Parkinson’s Law and Productivity Tips for Combating It

by | Oct 25, 2018


What is Parkinson’s Law?

Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

(Happy St. Crispin’s Day)

Writing in The Economist in 1955, former British Civil Servant Cyril Northcote Parkinson opined:

IT is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Thus, an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and despatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half-an-hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the pillar-box in the next street. The total effort which would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil.

Parkinson’s point was about government bureaucracy and how layers of civil servants get added to government organizations and fill massive amounts of available time doing very little work. What is true of government bureaucracies has also been found true of individuals. Examples (all of which I’ve experienced):

  • You “work” eight hours at your office and only get through four things on your to-do list and wonder where the day went. However, last Friday when you knew you were going to be in the office only half the day you feel like you got a full day’s work done.
  • Your spouse is out-of-town and has left you five things to do while she is gone. You sort of work on a few of the things over a few days, but amazingly are able to complete the five chores with astounding efficiency in the hour before you have to pick her up from the airport.
  • The evening before a client meeting you realize that an important custom deliverable has not been created. Usually, such a project would take the better part of a week, but you are able to crank it out in three hours and still make it to bed at a reasonable time.

How to Combat Parkinson’s Law

Based on research and personal experience, here is some sound productivity advice for combatting Parkinson’s Law:

 1. Break your time into 5 – 10 minute increments

According to Josh Kaufman, Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA, once said, “If you split your day into ten-minute increments, and you try to waste as few of those ten minute increments as possible, you’ll be amazed at what you can get done.”

Similarly, according to Business Insider, Elon Musk “breaks his entire day into a series of five-minute slots.”

The key here is to focus for 5-10 minutes, be very productive, then rest or do something else. Related IFOD on Oscillating during your day.

2. Challenge Yourself with Tight Deadlines

Create very challenging deadlines for the most important things you have to do. Something that you might think should take an hour? Give yourself ten minutes. See what you can accomplish.

3. Bribe Yourself

Give yourself an incentive for finishing tasks within your short timelines. Examples:

  • I’m going to finish these three things by 10:00am and then reward myself with a walk and a coffee and an orange.
  • I’m going to focus for four ten minute intervals (with a few minutes of break between each) and then reward myself by reading for 20 minutes.

4. Change Your Work Location

You may not have the flexibility to do this but it can be very effective. Give yourself 1-3 tasks to perform at location one. Make it your goal to finish your tasks so you can move from that location. Then 1-3 tasks at location two. Same at location three. Then take a long break.

Breaking up where you work can be an effective strategy and motivator. You’ll find you look forward to the idea of working somewhere else and then feel a sense of accomplishment when you get to move locations.

5. Create Interim Deadlines for Big Projects

For bigger, longer term projects, set tight, interim deadlines. Have a term paper due at the end of the semester? Create tight, interim deadlines? Working on writing a book? Have a goal of xxxx words a morning by 11am. Etc. 

Final Thought

The key is to not to just haphazardly work.  To be productive have a plan that includes short term deadlines. Create a false sense of urgency. The. Take a break. As mentioned above, OSCILLATION IS KEY.

1 Comment

  1. As a recently retired guy, I fight this phenomenon more than ever. Great advice above, especially the yin-yang aspect of oscillation.


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