Blog entry by Seán Lea
How to apply "Parkinson's Law" to improve efficiency in your business
"Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion" — Cyril Northcote Parkinson
The origins of Parkinson's Law
In 1955, a British historian by the name of Cyril Northcote Parkinson wrote a satirical article in The Economist, sharing his experience within the UK Civil Service, and criticizing the inefficient nature of bureaucracies. The first sentence he wrote in the article became the tagline (above) for his famous law.
To describe his observations, he used an example of an old lady, who has a lot of free time. She spends an entire day to send a postcard to her niece. She could spend an hour just to find the perfect postcard, another to find her glasses, another to find the address, one hour to compose and dispatch it. On the other hand, a busy man or woman would take only 3 minutes to achieve such a task, making rapid decisions and utilizing their time effectively.
How does this affect you and your business?
Parkinson’s Law states that the amount of time that you have to perform a task is the amount of time it will take you to complete the task.
In other words:
If something should be done in a day, it’ll be done in 24 hours.
If something should be done in a week, it’ll be done in 168 hours.
If something should be done in a year, it’ll be done in 8760 hours.
Employees adjust their pace to the work available. If there is less work, they will work more slowly -
either because they don’t have the pressure to perform, or because they are putting too much emphasis on the details in the initial phase of performing a task.
If your daily schedule is from 9 to 5, and you have this time to complete your work-related tasks, it will take you 8 hours to complete them. It is common to postpone tasks to the very last minute when you have such a long time.
However, if there is the same amount of work but half the time to complete it, they will commit more effort and work faster to achieve the same goals.
A current example? Let us perhaps consider the Brexit negotiation process. The UK government triggered Article 50 – and began the process of exiting the European Union – in March of 2017, leaving them with 2 years to complete negotiations before they must leave the EU, in March 2019. As far as anyone can tell – including government officials – very little has been achieved in the 20 months of negotiating to date, and neither side still appears to agree on many key issues. Could the UK have achieved the same results with 6 months to negotiate? It would certainly force them, and the EU, to actually push for a deal for the benefit of both sides, and we may now see an acceleration of the process as it enters its final stages.
Why does this occur?
Obviously putting less physical and mental effort and working at a slower rate is easier.
Reduce the time available to complete a task.
When you have less time to complete the same task, pressure increases. Last minute calls or tight deadlines seem to increase efficiency and creativity. You no longer put too much importance to the quality and as your deadline approaches, you tend to prioritize speed and there is less emphasis on fine-tuning.
Opening the gates to productivity
So how do you utilize Parkinson’s Law to increase efficiency? First, you need to recognize the symptoms of underproductivity. For example, when you have too much time given to complete a task, you tend to procrastinate, or even put off responsibilities until the deadline is pressing, and it becomes an urgent matter.
People are so used to spending lots of time at work, doing trivial tasks and pretending to be productive – “working for the sake of working”. But a long time spent at something is not real productivity. People often will tell you to commit more time to working but do they ever tell you to work less?
The solution to underproductivity may be to work smarter, not harder. Here is a process of how you can efficiently manage tasks using Parkinson’s Law:
1. Break down your tasks. You might have an enormous to-do list, with many items and clear deadlines. Start the productive process off by identifying what are your most important tasks. Methods such as the Eisenhower Matrix can help you set priorities as to what is urgent, or what is really important to yourself or your team at the time.
Break these tasks into smaller, bite-sized tasks that can be managed effectively and set moderate deadlines for each. This way you are increasing the number of achievable tasks but are keeping to achievable deadlines. We find it more productive to tackle smaller and simpler tasks that can be done in a couple of minutes, rather than those that take a month to complete.
For example, you could convert: “finish writing the Thesis in 6 months” into small tasks such as: “read and summarize a source in 48 hours”.
The idea is to retain punctuality, whilst increasing the scope of work with attainable and relatively simple tasks.
2. Break down your deadlines. Once you know your most important small and achievable tasks, take a hard look at your deadlines. Shift your currently conservative deadlines and shorten the time to complete each task.
For example, if you set an initial deadline for “Read and summarize one source within 48 hours”, perhaps consider altering that deadline and make your aim to finish it within 36 hours, or even 24.
A timebox practice can help you separate activities with their own deliverables and deadlines. Use the Pomodoro Technique to timebox your work. This practice uses a timer that builds up a slight pressure on performance, helping you to focus and deal with distractions.
The idea is to keep the same scope of work, whilst reducing deadlines.
When Parkinson’s Law is taken to the extreme
A bad interpretation of the law can have negative consequences for both the individual and the business as a whole.
Some managers are all too familiar with Parkinson’s Law: so much so, that they take it to the extreme and try to cram more work into a given time than can be really performed. They will begin to schedule an overload of tasks, purely to keep everybody busy scheduled and pushing to tight deadlines, without ever having time to procrastinate or worry too much about finer details.
In the beginning, everybody will work miracles to keep to the tight schedules, but the truth is that when there is just too much work…
- Tasks will not usually be completed - the number of tasks has grown too much, and deadlines are continuing to get tighter
- If completed in time, the quality of these tasks might be compromised
- In the end, employees are at risk of burnout and resignation
Putting mental and physical stress to your daily routine will have good results over the short term. But put under too much pressure, and it can lead employees to chronic stress issues, or what is colloquially referred to as a burnout.
● As Parkinson’s adage goes: "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion" – a task takes all the available time before getting completed
● The idea of Parkinson’s Law is to do a job in less time, whilst not compromising quality over quantity. Use your understanding of the theory to do a good job, not to start a stressful, short-deadline disaster that may compromise your business
● Thriving on pressure will get you to do things. But how long can you live under these types of pressure? Again, the idea here is to complete a task in less time, not to put more work into the time that’s left over
● Apply Parkinson’s Law to your business, get the to-do-list checked off quicker, and spend less time working just filling the hours of the day
Now that you understand the Parkinson’s Law, ask yourself?
Why can’t I do a 9-5 job in 5 hours?
Or, why can’t I aim to achieve my 1-year goal in the next 3 months?
Or, why can’t I achieve my 10-year plan in the next 6 months?
- This article was written by Diego Asturias.
Diego Asturias is a digital content creator at trackly.com