Do you struggle to be productive and get the work done that will enable you to reach your goals?
Maybe you tend to scroll social media when you should be working. Maybe you’re drowning because you underestimated the scope of a project. Or maybe you aren’t doing much work because you think there’s no need to rush–you have all week, month, or year long to finish.
If these situations sound familiar, you may have fallen prey to Parkinson’s Law.
Coined by a British historian in the 1950s, this law says that work expands to fill the time available for its completion.
Scientific studies have verified this theory. And for you, it means that if you make the costly mistake of allotting too much time for your projects, you’ll never get anything done.
But wait–there’s good news! With some careful planning, you can flip this law on its head and actually leverage the principle for good.
Here, you’ll learn how to use Parkinson’s Law to increase your productivity and happiness, helping you get more done and quickly reach your goals.
Understanding Parkinson’s Law
Before you can start using Parkinson’s Law for good, you need to fully understand what this law is.
What Is Parkinson’s Law?
Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion.
Essentially, this law means that no matter how much time you’ve allocated for your work, that’s how long your work will take.
For example, if you give yourself a year to write a novel, that’s most likely how long it will take you to write cover to cover. If you give yourself two months, though, chances are you’ll get that book completed a lot faster.
Now, this rule doesn’t always apply. You don’t want to give yourself two weeks to write a full 70,000-word novel and expect to get it done, right? You still want to make sure you’re setting realistic timelines for your goals by using the SMART Goals method.
Instead, Parkinson’s Law should be used to help you improve your productivity by thinking about realistic yet challenging goals. The idea is to set some sort of time limit rather than just leaving all of your goals, plans, and tasks open-ended.
Parkinson’s Law can be a helpful time management tool to help complete tasks on your to do list and improve your own deadlines.
History of Parkinson’s Law
To get a better understanding of Parkinson’s law, let’s look back on how it came to be.
Parkinson’s Law was first defined by a British historian named Cyril Northcote Parkinson. Parkinson had spent time in the British Civil Service, and in 1955 he wrote an essay in The Economist about what he’d learned. The opening line of the humorous essay read: “It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
Parkinson drew on his personal experience as a British historian for his writing.
In the British Civil Service, he’d noticed that while the service had less ships and less personnel, the number of bureaucrats was increasing by 6% per year. He argued that companies who had all their workforce in bureaucracy and none in production would not survive.
How It Works
Now that you have a better understanding of what Parkinson’s law is and how it came to be, let’s dive deeper into how it works.
Parkinson shared an example of what Parkinson’s Law might look like in practice. He wrote about an elderly lady who decided she wanted to write a postcard to mail to her niece. For most of us, this task would probably take a quick fifteen minutes. But because this retired woman had nothing else to do, she gave herself the whole day to write it, and it did, indeed, take her the entire day!
Studies have proved that Parkinson’s Law holds up. In a 1996 study, participants were “accidentally” given either five or fifteen minutes to complete a task that could easily be done in five. The subjects who had more time spent a significantly greater amount of time actually working on the task.
Another study in 1999 had similar results. Subjects were given four sets of photos to examine. Some subjects were told the fourth set of photos was canceled right before they began examining the third set. These people spent more time with the third set of photos.
Parkinson’s Law is more than just a theory. Scientific evidence backs it up. And if you’re struggling to complete your tasks in less time, you may be falling into the negative effects of Parkinson’s law.
Negative Effects of Parkinson’s Law
While Parkinson’s law can have a positive impact on both personal productivity and group productivity, there are some negative aspects of Parkinson’s Law to be aware of.
If you know you have a longer amount of time to complete a certain task, you’re going to be much more likely to procrastinate that task. You’ll drag it out, put it off, or fiddle around to fill the time instead of buckling down to get the work done. You won’t feel as motivated to do the work.
When you have extra time to finish a job, you might also be tempted to make that job more complicated–adding extra bells and whistles that aren’t really needed.
When a task expands, it adds an additional layer of complexity that can require a greater time allotted than originally thought in order to get the new task done, leading to people scrambling as the deadline approaches.
Parkinson’s Law can also increase your costs. The longer it takes you or your team to get something done, the more you’ll have to pay for that time, manpower, and any materials or resources used.
And while more procrastination, time, and money could be pretty detrimental to your projects, it doesn’t have to be this way.
How to Apply Parkinson’s Law to Improve Your Productivity
Now that you are aware of how Parkinson’s Law works and all of its power, you can use it strategically to help get more work done in plenty of time and feel positive about finally accomplishing your goals. Follow these steps to set better deadlines, complete your projects more efficiently, and overcome Parkinson’s Law.
Set Goals and Priorities
The best way to get yourself or somebody else to take action is to set a goal. Explain why this task is important and why it needs to get done. Then create a goal that enables you to get the job done in the time allotted.
For best results, make SMART goals for you and anyone working under you. Here’s a breakdown of how this goal-setting structure works:
- Specific. What do you want to do?
- Measurable. How will you track your progress?
- Achievable. How will you do it?
- Relevant. Is it relevant to your life right now?
- Time-bound. What’s your deadline to finish?
SMART goals are effective because they ensure your goals are tailored to you and your means of success. With a SMART goal, you will be able to track your progress as you work toward completing the goal by a certain deadline.
