Parkinson’s Law – What It Is and 6 Ways You Can Overcome It

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When I was a little kid, every Saturday was cleanup day. My mother would always tell me "You have 2 hours to wash those dishes!"

Like most kids, I procrastinated, riding my bike or playing video games until there was about 10 minutes left.


...But I knew that I only needed 10 minutes.

Sure, I was a very lazy child, but during those ten minutes? I became a dishwashing god!

You never saw someone clean dishes as efficiently as I did in those last 10 minutes, and I always beat the timer. Growing up in a full house of 8 siblings and 2 parents, emptying the sink was quite an accomplishment.

Now that I am older and actually have important responsibilities, I occasionally run into the same cycle. I am presented with work that I put off until absolutely necessary, followed by intense work sessions to finish it on time.

This phenomena is something called Parkinson's Law Time Management Theory.

What Is Parkinson's Law?

The definition for Parkinson's Law goes something like this:

"Work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion"

-Cyril Northcote Parkinson

Cyril Northcote Parkinson was a famous British historian and Management theorist that proposed this idea in a humorous essay that he wrote in 1957 for the Economist.

Originally created as a joke term, people quickly realized that it was actually a brilliant philosophy of what it means to procrastinate and still meet deadlines for important tasks.

You can apply Parkinson's Law to almost everyone in the history of humanity.

for instance,

If you give someone a week to do one task, the task will typically take one week to complete the task.

If you give them a month to finish the same task, it will typically take one month to complete the task.

No need to be ashamed of it, it's a very normal thing for most people.

This is not necessarily because people are lazy, but rather because people tend to determine that what can be put off should be put off. 

Days are short, and we run our schedules as a to-do list of descending priorities:

"Handle what is urgent right now and figure out what can I save for tomorrow."

However, like a tiny snowball at the top of a mountain rolling faster and getting bigger until it's a giant boulder about to smash your house, time management is a big deal. You have to eventually pin your ears back and get to work as efficiently as possible.

Negative Aspects of Parkinson's Law

It is pretty obvious, but Parkinson's Law presents some serious issues. procrastinating until the last minute is not sustainable for either your mental health or your professional success. Here are just a few of the many reasons why Parkinson's law is not your friend:

  • Reduced quality of work
  • Risk of missing due dates
  • Unnecessary stress

These are just a few of the reasons why Parkinson's Law is a risk to your success and well being. Making a habit of putting off big responsibilities can and will backfire in the long term

When I was in elementary school I was constantly late to class even though I lived literally right next to the school. That was because every morning I'd look at my alarm clock and tell myself "I still have a few hours before class starts, I can get ready in 10 minutes" and I would just hit the snooze bar.

That was Parkinson's Law in action and I made myself late every day. I was wasting time in my bed that could have been time spent getting ready for school, telling myself I had more time.

Just because you have time doesn't mean you should put it off until you are almost out of time. See the time limit as an indication that you have something to do, that when done, frees up your schedule significantly.

How to Beat Parkinson's Law

Parkinson's Law is not your friend, but it is a reality of our daily lives. It is important to apply some of these techniques to make yourself a more productive person. Here are some ways that I boost my personal productivity and not only avoid Parkinson's law, but also make it work for me!

#1 Get Accountability Partners

This is an easy way to make sure you have a "fire under your butt", so to speak.

Make sure you have someone out there who is constantly encouraging you to finish your work as quickly as possible. I would recommend making that a friend or coworker you trust.

#2 Always Write Your Daily Schedule  

Schedules are a powerful thing, and most people don't take advantage of them. If you can properly distribute your time and energy over the day, you can make sure you handle everything that is necessary.

#3 Handle the Daily Priorities as Quickly as Possible

If you can handle all of your emails, meetings, and daily responsibilities within the first 30-60 minutes of your day, you force yourself to spend the rest of your day handling stuff that isn't immediately necessary to fill the time. This is a fairly easy way to make sure you are always spending most of your time on the larger project.

#4 Take More Breaks and Reward Yourself

One key antidote for Parkinson's Law is staying concentrated in the workplace. But we aren't robots, so how do you make sure your whole day is full of focused effort without burning out? 

The Answer: reward yourself with consistent breaks. 

For example, every 50 minutes of good work I do, I reward myself with a 10 minute break. I'll spend it stretching my legs, grabbing some coffee, and whatever I gotta do in that time to come back from my break ready and refreshed.

It has been scientifically proven that well performing high school and college students (GPA of 3.7 or higher) will study for 30-45 minutes followed by a five minute break. This is a much better technique as opposed to students who cram for hours on end without stopping and then give up from exhaustion.

You wanna boost productivity? Take more breaks!

#5 Don't Work Late: Only Work During Working Hours

One unhealthy habit of procrastinators is that they will bring work home with them. Removing that "safety valve" is key for ensuring everything is handled effectively in the office.

If you know that you are only able to get your work done at the office, then you will be gently forced into a position where you need to be more productive during regular business hours.

Your "free time" will finally become just that, time that is free from any work related distractions.

#6 Set Self-Imposed Deadlines

One of the easiest ways to motivate yourself to stay productive for the entire day and make sure you stay on top of your project management is to set your own deadlines.

Understanding Parkinson's Law works to your advantage in this case, because the closer a deadline approaches, the harder you will work. If you set self imposed deadlines, you will be able to complete tasks much quicker and with much better quality since you will have ample time to correct any issues that arise before the time limit is up.

Closing Thoughts

We want to think that we can finish everything in the 11th hour with no consequences, but that just isn't the case. While it is a reality of being a person with responsibilities, "kicking the can down the road" is a very self destructive practice.

Work expands to fill the time available for its completion, and you control the size of that container and how quickly you choose to fill it.

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