Parkinson’s Law: What Is It, and How to Overcome It for Better Productivity

  • November 15, 2022
  • by Lorea Lastiri
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to do list notebook

Parkinson’s Law is an idea that the more time we get for a task, the more likely our work will expand. It was introduced by British historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson in 1955.

Parkinson’s Law basically explains one of the significant hurdles in being productive, so understanding what it really is will help us overcome it. 

In the following article, we will tell you all about Parkinson’s Law and give you tips to overcome it. So let’s get started. 

What is Parkinson’s Law theory?

Parkinson’s Law is an idea that states that the more time you have been allotted for a particular task, the more time that specific task will take. This law is often depicted by people juggling various deadlines or projects at once.

Here’s an example for understanding Parkinson’s Law. Let’s say that you have been assigned a new task that should barely take half an hour, but you are allowed to submit the task up to two weeks later.

This would make you feel relieved knowing you have ample time to complete tasks due today or tomorrow. Therefore, you will not put this small task on your to-do list for the day.

Moreover, you will either procrastinate or delay the task and complete it barely before the deadline. In fact, sometimes, you may even keep working around the task and not procrastinate at all. However, you still need to complete that particular task, but it will take you far longer than the 30 minutes it would normally take. In a way, your work expands because of the greater time allotted.

Thus, Parkinson’s Law is in effect when something rather simple seemingly becomes overwhelming enough to need the time until the deadline. While it may seem like a commonplace observation, it’s actually Parkinson’s Law in action.

Who introduced Parkinson’s Law?

Parkinson’s Law was introduced by a British naval historian named Cyril Northcote Parkinson. This law was first published in 1955 as a part of a satirical essay that Parkinson wrote for The Economist.

In his essay, based on his time in the British civil service, Parkison told the story of an elderly lady who wanted to send a postcard. That was allegedly the only task she had to check off from her to-do list that day. However, because the woman set her own deadlines, she blurred the lines between them.

She took around an hour to find the card she wanted to send. Next, she needed 30 minutes to find her glasses. After that, it took her over an hour and a half to write the card. As you can see, her task expands, and something that should have taken a few hours took her an entire day because she didn’t enforce a shorter time limit.

Through this satire, Parkison wanted to shed light on how our work expands when we don’t keep track of the extra time spent on it. And this example may be unrealistic. Most people can relate to having experienced a similar situation at least once in their lifetime.

Understanding Parkinson’s Law is vital for improving our personal productivity and completing tasks ahead of the time allotted.

Later on, Parkinson even wrote a book about his law called “Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress.”

Examples of Parkinson’s Law

To look at some examples of how Parkinson’s Law works, we need to think about tasks that fill the time available for their completion when, ideally, they should take far less time to complete.

No one is immune to this phenomenon because people tend to delay tasks or beat around the bush instead of completing what they have to do. However, if we understand it, we can find ways to overcome Parkinson’s Law.

Let’s look at a few examples of how work expands to fill the time available for completion.

Marketing pitch

Let’s say that you are a busy man. You work in the marketing department, and you must develop a new pitch for a potential client. Now, to complete this little project, you have over a month.

You would start getting all the project requirements to make your pitch. Now, you have over a month to make this pitch, which means you have a lot of time to prepare. However, you may be working on a larger project at the same time. Therefore, you may start the actual work on the pitch just a few days before the deadline and complete it haphazardly.

Conversely, you might not have any other tasks except the pitch. You might work on it all the time and manage to complete it in less than a week. However, now you feel that the opening line could be better. You doubt your presentation and keep putting in more work until the deadline.

drawing infographics

As such, your total effort has greatly increased compared to how much time you would have spent if you had to do it last minute; your work expands to fill the time available for completion.

Potential solution

You can sit together with your team and discuss how long should something like this take and the intensity of the work required. That should help you create realistic deadlines instead of setting arbitrary limits for different projects.

Design lookbook

You can relate to this example if you work in the creative industry. Imagine that you need to design a lookbook for your upcoming fall collection, and you have a week to do this.

Ideally, it should have taken at most a few days. But because you love your job and want everything to be perfect, you take extra time until the deadline to look for tiny details and perfect them. This way, you may feel that your projects are never satisfactorily complete, and you would always feel like you could have optimized them more if you had more time.

However, you failed to realize that all it did was fill the time allotted to the project, even though you had met all the requirements.

If you are a person who works like this, you might feel that deadlines are your friend and help you get the job done on time. But to increase your productivity, you must stop relying on just the deadlines and focus on not making last-minute changes.

Potential solution

A great way to circumvent this problem is to immediately ask your client for instructions. That way, you will receive feedback when they think it’s perfect and you’ll only have to make necessary changes.

