I think all of us are familiar with the following scenario.
You get an assignment due in two weeks. Let’s say it’s a 15-page essay. You want to do it, but somehow life gets in the way or you simply forget. Twelve days pass by and you suddenly remember that “Shit! I have an assignment due in 2 days!”. So you sit in front of the computer, do the research, write so much that you get finger cramps, but you make it before the deadline and hand in the essay on time. When you get the feedback, you realize that the work actually turned out pretty good – I mean sure, you could’ve done better, but it was still more than you expected.
If you haven’t experienced this situation firsthand, then you had to have witnessed it happening to your friends or family. You might have even wondered why that happened, but chances are, you probably brushed it off when you didn’t find any plausible answers. So let me satisfy your curiosity once and for all. This phenomenon is a very good example of the Parkinson’s Law.
To put it shortly, Parkinson’s Law was defined by – a historian and author – Cyril Northcote Parkinson as of an essay published in The Economist in 1955, and the law states that:
“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”
Therefore, if you give yourself 30 minutes to write a page – it will take you 30 minutes, and if you give yourself an hour – it will take an hour, and so on. You could complete the 15-page essay in the first 3 days, but in your mind, the deadline was in two weeks, and – lo and behold – it took two weeks.
It doesn’t mean that you will be worse at doing that task if you devote it two weeks compared to 3 days. It just means that if you give yourself two weeks to complete a small task, then (psychologically speaking) the task will increase in complexity and become more daunting to fill that two weeks. It may not even fill the extra time with more work, but instead with stress and tension about having to eventually do it.
As a chronic procrastinator, I can see the benefits of applying Parkinson’s Law to my work and not exhausting myself by spending a month on a project that could otherwise take just a week to complete. And look, I’m not saying we should binge the work and grind for 13 hours a day just to complete a project as quickly as possible, but it’s important to realize that we very often underestimate our abilities and give ourselves much more time to do a task than we actually need. For example, washing the dishes after eating can take just 5 minutes, yet we see it as this strenuous task and say “I will wash the dishes before I go to sleep”. And thus, we lose the whole day on feeling dreadful, because we still have to do the unpleasant task, the pile of dishes seems to be getting bigger and bigger as the hours go by, and completing the task that could take 5 minutes, ends up taking us the whole day.
But how to make use of Parkinson‘s Law?
First, be clear about the task you have to get done. It’s helpful to ask yourself the following questions:
– What’s the goal and the intention of the task?
– What steps do I have to take accomplish the task? (planning and segmentation)
– How much time will each step take without counting in any breaks or distractions?
– How likely is it that you complete at least two steps one after the other?
– Considering your next week’s schedule, how much time can you realistically devote to this task?
Answering these questions will help you set a reasonable deadline for completing any sort of task, and make sure you’re not devoting too much time.
Second, it is also very helpful to be realistic about the time you need to rest. I mean, this whole concept is about making sure you’re not wasting your time and working too long on a small chore, however, it is also necessary to remember that you still need a certain amount of rest and if you clearly define how much that is, it will be harder for you to go overboard with the downtime.
Parkinson’s Law can help improve your time management and overall productivity, and if you found this post valuable, leave a comment and like it, so more people can reach this article and learn as well.