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Parkinson’s Law: How To Be The Boss Of Your Own Time

Isn’t it amazing how busy working parents seem to get everything done so much faster than most people? From taking care of their child to completing all household chores, tasks get done, one after the other, in extreme speed. But, how do they do it?

The answer is simple, and it’s not that they’ve discovered some crazy productivity hack (or have they?). The fact that drives this phenomenon is that these tasks must get done within the little available time these parents have. This alone is enough to explain these levels of productivity, actually. The concept behind this is called the Parkinson’s Law.

What is the Parkinson’s Law?

In his opening line in an article for The Economist in 1955, C. Northcote Parkinson writes: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. This simple statement is actually the definition of Parkinson’s Law, a concept that he later turned into a book with the same title.

In simpler words, it means that if you take a 4-hour task and allocate 2 days to it, then you’ll probably spend the whole 2 days working on that task. Those hours will not only be filled with more work, but with excess research, analysis, and even stress and anxiety.

But, here’s the interesting part: it works the other way too! That means that, if you take a 4-hour task and allocate 2 hours to it, there is a very high chance that you’re going to get it done within that time frame. Sounds crazy, right?

How the Parkinson’s Law works

Well, it’s not. Do you remember in college, when you had all semester to write a paper, and yet you wrote it all within the last day before the deadline? Or when you did something similar for a project at work?

These are all examples of the Parkinson’s Law taking effect in your life. Faced with an incoming deadline, you turned from a victim of your own procrastination into a productivity machine, even if it lasted for just one day.

But, how do we really turn a bigger task into one manageable in a shorter time frame? Turns out that, when we are against an incoming deadline, our brain manages to focus on the important things, and makes sure to get those done.

Instead, when there is nothing to invoke the Parkinson’s Law, we tend to overthink unimportant details, in the expense of what is actually important. This is closely related to the 80/20 rule, as our brain manages to identify the 20% that is absolutely crucial to get done when facing a deadline.

Restrictions create freedom

You’re probably wondering what happens with the quality of work produced with the help of the Parkinson’s Law. After all, as you allocate less time to a task, it’s bound to come out faster but with less quality, right?

Wrong! It turns out that, most of the time, restrictions create freedom! As counter-intuitive as it sounds, it’s the fact that we stick to some rules that allows us to be creative and produce amazing work. Taking music as an example, incredible music is still based on the rules of music theory and rhythm; if it wasn’t, it would probably sound horrible!

Another example is that of fiction novels. In fiction writing, there are various archetypes, like the hero and the villain. By sticking to those, authors are allowed to create some of the greatest masterpieces we know – if they didn’t, they would have never managed to finish a book, nevermind the full Lord of the Rings trilogy!

Based on the above, it turns out that using the Parkinson’s Law enables you to produce work of equal or better quality than you would do otherwise. Your creativity flourishes due to the restrictions, and the fact that you focus on the important things clears away all of the meaningless noise (e.g. you’ll never make a 15-minute presentation into a 60-minute one).

How to use the Parkinson’s Law in your own life

The basic concept behind Parkinson’s Law is that of deadlines – without a deadline, there is nothing to pressure you to finish the task at hand. But, not every single thing you do has a deadline! So what can you do?

Well, setting your own deadlines is the no-brainer way to bring the Parkinson’s Law in your life. As a strategy, it works quite well. In fact, there are various people that do just that. They decide that they will get something done e.g. by noon, and that restriction is all they need.

The truth is, though, this is not always the case. For the bigger procrastinators here, myself included, setting our own deadlines is never going to work on its own. After all, we know that we can push back on them – which renders them useless. Therefore, we need some additional strategies to use in combination with setting our own deadlines. Below are some tips for doing exactly that.

Time restrictions along with quantity goals

Instead of just saying that you’ll study 1 chapter today, add a time restriction to that. For example, set to do so before noon. Then fill the rest of your day with other tasks or activities, in order to enforce yourself to actually get the initial task done by the set time. You’ll be surprised with how much more productive you’ll get by tackling such tasks early in the day.

Use the Pomodoro technique

A simple technique, based just on a timer (any timer works), the Pomodoro technique suggests studying on 25-minute focused, distraction-free sessions, followed by 5-10 minutes of relaxation. This chunking of time creates inherent deadlines in your process, which you can assign tasks to (e.g. I will finish X within this Pomodoro). Note, though, that these deadlines are not very imposing on their own.

Work without your computer charger

One of my favorite tricks is to actually get to work without your computer charger (whenever that is possible, of course). That forces you to get everything done before your computer dies – in my personal experience, that can be extremely effective!

Stop working at a specific time

In his great book “Deep Work”, Cal Newport explains how he earned his Ph.D. from MIT while finishing his workday at 5 p.m. Utilizing this, you ensure that you will tackle all your work timely, in order to move on with your day at the planned time.

