Parkinson’s Law: What it is and how to beat it

What is Parkinson’s Law?

Well, it’s the concept that “work will expand to fill the time available for its completion”.

Firstly, a little bit of history – the term was first coined by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in 1955. He shared a funny story of a woman who took all day to send a postcard. Now a busy person could have written and sent a postcard in five minutes, but this woman spends an hour finding the right card, another half hour looking for her glasses, an hour and a half writing the card, 20 minutes deciding whether to take a brolly with her to the mailbox and on and on until her day is filled.

An updated example might be that you have two weeks to prepare and present a report … chances are you’ll work on it bit by bit over the two weeks taking much more time than necessary. If the same report was due in two days’ time, guaranteed you’d still have enough time to get the job done because you would knuckle down and just do it. That’s Parkinson’s Law in action!

This is why supervisors quite often decide to give more work to extra busy people because they know it will get done!

Another example of Parkinson’s Law in action is a student who has an assignment due in a month … they work on it, pretty unproductively [if at all] until the last few days, when they pull one or two all-nighters and manage to get it done at the last minute!

So now we know what Parkinson’s Law is, how do we beat it? Here are my top four tips:

  1. Break down your tasks and deadlines
    Parkinson’s Law nearly always rears its ugly head when you have enormous tasks with long deadlines. So, break the project down into smaller tasks and assign due dates to them. This way you have more manageable work tasks that are due in the shorter term.
  2. Try work sprints
    I’m a huge advocate for work sprints. Set a timer, turn off notifications and other distractions and get stuck in.
  3. Create incentives to finish early
    Promise yourself a little reward if you finish early. It could be as simple as taking a quick break, some online shopping or going for a walk. Do whatever you feel like and enjoy it knowing you deserve it. In doing this, we’re associating rewards with results – not with time spent! So think about telling yourself “when I’ve finished xyz” rather than “when I work for an hour”
  4. Use a task management tool
    Get your tasks and deadlines into a task management tool. Break them down into specific tasks with specific due dates, that way, you know exactly what needs to be done and by when. My go-to is Asana. It’s a free tool that will keep you and your tasks on track, but there are plenty of great options available.

Now that you’re aware of Parkinson’s Law and the effect it has on your productivity, you can work with it – and beat it too!