Parkinson’s law is all around you. Whenever you plan out your day, or work on a task, or do anything with your time, Parkinson’s law is at play.
But what is Parkinson’s law? Why is it so important? And how can you use it to your advantage?
Throughout this post, we are going to explore those questions and then some. Because when it comes to utilizing your time, Parkinson’s law is not to be messed with. In fact, you’re better off becoming buddies with it because it will make or break your days.
Parkinson’s Law: The Little-Known Secret For Better Time Management
Before we get into the details of Parkinson’s law, it’s first important to take a step back and look at the big picture. And in this case, the big picture here is your time.
I believe that by fully utilizing your 24 hours each day, you can own your time and create your ideal life. Now, your ideal life could really be anything. It could be sailing the Italian coast, or starting a restaurant, or waking up each day and building a custom motorcycle.
Your ideal life is one where you can choose how to spend your time. Where you own your 24 hours and can spend them how you see fit.
But that’s in the long term.
In the day-to-day, how you choose to spend your time will directly impact your ability to attain that ideal life down the road.
If you are smart about how you spend it, you can progress better and faster than ever before. If you waste it, you’ll move in circles, frustrated and confused as to why you’re stuck in the same place.
So how do you use your time effectively? Through goal setting, and productivity, and for this post in particular, time management. When it comes to time management, one little-known but powerful secret that you need to keep in mind is that of Parkinson’s law.
An introduction to Parkinson’s law
I first came across Parkinson’s law a few years ago while reading The 4-Hour Workweek. By the way, I’m always looking for new book recommendations. If you’re like me and want some as well, you can check out my post on time management books < there.
Let’s get back on track. So…
I was reading The 4-Hour Workweek when I was first introduced to Parkinson’s law. And soon after learning about it my eyes felt like they had been opened to a new universal truth.
Suddenly, it felt like I could see the law in action all around me and around everyone that I would interact with. It was a revelation in my time management strategy.
And because it’s been so helpful for me, I try and share the law with whoever will listen. So, you’ve come to the right place.
What is Parkinson’s law?
At this point you’re probably annoyed with all the background. I get it. It was necessary, but I get it. Let’s be done with background for now and get into the reason you’re here.
So, what is Parkinson’s law? According to Wikipedia, Parkinson’s law is the adage that:
Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
It was first introduced in the 1950’s by Cyril Northcote Parkinson and was used to describe economic and governmental efficiencies. The definition is pretty dry, but the lesson behind it is monumental.
To put it in different terms, Parkinson’s law states that the amount of time you give yourself to complete a task is the amount of time that it will take to complete it.
For example, if you have 3 weeks to write an essay, that essay will take you the full 3 weeks to write. If you have a timeline to complete a project in a week, you’ll get it done by the end of the week.
You can see examples of this law impacting your life all around you – in the assignments you get at work, the projects you have to do in school, or even with your chores around the house.
An example of Parkinson’s law
There are examples of Parkinson’s law surrounding every task, project, or timeline you set. It is dictating how long tasks take and how you spend your time each day.
Think about this scenario:
You’re at work. Your boss comes in and gives you an assignment that will take 10 days to complete. So you get to work on the assignment.
That afternoon, your boss comes back to you in a hurry. Her boss has pushed up her timeline and now she needs to push yours up as well. So that assignment due 10 days from now? It’s due tomorrow.
Panicked, you get to work. You take a shorter lunch, you spend time working on it that night, you wake up a little earlier that next day to get back to it. And, somehow, you seem to finish it just before your noon deadline.
Your boss is pleased and so are you.
Why Parkinson’s law is so important
Now hold on for a second and consider this. Your initial deadline was for 10 days. Clearly you know how to spend your time. And your boss is well equipped at managing you.
But somehow if that timeline didn’t get pushed up, that task would’ve taken you the full 10 days to complete. And yet, here you are the next morning with 10 days worth of work done in 24 hours.
What gives? Parkinson’s law.
Again, Parkinson’s law states that the amount of time you have to complete a task is the amount of time that task will take to be completed.
That’s why Parkinson’s law is so important when it comes to managing your time and utilizing your 24 hours each day – if you set too far of a timeline, too distant of a goal, it will still take you that full amount of time to accomplish it.
Conversely, if you set your deadline for a little sooner, just watch how you’re able to get it done within that reduced amount of time. So in a world where you’re pushing to achieve some lofty goal or complete some challenging project, being aware of Parkinson’s law and your relation to it is critical.
More Parkinson’s law examples
You can see Parkinson’s law all around you – whether at work, school, home, or the gym. Wherever a deadline is set, Parkinson’s law is close by. Here are a few more examples to illustrate that point.
Work is one perfect example where time is being wasted. Managers often assign tasks with deadlines that are much too long, but the employee doesn’t question it and accepts the timeline as fact. So the task ends up taking the full amount of time to complete.
