revert to activities that provide no value in achieving our goals. And more importantly, we don’t realize we are doing it. As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has shown, we rarely understand what makes us happy, even though that seems obvious to most of us. For example, we think unscheduled free time makes us happier than at work, but we are more fulfilled while working than with free time. As he stated in his book, Finding Flow, “Having leisure at one’s disposal does not improve the quality of life unless one knows how to use it effectively, and it is by no means something one learns automatically.” (2)
We live on autopilot and rarely examine the rationale for our actions. It’s always easy to identify other’s mistakes, but let’s make sure we fix our own inept behavior first.
Use Artificial Deadlines
The most effective practical change I recommend is to set aggressive deadlines for your critical activities. Shrink the available time to force focus and effectiveness. Aggressive deadlines also challenge your assumptions of what it takes to complete a project. If something is usually done in 2 hours, are you sure it can’t be done an hour? You may dismiss that possibility, but have you ever proved it? Remember how much activity and behavior goes unchallenged and unexamined. Your behavior, habits, and expectations aren’t grounded in evidence but in routine and complacency. We don’t think enough about our habits. We do things because it’s the way it’s always been done.
Aggressive deadlines force yourself to find leverage points – the point where a given amount of effort has a large and outsized effect on production. It’s a version of Pareto’s 80/20 law – 80% of the value is driven by 20% of the activity. Narrow down your actions to the core 20% and you will dramatically increase your output. Aggressive deadlines cut away the frivolous actions, sharpening your focus on what matters.
Imagine if all the 1-hour meetings you attended were cut in half to 30 minutes. All 30-minute meetings cut down to 15 minutes. How much substance would really be lost? Shorter times would force efficient preparation and concise presentations. Aggressive deadlines cut away the dead weight by focusing on what matters. It’s a gentle behavioral nudge to focus on what matters.
Some will argue that certain topics need long meetings. While I agree, I remind readers that the point is to force yourself to prove that meetings need the full time. If you have never tested the meeting length, you should do so instead of assuming its efficiency. Create a testable condition and see if you pass. I think you’ll find even the most important meetings have a lot of misdirected activity ready for elimination.
One of Parkinson’s notable observations is that the time spent in a meeting on an item is inversely proportional to its value.1 Attendees have a propensity to vehemently debate the minutia. Most of us have first-hand experience with meeting being sidetracked by irrelevant debates.
Unfortunately, we also do this to ourselves with our own behavior. We set a major goal, but we get lost in the irrelevant details. If our goal is to increase our workouts, we tend to spend less time working out and more time on superficial tasks - building the ultimate music playlist or assembling the best workout outfit. Our mind loves to substitute easy, fun tasks in place of the demanding real work. I’d remember this rule of thumb – if your activity isn’t demanding or stressful, it’s likely to be part of the irrelevant minutia. The more challenging your effort, the more likely you are engaged in valuable, rewarding activity.
(2) From the book Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi