Work expands to fill the time you give it. By deliberately reducing the time available for a task or project, you will increase your focus and get a lot more done.
Imagine that your boss has told you that your main priority is to complete a report (or substitute a school project or any other deadline-driven task appropriate for your life situation). The report requires a modest amount of research, will be about ten pages in length, and is due a month from now.
Assuming you don’t procrastinate until the last minute and instead work on it steadily over the next month, imagine the time you will take to finish the report. How many roads you will go down to find relevant research, how much time you will take to write the report, and all of the various side tasks that will pop up along the way in order to get the report finished in a month’s time.
Now imagine that instead, you give yourself two days to complete the report. How much more focused will you be if you know you need to hand in the report in 48 hours? Which of those side tasks will you suddenly discover aren’t worth the time or don’t contribute much to the finished product? How will you streamline your work to create the best possible report but still complete it on time?
Introducing Parkinson’s Law
You may have heard of Parkinson’s Law – if not by name then by the principle it represents. In 1955, Cyril Northcote Parkinson wrote an essay for The Economist, in which he articulated his principle based on his experience working in the British Civil Service. Parkinson postulated:
Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
Examples of Parkinson’s Law abound:
The student who takes months to complete a paper because he was given a long deadline and knows that the teacher will give him several extensions
The large public works project that extends several years beyond schedule (and millions of dollars over budget) because no one was truly accountable for adhering to the deadline
The foreign language or musical instrument or any other skill you’ve been wanting to learn for years, but you’ve never quite gotten around to it because there’s no deadline
The idea that work expands to fill the available time is not only a matter of casual observation, but has been confirmed by research. An early study, conducted about 10 years after Parkinson first proposed his theory, gave one group five minutes to complete a five-minute task. The other group was given fifteen minutes, even though five minutes was sufficient.
Inevitably, the participants who were given more time than they needed took more time to complete the task than those given just five minutes. Even more tellingly, some participants were given a second task that was identical to the first. Those who had been given more time for the first task also spent more time completing the second task than did the five-minute participants. Numerous subsequent studies have confirmed these results.
How to Make Parkinson’s Law Work For You
The principle of Parkinson’s Law is quite simple: Accomplish more and do it faster by giving yourself less time. By following a few general guidelines, you can gain the most from this principle in your own work:
1. Create the conditions to succeed on a shorter deadline. Start by estimating a reasonable amount of time to efficiently finish a given task. Do not ask yourself how much time you have been given to finish it (e.g. the project is due in a week), but how much time is actually needed to finish it. Next, ask yourself what would happen if you took less time. For example, if you determine that a given task will take eight hours, ask yourself how you might be able to complete it in six. Is there work you are doing as part of the task that doesn’t contribute significantly to the end result? Are there aspects of the task you could accomplish more efficiently by making some changes in your approach?
Once you have given yourself a specific time allotment for the task, the best way to complete it in the given time frame is to schedule blocks of time for the task, stick to your schedule and create the conditions for those time blocks to be interruption-free (or as close to interruption-free as you can get). Obviously, if you work on your task haphazardly whenever bits of free time present themselves, and check your phone or give in to any other external or internal interruptions while working on it, you’re going to move forward far more slowly than if you devote yourself completely to the task for specified blocks of time.
2. This isn’t the same as procrastination. The goal is not to give yourself a short amount of time and then wait until the last minute to devote that time to the task. Procrastination keeps you off balance and usually leads to sloppy work. If you spend less time on a task but complete it two weeks before deadline, then you have more time for other things and can enjoy the calm feeling of no longer having to worry about the task. By working on your task sooner rather than later, you also are giving yourself the flexibility to deal with unanticipated obstacles that may increase your original time estimate or to check your work more thoroughly.
3. The goal is not to create a faster treadmill. Although following Parkinson’s Law seems like an exercise in efficiency, it can also be an exercise in work-life balance. Many who have tried to do more in less time complain that they wind up having even more on their plate to fill the newly available time. It’s critical to guard against this. Creating more time by being more efficient can give you the space in your day to take a walk or go to the gym, to spend more time with your family, volunteer at a homeless shelter, or simply enjoy a little down time you never had before. If instead, you just become busier and more harried, there’s not much point.
4. Don’t be unreasonable and don’t be too hard on yourself. Giving yourself the minimum amount of time to optimally complete a task is not the same as giving yourself an unreasonable and undoable deadline. You may be able to avoid stretching a report over a four-week period, and then complete it in six hours rather than eight. However, giving yourself an hour to complete the report will only result in a half-completed report with many mistakes. You might be able to figure out how to complete a book in three months, but you’re not going to complete it in five hours simply by giving yourself that deadline.
You also shouldn’t be too hard on yourself. You will sometimes give yourself a six-hour deadline for your report, dutifully block out periods of uninterrupted time to complete it, work very efficiently, and find that the report is not finished when the six hours are up. This doesn’t mean you failed or that Parkinson’s Law doesn’t work. You may have given yourself a deadline you couldn’t meet. Even so, after six hours of working this way, you very likely will be much closer to completion than you would have been had you allowed yourself four weeks or even eight hours.
5. Not everything is meant to be done on a shorter deadline. Although many or even most things in life can be done in less time, some activities are not about efficiency. A heart-to-heart talk with a spouse or child should take as long as it needs to take. The same goes for watching an amazing sunset. You’re not going to do a twenty-minute meditation in five.