In 1955 a historian by the name of Cyril Northcote Parkinson wrote an article for The Economist. In this article the historian described the structural tendency of bureaucracies to make work for themselves. In the first sentence of the article Cyril Parkinson made an observation: ‘Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.’ That observation has stood the test of time and has become a law, commonly known as Parkinson’s Law.
We have all experienced it before. You have a school assignment or work project due in a few months time. You spend most of the time in those months worrying or thinking about the project but not doing any work on it. Essentially procrastinating. Then a few weeks, days or even hours before its due you somehow gather all the energy and resources required and you submit the project on time. This is the reason why Parkinson’s Law is sometimes referred to as “Student’s Syndrome.”
What causes Parkinson’s Law to take effect? What is actually happening to us? To answer these questions we have to dig deeper into Parkinson’s Law.
If you have a task due next week, the task will only be finished next week. If you are given 3 months for the same task, chances are high the task will take you 3 months to complete. Time pressure forces you complete a task in a given time period. If there is no time pressure to a task then it will take you a long time to finish it. This is why people procrastinate on long running school and work projects.
A task’s complexity can also increase in relation to the time allocated to complete the task. When a task is allocated a long time to be done you expect that the work involved will be difficult and that the quality required to be produced has to be very high. This will just make the task seem more complex and it becomes a mental burden. Again leading to further procrastination.
How to take advantage of Parkinson’s Law in your life
You must set deadlines for anything important you want to achieve in your life. Deadlines should be as immediate as possible and time constraints as short as workable. The more time pressure you feel, the more focused you will be and the more work you can complete.
Setting sensible deadlines is the first step, most people don’t even do that. However after setting the deadline you must have the discipline to follow through and be able to see the deadlines you set for yourself as unbreakable – just like the deadlines your boss or clients set.
If you are in a leadership role and are the one who has tasks or projects that other people have to complete, then you must also set deadlines for the people. You must set tight deadlines that don’t allow people to fall under the effect of Parkinson’s Law.
Ensure that the deadlines you set for yourself or others are realistic. Embrace deadlines and constraints. Force yourself to work against the clock. You want to make the deadlines as tight as possible so the work can be done in the shortest possible time and still be of good quality. Remember you cannot build a house in one day even if you tried.
Do you have something important you are trying to achieve? What deadline have you set for yourself to achieve this important thing? Cyril Northcote Parkinson may have not known the impact an opening line to his article would make, but the message in that line is a law which we live with to this day.