You may find that you have smaller tasks that need to be done within a larger project or goal. Break up your main goal by making a list of actionable steps. For example, if your goal is to write a book, you might make a list of smaller tasks or steps that reads something like:
- Create an outline
- Write the first draft
- Edit the manuscript
- Self-publish the book
- Market and advertise the book
If there are multiple people involved in your project, you’ll also need to clarify their roles and expectations. Make it clear who will be doing what and who is responsible for each part of the task. This will help with people’s tendency to sit back and wait for someone else to take the lead.
Define Project Scope
Do your best to map out project scope before jumping in so you know what you’re getting into. Having a solid idea of your project’s scope will help you know how much time you should allow for a project.
Figure out your project scope by coming up with a singular objective or goal, such as the assets you need to deliver at the end of the project. Then figure out what resources or materials you will need to successfully and smoothly complete the project.
Share your project scope statement with anyone who needs to see it–but make sure it isn’t too set in stone. You might need to adjust things on the fly as you get to work, and that’s okay.
Pre-Plan for Snags
Chances are, you’re going to run into snags or obstacles throughout the course of your project. It’s very rare for a project to run completely perfectly. That’s why it’s important to prepare early for mishaps.
Make a list of any potential obstacles that might derail your progress. Then brainstorm strategies for how you can prevent them–or what you’ll do if they still happen.
If others are involved in the project, encourage them to communicate as often as possible so you’ll have visibility into where things are and whether anything is going wrong.
Create A Timeline
Once you know your project’s scope, you can create a project timeline. Figure out what smaller tasks will be involved in reaching your final objective. Then estimate how much time each of these little tasks will take — we’ll talk more about this in a minute.
It’s also helpful to set milestones along the way so you can tell where you are with the overall project.
In addition to creating an overall project timeline, you should also set better deadlines for yourself each week, day, and hour.
For instance, have you ever tried setting a rule that you can’t do any work on the weekends, or on weekdays after 6 PM? Give it a try! You’ll likely find that the hours of 9-6 every weekday are plenty of time, after all.
You can also try time blocking, scheduling out your day by assigning a certain task to each hour. This might look something like:
- 9:00 A.M.–schedule social media posts
- 10:00 A.M.–write blog post
- 11:00 A.M.–eat lunch and answer emails
You don’t necessarily have to finish each project listed. You can come back to them tomorrow or the next day. But you can make an impressive amount of progress in one good, solid hour of work.
Giving yourself a reasonable timeline will increase your effort and productivity, helping you get more done in less time.
Identify Time-Sucking Activities
To truly overcome the negative side of Parkinson’s Law, you’ll have to learn how to overcome distractions.
Whether you work from home or in an office, some of the most common distractions include:
- Social media
- Conversation (with coworkers, or with family or roommates if you work from home)
- Snack breaks
In one survey, 58% of participants said they didn’t need social media to do their jobs. Yet they couldn’t make it through the day without pulling up Twitter or Instagram. What’s more, the average employee is interrupted 50-60 times each day!
To figure out which of these distractions apply to you, carefully track your time for a day. Do everything exactly as you normally would–but write down everything you do and how long you do it for. You may be surprised at what percentage of your time is spent on Facebook versus actually doing work.
Once you’ve identified the most tempting time-sucking activities, you can take steps to overcome them. For instance, you may need to:
- Turn off notifications for email and social media
- Ask your housemates to save conversation for your lunch break
- Redefine the amount and length of meetings you’re available for
With distractions aside, you’ll be more productive because you’ll be able to truly focus on a task.
How Do I Know How Much Time to Assign to A Task?
Setting reasonable, time-bound goals to improve productivity makes sense. But what if you don’t know how long a task takes? Maybe you aren’t sure about the work required or whether you’ll need extra time to finish up.
Use the following tips to get an idea of how much time you may want to assign to any given task.
Understand Your Current Time Demands
What other things are requiring your time? This should help you identify how much time you have left to complete another task.
To figure out how much of your time is currently occupied, track your time for a day. Write down everything you do. How much time do you spend working? What about driving, or eating? Do you prioritize family time at night? Do this for 2-3 days in a row in case your schedule is different.
Once you have some data to work with, you’ll be able to get a feel for how long it generally takes you to do certain things. You can also consider what activities you could knock off your list to create additional time. For instance, maybe you spend a little too much time scrolling Facebook. This isn’t mandatory (unless you’re a social media manager) and doesn’t have to happen in your day.
Research how much time it normally takes other people to do certain tasks. This could be a simple Google search, such as, “How long does it take to write a book?” While the answers will most likely be widely varied, it will still help you get a sense of what to expect.
You can also crowdsource, asking others how long it takes them to do a certain thing. Find someone who has a blog and ask them how long it takes to write a blog post. They can help you understand what’s involved in the process.
Even if you’ve never done a task before, you can still estimate how long it might take by referring to the length it took to complete similar tasks. Maybe you’ve never designed graphics for social media, but you have made a poster or flyer in the past. Think about how long you needed for those previous projects. Then apply that knowledge to what’s on the docket now.
Using Parkinson’s Law For Good
Parkinson’s Law doesn’t have to be all bad. By following these tips, you can leverage this law for good, completing your project requirements in exactly the right amount of time.
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