Introduce stakes

By far my favorite strategy for making deadlines real is the introduction of stakes. Fear of losing is by far the biggest motivator in human behavior – and you should utilize this to your own advantage. In simple terms, this means that you must make the deadline real by setting something to lose (a simple but effective idea is money). I strongly recommend that you read my article on stakes, if you’re serious about implementing the Parkinson’s Law in your life.

Align work with external obligations

Another great idea I picked up from Jonathan Levi’s “Become a Speed Demon” productivity course is to align your tasks with external obligations. Passing on your own deadlines is easy if they are arbitrary, but if you set to stop working right before you have a doctor’s appointment or dinner with a friend, for example, you force yourself to actually finish the work before you go.

My unconventional solution

Personally, I’ve struggled with implementing my own deadlines for a long time, unsuccessfully. Even with the above strategies, I didn’t always fully succeed in implementing the Parkinson’s Law.

The solution came completely unexpectedly when I kept increasing my workload beyond what I thought I could handle at the time. By taking on too much work, I forced myself to get things done, regardless of whether they had a hard deadline or not, as I knew I wouldn’t be able to get them done any other time. Note that I kept using the above strategies for anything that didn’t have deadlines coming from someone externally.

How not to use the Parkinson’s Law

“If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.” – that’s another way you’ll find the Parkinson’s Law defined. While it captures the main idea correctly, in my opinion this shows the biggest mistake you should avoid when implementing the Parkinson’s Law: using it as an excuse.

It’s easy to procrastinate on things and push them to the last minute, especially when you have the ‘excuse’ that this way you’ll be more productive, creative, and efficient. But, not everything actually takes a minute. By doing this, it’s easy to reach a point where the task can no longer be done within the remaining time. Depending on the situation, that can be quite a serious problem.

This also relates directly to the second biggest mistake: setting unreasonable deadlines. It’s indeed true that you can get tasks done in a lot less time with The Parkinson’s Law – but always within reasonable limits. The best way to identify those limits is through trial and error.

The exact process to implement the Parkinson’s Law

Now the question arises: what is your next step? Well, you start by actually trying the Parkinson’s Law. You also need a process to get feedback on how much time a task actually needs. Below you can find the exact process I use to achieve both:

  1. Make a list of tasks. I suggest starting with a daily or weekly to-do list. Anything longer than that is too long to restrict through the Parkinson’s Law, in my own experience.
  2. Write next to each one the time you think it needs. Even better, if you have any idea of how long it usually takes you, write down that. If you don’t, write your best guess on how long it would take you normally.
  3. Give yourself half the time to complete them.
  4. Commit to the deadlines. Use any (even more than one) of the above strategies to actually make sure that you’ll honor the deadlines that you’ve set.
  5. Iterate. As soon as you try this a few times, don’t forget to change how you view tasks, and the time they need. If you’ve successfully tackled a task in half the time you thought you would, now try again, with an even shorter deadline. This way you will soon figure out what time frame is actually reasonable for completing that task.

Using the Parkinson’s Law to improve my writing

As an example, I used a close variation of this process to improve the speed at which I write articles. I deliberately left an article unwritten until “the last minute” – I only had a couple hours until I had to publish. When I managed to research it, write it, edit it, set it up, and publish it on time, I understood how slow I had been with writing until that day.

Note that I didn’t use that knowledge to leave articles for the last minute (which is exactly what would have happened if I wasn’t deliberate about this). Instead, I understood that I could now write twice as long, and thorough, articles, in the same time that I used to write the other ones. Since then, every single one of my articles is at least double the length they used to be before.

Limiting time-fillers

A quick productivity win you can get with Parkinson’s Law is to take all time-filler activities, like email, checking Facebook, etc, and limit them. These tend to take a long of time, and often early in your workday – that is a productivity killer. Allocate a maximum of 5 minutes to email in the morning, only if necessary, and revisit only after your to-do list is empty for the day.

Note: If you do computer-related work, a great piece of software to use for this is RescueTime. Using its Focus Time feature, you can even lock yourself out of your email! I’m not exaggerating when I say that RescueTime has increased my productivity by at least 50%.

Final thoughts

The Parkinson’s Law is a necessary principle to know, as many tasks don’t have deadlines associated with them. This allows procrastination to take over, which can heavily damage your productivity. In essence, though, this is what makes the Parkinson’s Law one of the best strategies to actually beat procrastination.

Another note is that people don’t easily become aware of how quickly a task can be completed, at least until they put this principle to the test. So go ahead and actually try the things you learned in this article – I assure you, you’ll be surprised with the results!

Finally, I often say that not everything works for everyone. In this case, it’s a little different – the Parkinson’s Law works for everyone, as it is simply the way us humans function. What differs, though, is the implementation, and it’s there that you should try different strategies in order to figure out what suits you best.

Let me know how it goes!

Further reading on the Parkinson’s Law:

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