What is Parkinson’s Law? (and 7 Ways to Use Time Constraints to Your Advantage)
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Do you find yourself completing projects at the last minute?
Do you ever wish that you got more accomplished, considering the amount of time you spent on a task?
Or do you simply want to get better results from the work you do in life?
I would assume most people fit into at least one of the three categories mentioned. Some people are procrastinators, and some just give themselves too much time to worry about projects that aren't that big of a deal.
To help you become more productive, it is important to learn and apply a simple rule called "Parkinson's Law."
In this article, I’ll define Parkinson’s Law, tell you why it’s a powerful concept, and then detail a few strategies on how to apply this rule to your life.
If you are interested in increasing your productivity and being an outstanding employee, this concept will help you out tremendously.
What Is Parkinson's Law?
In 1955, Cyril Northcote Parkinson, a famous British historian, management theorist, and author, claimed that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."
This suggests that if you proactively give yourself time constraints, you will be able to get more work done in less time. For example, if you allow yourself a week to finish a task that should take three hours, then (psychologically) the task will expand in complexity and seem more difficult, and it will fill the entire week.
While it might not fill the entire time with more work, you will have an increased amount of stress and tension about finishing the task for the entire week.
This may explain why students choose to cram before exams, or why people complete projects at the very last minute. But if you can assign the right amount of time to each of your tasks, you can gain back time, and the tasks will not seem so complex.
Consider Tim Ferriss' book, The 4 Hour Workweek. In this book, Ferriss talks about the mental impact that a deadline has on people.
If you are given just one day to complete a project, you will be forced by the time pressure to focus on getting it done, and you will focus on completing the bare essentials. After all, remember that 80% of your success comes from just 20% of your efforts.
But when given a week to do the same task, you will likely spend the first six days just overthinking the project. In the end, both end products would likely be the same. You would be surprised at how much work you can fit into just a small amount of time.
With this in mind, Ferriss poses two questions. Should people limit tasks, and only do what is most important to decrease the amount of time spent on work? Or should people shorten their work time so that they are forced to limit their tasks to only what is necessary?
He argues that it is best to do both. Pick out only your most critical tasks, and then give yourself short and clear deadlines.
Parkinson’s Law in Time Management and Productivity
As you can see, the more time you allow yourself to complete a task, the longer you'll put it off. In order to manage your time in the most effective way, you have to shorten the amount of time you are willing to allow yourself to finish something. If you need to accomplish something in a year, it will take you a year to do it. If you have to do something in a month, then it will get done in a month.
One might argue that if Parkinson's Law were an accurate observation, you could assign a task a time limit of two minutes, and the task would become easy enough to do within that time limit.
But Parkinson’s Law is an observation, not a form of magic. It has been observed because people tend to allow themselves to have more time than they actually need to get something accomplished.
This is often because they want a buffer, but also because people have an inflated idea of how long it should take to finish a task. People don’t realize how fast some tasks can be finished until they test this observation.
7 Ways to Apply Parkinson's Law to Your Work
When you are assessing your own capabilities, or the capabilities of the person you are assigning a task to, you have to be objective and stick to the facts. Where do your strengths and weaknesses lie, and how much of this project is likely to trip you up?
This will help you determine the right amount of time needed to complete a task or finish a project.
You also want to aim to under-promise and over-deliver. People make and fulfill their promises because it builds the foundation that is needed for maintaining relationships. Large promises mean large obligations and big expectations. If the expectations are not met, people get upset and feel let down.
Promises help signal to others how trustworthy you are. The human brain expects consistency, so when someone makes a promise, your brain finds comfort in believing whatever was promised will happen.
But when the promise does not get fulfilled, the consistency your brain expected goes away. This leads to disappointment and alters how people perceive you.
In order to under-promise and over-deliver, give yourself artificial limitations to your work. When you are working on a project, make yourself a personal deadline, and then announce a later deadline to those who are counting on you. This way, you will have the work done before they expect it.
Josh Kaufman has created a business from his ability to refine the core principles of business and teach them quickly and concisely to anyone in the working world.
In his book, The Personal MBA, Kaufman recommends using Parkinson’s Law as a counterfactual simulation question (also known as a "What if" question), asking what would it look like to complete a task in a very short amount of time.
If you can visualize yourself doing this and the steps you would need to take to get there, you will be able to do it. Mentally cut out any extra steps that are not necessary.
Here are seven quick techniques for adding Parkinson’s Law to your busy workday:
1. Use the Pomodoro Technique.
The idea behind this technique is to break up each of your tasks into 25-minute time blocks. Every 25 minutes, take a five-minute break. After finishing four 25-minute sessions, take a 15- to 30-minute break.
This strategy is effective because you fully concentrate on one task for the 25 minutes without changing your focus or multitasking.
During those 25 minutes, you ignore incoming emails, text messages, or other distracting activities such as social media. You are just completely focused.
2. Track how you spend your time.
In order to be more productive, you have to know exactly how you are spending each hour and minute of your day.
You may think that you need to get more accomplished, or that you never have enough time to do everything, but if you make the effort to actually track how you spend your time, you will likely realize that you are spending a lot of time on unnecessary tasks. These tasks can then be eliminated.
3. Take breaks frequently.
You will likely be surprised by how often and how long you should take breaks in order to increase your productivity.
In fact, the top 10% of the most highly productive people take a break for 17 minutes after every 52 minutes of focused work.
This may seem like a lot of downtime—and if you’re working a 9-5 day, it is. But this time ratio was proven to increase productivity through an experiment using the time-tracking app DeskTime.
4. Get an accountability partner.
Having an accountability partner is an effective way to help you stay on track toward achieving your goals and getting the results that are the most important to you.
An accountability partner can help you with a lot of things, such as dealing with unexpected challenges and setbacks, creating a positive and lasting change, carrying out action plans, and improving your personal effectiveness.
5. Make a time limit rule.
Make a rule for you to get things done before [insert time here].
For example, say there is one task that you have to do every day, and you can't really be productive until you get it done.
Maybe this is checking your voicemails on your work phone, or reviewing a traffic sheet for your company. Whatever it may be, make a rule for you that this will be done within 30 minutes of arriving to work.
You can also make a rule that you will be done with your work for the day by 5:30 pm. This way, you will have a clear cut-off between when your professional life is over for the day and your personal life begins.
6. Limit certain tasks to 30 minutes a day.
Think about the things in your life that are time suckers. Scrolling through social media, checking your emails, and texting are a few examples.
Limit these activities to 30 minutes each day to give yourself enough time to get the work done that you need to do, and have time left over to spend with your family.
7. Stop working late.
Don't work past working hours. With the Parkinson's Law in mind, create time boundaries and deadlines that prevent you from having the time during the day to sit around and think about doing things.
This way, you will only be left with time to actually get them done. This will reduce stress in you life and increase your productivity.
Use Parkinson’s Law to Prevent wasting Your Time
Using Parkinson's Law is important because it will prevent you from wasting time or making tasks more complicated than they have to be.
Trim your responsibilities down to the bare minimum, and do those tasks with the most effort that you can give. This will result in high-quality work and more free time to either take on more projects or spend more time on personal activities.
Start to create short time constraints on your goals, and see how productive you can be and how much the quality of your work changes.
When you start to see results, come back to this article and leave a comment below with how you applied Parkinson’s Law to your life, how you use time constraints and the specific ways it has helped you increase productivity and reduce stress.
With your specific results, you will be able to help other readers find the inspiration they need to become more productive themselves.