The 40-hour workweek

Another great example of Parkinson’s Law at work is in your everyday 40-hour work week. Most companies worldwide operate on this model, and the major assumption here is that almost all jobs require around 8 hours of work a day.

However, marketing and medical professionals don’t usually need to work the same amount of time. They can achieve the same results in less time. So people who know when Parkinson’s Law is in effect know how to overcome it.

remote working with a laptop

They use better time management skills to determine how much time a task will take and keep it from filling up the rest of their day. This way, they can increase their productivity.

👉 Check also: 24 Employee Recognition Ideas that Increase Productivity, Engagement and Enjoyment of Work

How to overcome Parkinson’s Law?

You can use several different strategies and tools to overcome Parkinson’s Law and be able to more efficiently utilize your time. Once you complete your tasks before the deadline, you can use the remaining time to relax or pursue a hobby.

1. Plan your work strategically

When you have a thorough plan of what you would like to achieve and the timeline for doing it, you will be less likely to procrastinate or work on things other than your goal.

You should make a plan to help you with time management. In your plan, you can add things like:

  • Your goals
  • The steps needed to complete tasks
  • A well-thought-out timeline for the tasks
  • Any additional things you will need to complete your work
  • Dates for checking your progress

It also helps to lay down a timeline for a few short-term and long-term goals you may have for your job or your life in general. This will help you stay motivated and be more productive.

👉 Read also our article: Why Should We Set and Pursue Goals?

2. Set self-imposed deadlines

Imposing a deadline on yourself can be a great tool for overcoming Parkinson’s Law. The best way to do this is to think about the time you need to complete your tasks instead of thinking about the time you can get. 

ticking time

To make a realistic estimate of the time you need for a task, you will have to:

  • Create a list of steps for the project: You will have to understand and map out every step you need to take toward completing the project. Once you know what you need to do and how to do it, you can create a list of all the tasks and activities. 
  • Prioritize the most important tasks: After making a list, you need to figure out which tasks can take up more time than anticipated or might require external support. Make sure you get them done first.
  • Ask for help: Sometimes, it might be more than a one-person job. Therefore, it’s great to assess it beforehand and reach out to your team to discuss the project if you need help.
  • Make your time estimates: By this point, you would have figured out pretty much all of it. Therefore, all that’s left to do now is to give yourself a predetermined time slot to work on all the tasks and try your best to stick to them

3. Use the Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro technique is all about short but intense work sessions where you maintain your focus. After 25 minutes of short, focus-intense work, you can take a 5-minute break. 

Think of it like sprinting. You run as fast as possible, for as long as possible, and after that, you take a little breather. 

An easy way to follow the Pomodoro Technique is to do the following:

  • Create a to-do list where the tasks are ranked by importance
  • Set a timer to 25 minutes. 
  • Maintain your focus for the 25 minutes.
  • Take a break for 5 minutes (the timer can help). 
  • After 4 working sessions, you can take a 30-minute break. 

4. Use tools for task management

Task management tools can help you organize your team, plan out your projects, keep an eye on the current progress in real-time, and so much more. They are complete productivity solutions for someone struggling with productivity to the point that they have difficulty getting things done in time. 

home office with a desktop

These tools allow you to streamline your project through automatic billing and invoicing, productivity tracking, budgeting, and more!

One such tool is TimeCamp, a flexible and effective time tracking app that helps you keep track of the time you devote to different tasks and projects.

👉 Read also our article: What You Should Know About Task Management – A Short Guide

How to use Parkinson’s Law to accomplish more in less time?

Overcoming Parkinson’s Law is critical to productivity and a life where you don’t always feel like you are running out of time for any task. A great way to motivate yourself is to tell yourself that after completing your tasks, you will be able to spend the rest of your time relaxing or having fun.

With the right strategies, like planning, setting deadlines, and using management tools, you can complete your tasks in less time and be relaxed as the deadline approaches.

Wrapping up

We have all experienced delaying a task until a little before it was due at least once in our life. However, some people need help with productivity and keep delaying tasks or doing other things until they almost run out of time. This phenomenon is called Parkinson’s Law, and overcoming it is crucial for great efficiency.

One of the best ways to do this is to use a project management software like TimeCamp. It allows you to track productivity, create automatic invoices, generate reports, and so much more!

So what are you waiting for? Sign up for TimeCamp right now!

Lorea Lastiri

Lorea is a freelance SEO writer and has spent the last five years researching and writing about time management, productivity, and SaaS. She's an avid traveler, skier, and surfer; when not in the office, you can find her riding waves or exploring the alps.

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