Have you ever crammed for a project at the last minute? Do you remember how stressful that was? I remember vividly this one time during senior year. I had a paper due and was given a month to do it. I found myself working on it a week before the deadline. I even finished the last pages while on my way to school. Imagine someone typing mercilessly on their laptop while in transit. That’s what I did. My dad drove me to school that morning and was worried I’d get a headache from typing while on the move. You might think I felt heroic at this moment. I’m not going to lie. I sure did. I felt it was mighty of me to still turn my paper in the nick of time. But a few minutes afterwards, I felt the fatigue and stress kick in. All because I ended up dragging an entire month to complete the task when I could finish it in a day or two.
If we examine our daily routines, we often see ourselves allocating more time than necessary to our tasks. We feel that if we have buffer time we’d be more comfortable figuring things out, especially for tasks that we don’t know how long would take. But the reality is we tend to inflate that buffer so much and the tendency for us is to stretch out the task to match the length of time we assign ourselves to do it. Oftentimes we come to realize that the amount of time it takes is far less than what we’ve estimated. This is what Parkinson’s Law is about.
What is Parkinson’s Law and How Work Expands to Fill the Time
In a 1955 essay for The Economist, British historian and author Cyril Northcote Parkinson shared his starking observation on the bureaucracy that he witnessed while working in the British Civil Service. He said, “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” This then became the focal point of one of his best-selling books Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress.
But what Parkinson observed more than 60 years ago is still true to this day. We treat work, especially information and knowledge-based work, as something elastic and we stretch it out to match the time allocated for it to be done. I tend to believe this is partly because of how we are wired to believe that the more time we work on something, the more hardworking we become. And we all want to be seen as hardworking to get that shiny new job at work, right?
When people are given more time to finish a task, they will most likely take advantage of that time. Sometimes they rework on it unnecessarily or overcomplicate things which would make it worse.
But the truth is working longer on something doesn’t equate to working hard on it. Working hard should equate to working smarter and more efficiently. And working smart means you can do more in less time. If we treat every task and subject it to Parkinson’s Law, we can assess just how much time is enough to complete the task instead of overinflating it and letting our productivity suffer.
How to Increase Your Productivity by Using Parkinson’s Law
Parkinson’s Law gives us a different lens on which to examine our tasks. Knowing our propensity to procrastinate and overinflate our task time estimates should lead us to rethink how we plan our work. Here are some tips on how you can improve your productivity and maximize your time and energy using the Parkinson’s Law.
Set Your Own Deadline
Your boss gave you until next week to submit a report but you estimate it’ll only take you about 4 hours to do it. Then do it under 4 hours. If you’re given a task with a specific deadline, set your artificial deadline. Setting your own deadline conditions your mind to focus and pushes you to do everything you can so that the deadline is met. Remember though that while you accomplish your work faster, the quality should not suffer.
You can also do this for your daily tasks. Setup a time limit for each item on your to-do list and work towards finishing it within the time limit. You may also explore using the Pomodoro Technique to help you gain hyper-focus by setting self-imposed time limits and deadlines.
Track Your Time
If you need more convincing about how much time a task would really take, let data do the talking. By tracking the time you spend on your task, you’re gaining data that you can use to estimate work for future tasks. You become more predictable in planning your schedules and meeting deadlines. There are a bunch of online time tracking tools you can use for this. Avoid trying to use your smartphone’s timer app because you might get tempted to answer message notifications or scroll through your social media feeds. If you want to use your phone, make sure you’re on Do Not Disturb mode when you’re working.
The reason most of us take longer than necessary to finish our tasks is because we’re distracted. There are a bunch of time-wasters and distractions that are easily accessible when we work. There’s your email inbox, your smartphone, your social media feed, a cluttered work desk, or a quick trip to the pantry becoming a half-hour catch up with a coworker. To stay focused, you need to eliminate or reduce all possible sources of distraction. Not only will this help you finish your work faster, but it will also prevent you from the harmful effects of task switching.
Use Time to Your Advantage and Get More Done
Proper time management is crucial to maintaining peak productivity. The more you’re aware of how much time a task really takes, the better you get at planning and getting your tasks done. Parkinson’s Law is a reminder to us that the time we spend on our work is our choice. We can either let time drag along or choose to roll up our sleeves and get to work. Productivity is a mindset game. Instead of thinking how much time you have to accomplish a task, you should think of how much time you need instead. Adapting this mindset will make a big difference the next time you plan for and execute your task. You’ll find that you can get more done in less time and be happier as you realize just how productive you can get.