Parkinson’s Law: Why Setting Shorter Deadlines is Crucial

Parkinson's Law
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OK, what do you do if you have to complete a certain project? You probably get a large cup of coffee, you sit, and you decide how much time you actually need to get the job done. You take into account all the little details and you also make sure you have some extra time when things don’t work out as planned. And while this is often considered the right approach when something has to be executed, it’s also the main reason you’re wasting your time. Yes, it might sound strange, but scheduling time to do something is one of the biggest time wasters.

In 1955, the London Economist published an essay by the British author, Cyril Northcote Parkinson, where it was stated that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Later, the key findings in this article were simply referred to the Parkinson’s law.1

The main point the author was trying to convey is that bureaucracies expand when an organization grows. But Parkinson’s law is more than just understanding how paperwork is pilling when a company is getting bigger. It’s about beating procrastination, becoming more productive and finally completing the project you started last year.

Knowingly or not, you’ve surely being victimized by this old-school adage and understanding this principle can boost your productivity big time.

What Is The Parkinson’s Law?

Simply put, Parkinson’s law means that if you allocate 8 hours to complete a certain job it will take you exactly 8 hours, even if the task can be done in under 4 hours.

The amount of work you do during these hours looks something like this:

Parkinson's Law
We start slowly and once the deadline approaches we put things into high gear to get the job done.

Throughout the execution of the project, of any project, you’ll tell yourself that you have time. Thus, you’ll procrastinate.

You’ll take breaks more often than you need to, the lack of time pressure will lead to further delaying the task and at some point, you might even start alphabetizing your spice drawer. Or in other words, you’ll deliberately full your mind into thinking that since you initially decided that this task will take 8 hours to be done, it should take exactly 8 hours.

I don’t know about you, but I’m surely guilty of the above. I purposefully allow myself more time than I need to do something – or at least in the past. And I do it because of reasons, you know. I want to have enough time to react if unexpected things happen, say, a robot from the future teleports near and I don’t have electricity. But after understanding the logic behind Parkinson’s law, I now intentionally set shorter deadlines which makes me more productive.

My daily workflow kind of looks like this (or at least I hope):

reversing the Parkinson's Law
When we deliberately allow ourselves less time to complete a job the amount of work we do will be evenly distributed.

The shorter deadline forces me to focus and this helps me evenly distribute the work I do per hour.

If your workflow mostly looks like graph 1, meaning, you’re doing everything last minute – which is surely causing you massive stress – don’t worry, you can make small adjustments to your workflow to get the most out of your time.

Why Understanding Parkinson’s Law is Important?

The observations of Cyril Parkinson about work expanding were mainly about the increased amount of paperwork when a company was getting bigger but after that, it was obvious that Parkinson’s law applies everywhere:

  • You will spend all of the saved money: If you stashed $1,000 to get a new sofa you’ll most probably spend all of them, if not even more.
  • The output will not increase in proportion to the number of people employed: You get more people hired but the production doesn’t increase proportionally? This is common for big firms. Both the old and the new employees will find new ways to waste their time – mainly doing unimportant tasks.
  • The amount of stuff you have will depend on the space available for storage: If you have a 3 bedroom apartment you’ll make sure to fill each room with enough stuff.

Or if we can compress the above in one-liner, it will be: Having X amount of resources will mean that you’ll spend exactly X amount.

Fortunately, this can be reversed in your favor.

How?

By simply allowing yourself less time to do something. Or as Stock-Sanford Corollary says, “If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.”2

How to make Parkinson’s Law Work In Your Favor?

After we know why and how we waste our time thanks to Mr. Parkinson, we should be now able to turn the tides in our favor, right?

Yes. But it’s not going to be that easy.

We have a tendency to slack off. Especially if there are no boundaries. So, the first thing you should do in order to make sure that you’re not re-arranging your wardrobe when you should be working is to set some sort of constraints:

  • Constraints: “Creativity comes from constraint,” famously said Biz Stone, the co-founder of Twitter. But why setting constraints in the free world where everything is possible? For the exact reason just mentioned. If our mind thinks that everything is possible and that we can have it all, we’ll wander, we’ll consider all the options, and while this might sounds terrific, it’s only wasting our time. Set constraints for everything. From the money you spend on things to the time you allocate to do tasks.
  • Outline the important tasks: There’s a reason the 80/20 principle, aka The Pareto Principle, is so popular – because it works. When you know which tasks are the most important ones, you can plan your day appropriately. For example, I tackle the hardest tasks first thing in the morning because I’m most productive then. For the evening, I leave the to-does that don’t require a lot of mental energy.
  • Separate tasks: I think that we can safely say that work is a combination of the following two phases: a research phase and execution phase. To ensure you’re not researching when you should be working, and the other way around, specify exactly when you’ll be looking for sources, materials, et cetera and when you’ll be actually doing deep, focused work. However, never do both simultaneously.
  • Review: This task is an extension of the above-mentioned. After the work is done, make sure you have some time to review it before going live. Writers call this phase editor-mode. After all, writing and editing are completely separate tasks. You need a completely different approach when you edit your work. Or, if you’re about to make an important decision, say, you have only 12 hours to decide whether or not to take the job this other company offered, allocate at least a couple of minutes to consider, one more time, all possible scenarios.
  • Set deadlines: And to be more precise, set shorter deadlines. When you set deadlines, you create a powerful motivational aura that forces you to focus. You’re completely immersed and nothing un-related to the completion of the project enters your orbit. And to give you an example, if you want to write a blog post and if this usually takes you 4 hours, allocate only 2 hours the next time you have to write. The shorter time frame will surely keep you more focused.

Diversion: Rushing to get the job done because you only allowed yourself 3 hours can cause some undesirable flaws in the final product – i.e. what you did kind of sucks. For example, your article might have punctuational errors and some sentences might not really sound, well, logical. So, make sure you always schedule time to review what you did.

Some Closing Thoughts

In essence, to get the most out of this, you’ll want to create a false sense of urgency in your head. To fool your mind into thinking that you don’t have enough time to complete the task. This time-pressure will force you to stop goofing around on social media and finally get the job done.

Again, this can be easily achieved by simply setting shorter deadlines. Or setting deadlines in general. Because if there are no deadlines, work will not only expand to fo fill the time available, it will expand indefinitely. Your mind will think that there is “still time” simply because you haven’t said when you should be done with the task.

It might sound like a simple fix, but millions of people overestimate the power of deadlines. Don’t be one of them.

Assign a deadline to your biggest objectives and stick to it so they don’t become just another litany of “what ifs” and sad regrets.” Carlos Wallace


Footnotes:

  1. You can read the full essay from the archive of the Economist here – possible paywall.
  2. From the following book: Key Skills for Professionals: How to Succeed in Professional Services.