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Parkinson’s Law – What is it and how to use it

Have you heard of Parkinson’s Law?

You may not know the name, but you’ll know what it is.

Think back to school or university. You had an essay or paper to do. You were given 4 weeks to complete it and hand it in. However, you started it 2 days before the deadline and handed it in 5 mins before the deadline.

The adage is :-

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”

If you give someone a week, to complete a two-hour task – it will take a week, not less.

Cyril Parkinson, a British historian, observed the idea whilst working with the British Civil Service. He noted that as bureaucracies expanded, they became more inefficient. He realised that as the size of something increased, its efficiency dropped.

Can you think of times in your life when Parkinson’s Law occurs?

When you’re working on something, you can feel as if you’re working on it, but the tasks you’re doing (checking, researching, formatting, making sure everything is in order) aren’t really important and aren’t actually impacting the completion of the task at hand. Even if the task gets finished ahead of schedule, you continue to work on the task, perfecting it until the end of the allocated time.


What this really takes us back to is goal setting. A well-set goal needs to be time bound (as well as specific, measurable, achievable and relevant) otherwise it can just go on indefinitely. You need enough time to achieve the goal, but not so much time that you affect the completion of the task and are unable to move onto other tasks.

As with New Year’s Resolutions – say you‘re already a runner and your resolution is to go under 2 hours for a half marathon during 2018. This goal does have a time element to it, it just happens to be far too far in the future. You could end up not really working towards your goal for most of the year, remembering it in September, booking a race at the end of December, slogging your guts out during October and November and then run the risk of not achieving your time.

Or you could make it – go under 2 hours for a half marathon before the end of April. That would get you moving a bit quicker. You could even start your training plan today.

Another example – I’ll email that person back this week or I’ll email that person back today.

Setting a stricter time limit makes you focus and break the task down into its vital relevant parts. As the length of time allocated to a task became shorter, the task can become simpler and easier to solve.

Parkinson’s Law can also apply to other areas of your life.

Storage space – the amount of stuff you have will expand to fill the amount of storage space you have.

Lifestyle – your lifestyle will expand/extend to meet the amount of money that you earn. Therefore, though you earn more, you do not save more.

How can you work with Parkinson Law?

Pomodoro technique

Use a timer to break down work into intervals, (traditionally 25 minutes in length), separated by short breaks. Break down larger tasks into a series of tasks that can be completed it the short time intervals.

Do it in the morning

Do not leave it till later. If you can do it in the morning, do it then. There’s less chance of to be distracted and not end up doing it at all. See Eat the frog.

Eat the frog

The frog is the one thing on your to-do list that you have no motivation to do and that you’re most likely to procrastinate on. A simple way to recognise a frog is :-

“A thing you don’t want to do, but actually need to do”

Once the frog is eaten, (so to speak) that weight is lifted off you and the day seems a little calmer and more controlled with the sense of accomplishment of completing that task.

Example of a frog– Going and doing the run on your training plan for your under 2 hours half marathon (before the end of April).

I’ve noticed one of the most important things about Parkinson’s Law is to know what it is and that it exists. Then you can recognise when it’s occurring. Just having that knowledge can help you make better decisions, getting your tasks completed and get you hitting your goals.

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