The Unsexy Surefire Key to Productivity: Breaking Parkinson’s Law
The Unsexy, Surefire Key to Productivity:
Breaking Parkinson’s Law
Do you ever feel like a task as simple as writing an email somehow ends up taking a lot more time than you expected? If you get an email needing a reply within a week, you would probably put more thought and time into sending it, making sure it’s as perfect as possible before hitting reply. Whereas if that same email had an urgent deadline that needed to be replied to within a couple of minutes, the time you’d spend on it would probably decrease significantly. It’s the same email, but with different deadlines.
This simple premise is part of Parkinson’s Law, an observation made by Cyril Northcote Parkinson, which claims that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Parkinson’s observation offers a key to becoming more motivated and productive in your everyday life.
This law can be found in many examples, such as taking a super long time to get started on a passion project without a deadline or a student using all the time given on an assignment–– regardless of whether it’s a couple of weeks or months, it could be completed within a shorter amount of time. It pretty much asserts that we will use up all the time we are given for a certain task, even if we don’t need all of it, and it doesn’t improve the end result in any meaningful way.
Parkinson posited this law in an article he wrote for The Economist on 19 Nov. 1955. It was then reprinted, along with many other of his essays, in the book Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress. The article was originally written as a satire critical of bureaucracy and how more and more people could work on a project, but it still wouldn’t affect the pace of everything being completed or improve it. It has since been applied to personal productivity.
It has been proven various times, such as a 1967 study, where several participants were “accidentally” allowed 5 or 15 minutes to perform a task that would normally take five minutes, and the participants that were given 15 minutes spent significantly more time on the same task than the ones who were just given five. It was proven again in a separate 1999 study, where participants were asked to judge four sets of photos and when the fourth set was “cancelled,” they spent a lot more time studying the third set rather than finishing the task more quickly.
This inefficient use of time can hamper productivity because of all the minutes, hours, days, and months that are being needlessly occupied, can be used towards other passions and facets of life.
Therefore, when planning out any project or assignment, it is important to take into account the effects of Parkinson’s Law. This means you should focus on how much time you need to complete something rather than how much time you have to complete it.
Setting realistic expectations requires some trial and error because it’s subjective for everyone, but once you get the hang of it then it’ll start saving you a lot of time. The key is to make sure it’s realistic, because if you set it too early and try to barrel through the task to meet it, then another study from 2012 warns that people put forth a lot of energy tasks initially, but at some point productivity begins to wane and it becomes important to take a break.
It is important to pick a deadline that allows you some space to take a breather, so it doesn’t negatively impact your work, but also gives the necessary amount of time to complete a task efficiently.
One concrete way you can start breaking Parkinson’s Law and figure out a realistic deadline is to start listing all the tasks you have to do on a certain day and how long it usually takes you to complete those tasks. Then, set a timer where you give yourself only half the usual time to complete those tasks. This time limit should be seen as a hard deadline and it’s crucial that you reach it.
From there you should make an assessment on whether you accurately wrote out how much time you’d spend on a task and compare if your new time was realistic. If it hampered your work or you required significantly more time, then increase the amount of time you allow for that task until you reach a point where you are productive and have seriously cut down on your original time.
Breaking Parkinson’s Law requires understanding how it affects you and to use that knowledge to balance the amount of time and priority you put on certain tasks that don’t affect the end result in any way. One of the greatest anxieties we have is the constant feeling that we do not have enough hours in the days to pursue our goals–especially once we’ve run errands, worked on important projects or any other key tasks that need to be completed. Breaking Parkinson’s law is about reclaiming these hours in the day that we are constantly losing, and to find ways to meaningfully use them.