Think back to the last time your car needed an oil change. If you’re like the majority of us, the oil change light flicked on, and then…you waited. Most likely weeks. In fact, it was likely only once you knew your car really needed an oil change that you finally pulled into the repair shop, handed your keys over, and got the oil change, saving your engine and simultaneously proving the continued existence of Parkinson’s Law.
If you’re unfamiliar with Parkinson’s Law and assume it’s synonymous with procrastination, you’re partially correct—procrastination is a symptom of Parkinson’s Law, but it’s not the same thing.
Let’s take a look at what it actually is.
What is Parkinson’s Law?
Parkinson's Law states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. In other words, tasks and projects often take longer than necessary because people tend to use up all the time allocated to them, regardless of the actual complexity or requirements of the work.
Parkinson's Law was formulated by British naval historian and author Cyril Northcote Parkinson. He first introduced this concept in a satirical essay published in The Economist on November 19, 1955, titled "Parkinson's Law: Or the Pursuit of Progress." This tongue-in-cheek take on the bureaucracy and inefficiency often found in large organizations offered various observations and principles about how work tends to expand and bureaucracies grow in size, regardless of their actual goals or productivity.
While the initial essay was satirical, it was, like all satire, meant to expound on truth, and soon Parkinson's Law gained popularity and was embraced by management consultants, academics, and business leaders.
If you’re suddenly realizing how often you’ve personally embraced Parkinson’s Law, take solace in the fact that you’re not alone. You’ve seen it at work.
For instance, if you allocate a longer time slot to a meeting, team members are more likely to engage in lengthy discussions and tangential conversations. In contrast, shorter meetings tend to stay focused and more productive. If your co-workers have no time constraint when replying to an email, they’ll spend much more time composing and editing that email. However, if they know they need to respond quickly, they often send concise and hastily edited replies.
This happens in software development, too. Projects can sometimes take longer than anticipated if there's no strict timeline.
Explanations for Parkinson’s Law
So why exactly does Parkinson’s Law happen? While the law itself is often presented humorously, its observations are rooted in human behavior, psychology, and organizational dynamics. Here are some explanations for Parkinson's Law:
Psychological procrastination: Human nature tends to procrastinate when faced with tasks that seem distant or have no immediate deadline. When there's ample time available, people are more likely to postpone starting the work, resulting in tasks taking longer to complete.
Perceived complexity: Tasks can appear more complex or daunting when there's no urgency to complete them. When there's a deadline, people tend to break down the task into manageable steps and work more efficiently. This is why it can sometimes take two weeks to put away laundry, but if your mom’s coming by in an hour, you can get it done in ten minutes.
Parkinson's principle: This is a related concept to Parkinson's Law. It suggests that the demand for a resource increases to match the supply of the resource. In the context of time, if more time is allocated for a task, people tend to use all of it, even if the task could have been completed more quickly.
Bureaucracy and organizational inefficiency: Parkinson originally formulated his law in the context of bureaucracies. In large organizations, there is often a tendency to create unnecessary processes, layers of approval, and paperwork, which can lead to tasks taking longer than needed.
Parkinson's corollary: This is an extension of the law that suggests that work expands not only to fill the time available but also to consume the resources available, including personnel, materials, and money. This can lead to the overallocation of resources to a task.
Loss of efficiency with excess time: Having too much time can lead to a reduction in efficiency. When there's a sense of urgency, individuals are more likely to stay focused and make quicker decisions.
Overestimation of required time: People often overestimate the time needed to complete a task, especially when they have no strict deadline. This overestimation can lead to the task taking longer than necessary.
While the explanations are myriad, Parkinson’s Law is everywhere, and now that you know about it, you’ll start seeing it at work all around you, from bloated projects to wedding plans that grow more horrifying in scope by the day.
But it can be overcome. And we’ll teach you how.
Steps to overcoming Parkinson’s Law
Overcoming Parkinson's Law requires conscious effort and effective time management strategies. Here are some ideas to help you overcome this tendency and become more productive:
- Set specific deadlines: Establish clear and realistic deadlines for your tasks and projects. Make sure these deadlines are not overly generous but also not unreasonably tight. Setting specific time limits helps create a sense of urgency and focus.
- Prioritize tasks: Identify your most important and urgent tasks. Prioritization ensures that you allocate more time and attention to tasks that truly matter and prevents you from spending excessive time on less critical activities.
- Use time blocking: Allocate specific blocks of time in your schedule for different tasks or projects. This practice helps you stay organized and ensures that you dedicate a set amount of time to each activity.
- Avoid perfectionism: Strive for excellence but avoid perfectionism. Perfectionism can lead to excessive time spent on details that may not significantly improve the outcome. Learn when to accept good enough and move on.
- Break tasks into smaller steps: Divide larger tasks or projects into smaller, more manageable steps. This approach makes it easier to gauge progress and prevents you from feeling overwhelmed.
- Employ the two-minute rule: If a task can be completed in two minutes or less, do it immediately. This prevents small tasks from piling up and consuming unnecessary time later.
- Eliminate distractions: Minimize distractions while working by turning off notifications, closing irrelevant tabs or apps, and creating a dedicated workspace. Distractions can lead to time-wasting and procrastination.
- Use time management techniques: Explore time management techniques such as the Pomodoro Technique, where you work in focused intervals (e.g., 25 minutes) followed by short breaks. This helps maintain concentration and productivity.
- Set personal accountability: Share your deadlines and goals with someone who can hold you accountable, such as a friend, family member, or co-worker. Knowing that someone is aware of your commitments can motivate you to stay on track.
- Reflect and adjust: Regularly review your work habits and productivity. Identify areas where you tend to waste time or underestimate tasks and make adjustments accordingly.
- Practice self-discipline: Cultivate self-discipline to stay committed to your deadlines and goals. Develop routines and habits that support your productivity.
- Reward yourself: Set up rewards for meeting your deadlines or completing tasks efficiently. Positive reinforcement can motivate you to stick to your time limits.
Overcome Parkinson’s Law with Lucidspark
Lucidspark is great at helping combat Parkinson’s Law. Use it for productive, high-energy meetings or sharing goals with your team. Even take the most complicated projects and break them down into attainable milestones. No matter the technique, Lucidspark can help you keep things progressing.
Try Lucidspark for yourself
Need to take a look at time management as a team? We’ve got a template that can help you get started.Try template
Lucidspark, a cloud-based virtual whiteboard, is a core component of Lucid Software's Visual Collaboration Suite. This cutting-edge digital canvas brings teams together to brainstorm, collaborate, and consolidate collective thinking into actionable next steps—all in real time. Lucid is proud to serve top businesses around the world, including customers such as Google, GE, and NBC Universal, and 99% of the Fortune 500. Lucid partners with industry leaders, including Google, Atlassian, and Microsoft. Since its founding, Lucid has received numerous awards for its products, business, and workplace culture. For more information, visit lucidspark.com.
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