Parkinson’s Law is the idea that work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion. This may mean you take longer than necessary to complete a task or you procrastinate and complete the task right before the due date. In this guide, we’ll explain how Parkinson’s Law works and provide tips for getting work done in less time.
Have you ever put off a project until the last minute even though you knew it would only take a few hours to complete? That’s procrastination at its finest, but it’s also Parkinson’s Law in action. When you have time, you take it. You either use the time to complete the task more slowly or you procrastinate and complete the task right before the due date.
Unfortunately, deadlines don't always increase our productivity, but understanding Parkinson’s Law and finding ways to overcome it can. In this guide, we’ll explain how Parkinson’s Law works and provide tips for getting your work done in less time.
Parkinson’s Law is the idea that your work will expand to fill the time allotted for its completion. This law can come into play when juggling work deadlines or managing projects.
Say, for example, you’re given a two-week deadline to complete a project proposal. You may be relieved knowing you have ample time. However, the distant deadline causes you to take longer than necessary to complete the task at hand, or you procrastinate and complete it just barely before the due date. In other words, the task expands to fill the time you’re given.
Cyril Northcote Parkinson was a British naval historian who first introduced Parkinson’s Law in a satirical essay written for “The Economist” in 1955. He then went on to write a book titled, Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress. His story in the essay involves a woman whose sole task for the day is to send a postcard.
Because she has the entire day to complete this task, she spends an hour finding the card, half an hour finding her glasses, 90 minutes writing the card, and so forth until she fills her day. His story is meant to explain how work expands to fill the time allotted. While Parkinson’s example may sound extreme, we’ve all experienced this at a smaller scale.
Studies suggest that when given a task, we think of how much time is available to complete the task instead of how much time we actually need. This mindset results in wasted time and inefficient workflows. This is often why we, as humans, feel the need to take all the time we’re given to complete a task even if it doesn’t require that much time.
Parkinson’s Law applies to pretty much everything. No one is immune to Parkinson’s Law until they recognize it and find ways to personally overcome it. You can recognize examples of Parkinson’s Law across teams in marketing or design, and you can also see it rearing its head on a larger scale in enterprise organizations.
Though there are ways to overcome Parkinson’s Law, the specific work you do will direct how you combat Parkinson’s Law. Take a look at three examples, as well as the solutions to those particular situations.
Say you’re a marketing manager working on a new client pitch. You have a one-month deadline to gather all of the materials necessary for your presentation. This deadline gives you plenty of time to prepare, but because you have a few other urgent tasks on your plate, you put the pitch off. The deadline then creeps up and you scramble to complete the pitch at the last minute.
In a different scenario, you have no other tasks on your plate, so you take the entire month to work on the pitch. Although the pitch feels complete after the first two weeks, you have the extra time, so you continue adding details here and there until the deadline approaches. Your work has now expanded to fill the time allotted.
Potential solution: Marketing team members can work together to realistically determine how long a project should take, instead of setting an arbitrary deadline. Focusing on the amount of time necessary for a project instead of the due date can increase productivity and prevent inefficiency.
If you’re a designer, this example is for you. Imagine you have a lookbook to complete within two weeks. As a creative, you take pride in your work and your goal is to make every project perfect. You may never feel like your projects are fully finished because you can always find something to correct or improve.
Deadlines come in handy for you because they help you stay on track; however, you always allow your work to expand until the last minute because you become enthralled in every project.
Potential solution: If you involve the client early on in the design process, you can prevent yourself from spending unnecessary time on your designs. Adding benchmarks for client or manager check-ins can give you feedback so you know how much progress you’ve made and when to stop.
Most companies operate under the 40-hours-a-week model. This model assumes that the majority of jobs require the same amount of time to complete tasks each week.
Is it realistic to think that work in the marketing field and the medical field both require eight hours a day? Are these jobs equally complex? The short answer is no. Parkinson’s Law is active all around us. Some people are busy 40 hours a week, while others use time management to their advantage to complete tasks in less time.
Potential solution: Consider using the Pareto principle, which states that roughly 80% of outcomes come from 20% of causes. Focusing on impactful work vs. time spent on work can result in increased productivity.Read: 18 time management tips, strategies, and quick wins to get your best work done
You can use specific strategies to overcome Parkinson’s Law and better utilize your time. When you stop letting your work expand to fill your time, you can finish your tasks quicker and use your leftover time to relax or move on to other tasks.
When you strategically plan your work ahead of time, you’re less likely to procrastinate and more likely to work in an efficient manner. Creating a plan can help you manage your time, assess how long tasks will take, and plan them out accordingly.
In your plan, you should outline:
Your SMART goals
Your list of tasks and actions
The timeline for completion
Specific dates you’ll check in on progress
The first step in overcoming Parkinson’s Law is to set self-imposed deadlines. Instead of thinking in the mindset of “how much time do I have?” start thinking about much time you realistically need for each task and set your own deadlines accordingly.
To figure out the time you actually need for a task, first:
Understand the project requirements: You’ll need a broad sense of what’s required of you to determine how long you’ll need for a project. This step involves creating a list of all the subtasks and activities within the larger project.
Prioritize activities and tasks accordingly: Once you have a list of your project requirements, you can prioritize your to-do list and determine which tasks are most important and/or complex. You should place the tasks that take the most time at the top of your list.
Decide who you need to involve: If parts of your project require help from coworkers, you’ll need to assess who to involve. Reaching out to your team at the beginning of your project can save you time later on.
Make your time estimates: You should now have a solid understanding of the who, what, and how involved in your upcoming project. You can now make realistic time estimates for completion based on your workload and your personal productivity level.
Think of your tasks as short-term goals to complete—the faster you complete them, the more available time you’ll have to use for other things.Manage and prioritize tasks with Asana
Timeboxing is a productive work strategy that can help you fight procrastination, reclaim lost productivity, and focus on the work that matters.
Timeboxing involves setting a goal to finish a task within a certain time frame. When you plan how long a task should take before starting it, you become more intentional about your work. You can use timeboxing to schedule individual tasks, help your team get organized, or manage meetings more effectively.Read: How to prioritize your most important work
SImilar to timeboxing, the Pomodoro Technique involves focused work sessions with frequent short breaks, with the objective of boosting your productivity while reducing mental fatigue. This technique uses 25-minute work sessions and five-minute breaks to maximize focus.
The five-step approach to managing your time with the Pomodoro Technique includes:
Create a list of tasks ordered by importance
Set a timer to 25 minutes
Work on a task for the duration of the timer
Take a five minute break
After four pomodoros, take a 15-30 minute break
Using a task management tool is a great way to organize your workday, schedule personal deadlines, and ensure you have enough time to manage your priorities. You can also make to-do lists and stay on track with projects, whether through team collaboration or for personal projects.
Overcoming Parkinson’s Law is essential if you want to take control of your time and increase the amount of work you’re able to complete. If you finish tasks before the deadline, you can use your extra time to get ahead on work or take a break. The goal is to be more efficient, not to overwork yourself.
Once you understand what Parkinson’s Law is and how it works, you can use it to your advantage. With the right strategies in place like proactive scheduling, personal deadlines, and task prioritization, you can accomplish more work in less time and achieve better work-life balance.Manage and prioritize tasks with Asana