For example, what is Parkinson’s law in the project management space? It could be assigning a task for 1 week when really it could be done in a few days.
It’s working with a team but not taking the time to understand the project well enough, setting a timeline that has too much fluff, and then seeing that team execute on the project for the entire length of time set for it.
People rarely turn in work early so if the timeline is set for a month when it could be done in a week, you’ll see it turned in right around week 4.
In the class
School is another classic example of Parkinson’s law at play. How many times has this happened to you? You have a final exam tomorrow and think to yourself: I have the whole day to study for the exam. Perfect!
And then somehow, the day just slips by. A little studying here, a little procrastination there. And boom, it’s time for bed. And while you are prepared for your exam tomorrow, you wonder how you possibly studied for 12 hours straight.
You didn’t. You probably studied for 3 hours and wasted the other 9.
If you had been more aware of your timing though, you could have set a more realistic time frame, studied hard for those 3 hours, and relaxed the rest of the day.
It’s a classic case of Parkinson’s law studying.
Around the house
You see Parkinson’s law at home all the time too. In fact, I’ve been guilty of this one time and time again – wasting time on chores.
When I’m in a rush, somehow I’m able to get all of my chores done (cleaning, laundry, groceries, etc), in just a few hours. But on a day where I don’t have a lot going on? Those same chores take me the entire day.
Are the chores that much more time consuming on the days where I have more time? No! I just make the mistake of setting an unrealistic timeline and then, via Parkinson’s law, end up taking that full amount of time to complete those tasks.
How the law impacts your time
At this point you see how Parkinson’s law can affect your tasks. But there’s an even bigger issue here – how it affects your time.
Because as we covered earlier, you can create your ideal life but you need to fully utilize your time each day. And setting cushy deadlines for yourself is one secret way that you are wasting more time than you know.
Just image your time in these scenarios:
- Goal setting – you set a goal to achieve something in 12 months, when it could be done in 4.
- Time management – you give yourself 5 hours to complete a task when it could be completed in 1.
- Productivity – you work on a task really well, but because you have 5 hours set aside to work on it (instead of just 1), you procrastinate the other 4 hours away.
Parkinson’s law has a larger impact on your time than you may have previously recognized. And when it comes to your day-to-day, that wasted time adds up fast.
So what are you to do?
How to use Parkinson’s law to your advantage
You can use Parkinson’s law to your advantage. You just need to have a Parkinson’s law time management strategy.
And good news – the first half of the Parkinson’s law battle is realizing that it exists. It’s recognizing the law all around you and deciding that you don’t want it messing with your plans any longer.
That’s step 1.
Step 2 is just as important – setting realistic deadlines.
Whenever you set a deadline for yourself, or are given a deadline, don’t just accept the terms at face value. Spend a moment and consider: How much time does this task realistically need from me?
Be honest with yourself. If it needs a long deadline, set a long deadline. If you can get it done quickly, set a shorter one. But the key to using Parkinson’s law to your advantage is by being realistic with your timeline.
Fight the urge to add in fluff time. Fight the urge to give yourself some bonus time, just in case. Set a timeline that you know it can be reached in and get to work. Vow to never waste your time again on tasks that can be done in half the time.
Exceptions to being realistic
Now there are some exceptions to setting realistic timelines. Those are:
1. This is a new task that you have never seen before so you are unsure how long it will take. In that case you’d want to set a preliminary timeline and then adjust course as you begin to better understand the scope of the project.
2. You set a shortened, overcompensated timeline. It’s possible that by recognizing Parkinson’s law you then overcompensate by setting too short of a deadline. You don’t want that either so do your best to set a deadline that is realistic. It may take some trial and error.
3. You aren’t the one setting the timelines. If you’re an employee for a large company that’s set in their ways, don’t fret. If you get a deadline to complete a task in 3 weeks but you know it will only take you 1, don’t waste your time procrastinating or filling it with fluff.
Get it done in 1 week and then fill your other 2 working towards your ideal life – doing a side project, working on your goals, reading personal development books. Don’t let them waste your time. Get it done on your schedule and then get to work building out your better life.
Keep in mind though, unless you are experiencing 1 of the 3 exceptions above, you should and need to set realistic timelines for yourself.
Now that you understand Parkinson’s law and how it impacts your time, you may be wondering where to go from here. Well, when it comes to taking control of your time, I recommend checking out the following resources:
Start to observe Parkinson’s law all around you. Whether in the office, or with friends, or when making appointments, start to notice how the amount of time a person has to complete a task is the amount of time it will take them to complete it.
Personally, I started seeing how the law impacted my life immediately after learning about it. So try and recognize it in yours too.
See it, observe it, and then counteract it. You can’t control other people’s timelines, but you can control yours. You can control how you choose to spend your time and what future you create for yourself.
Don’t waste it.