How to Recognize and Overcome Parkinson’s Law

Leaving tasks to the last minute is a common phenomenon – and we all do it. But the question is why? 

Right before the holidays, stores burst at the seams, full of people who left their gift shopping to the last available day. Each person has had an entire year to get that shopping done, but the same thing happens year after year.

How to Recognize and Overcome Parkinson’s  Law
In this guide, you’ll learn:
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When given the luxury of time, we don’t always spend it in the best way, and that can be put down to something called Parkinson’s Law and the idea that “work expands to fill the time available for completion.”

Parkinson’s Law is an explanation for poor time management and why we frequently procrastinate, so let’s take a look at what it is and how to overcome it.

Understanding Parkinson's Law

Parkinson’s Law came to be in 1955 when British naval historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson published a satirical essay in The Economist.

The tongue-in-cheek essay focused on Parkinson’s observations of the inefficiencies experienced in the British Civil Service. The article found a very important – and true – principle. It concluded that in large organizations, work continues to expand and bureaucracy increases, regardless of the productivity rate or the end goals.

The essay contains a famous example of an elderly woman who takes all day to send a postcard because that’s the amount of time she set aside for the task. 

The reality is that sending a postcard is a simple job and shouldn’t take all day. However, since the woman had all day, she used the full amount of available time instead of just getting it done quickly.

While the essay was a satirical take on bureaucracy, it was certainly built on truth and we can, therefore, apply it to all areas of life.

Do you recognize any of these scenarios? If you do, you have already experienced Parkinson’s Law: 

  • You are speaking at a conference in three weeks yet you wait until the night before to start practicing your speech.
  • An hour-long meeting is scheduled to discuss the agenda of an upcoming conference. The agenda is decided within the first 20 minutes and the rest of the time is spent deliberating on where to order the conference lunch from
  • You give yourself an hour to respond to emails. You take the full hour to draft and send responses even though it could have been done in about 15 minutes
  • You’re tasked with a complex project and a long deadline. Feeling overwhelmed, you “busy” yourself with other, easier tasks until the deadline starts looming
  • Your workload is unusually light so you fill up your time by spreading out and prolonging your everyday administrative tasks
  • You have left presentation preparation to the last minute. You work overtime to try and get it done but the result is rushed and not as polished as it should be

Parkinson’s Law of Triviality

After Cyril Northcote Parkinson’s essay was published, he went on to explore his observations in more depth. This led to the publishing of two books "Parkinson's Law And Other Studies in Administration" and "Parkinson's Law: Or The Pursuit of Progress" in which he details the Law of Triviality.

Unlike the original Parkinson’s Law where tasks expand to fill the allotted time, the Law of Triviality is the observation that humans tend to focus on unimportant details while crucial matters are left by the wayside.

This observation is also known as “bikeshedding,” which refers to the example Parkinson gave in his books.

He writes about a fictional committee that gathers to discuss plans for a nuclear power plant. Rather than focusing on the important aspects of the plans, most of the time is spent determining where the staff bicycle shed should go and how it should be constructed.

He writes, “The committee devoted a disproportionate amount of time to relatively unimportant details.”

This law is commonly observed in business settings where colleagues gather to talk about a specific subject but then go off on several tangents. The end of the meeting arrives, and nothing truly valuable has been discussed.

Reasons Why Parkinson’s Law Happens

Parkinson’s Law occurs for a variety of reasons, most of which have their roots in human psychology and behavior. The dynamics of the surrounding environment also lead to procrastination.

Here are the key reasons why we experience Parkinson’s Law:

  • Overestimation: When the amount of time for a task is overestimated, this leads to it taking longer to complete than it should. This is because deadlines are not shifted accordingly
  • Inefficiency: Having too much time leads us to be more inefficient with it and squander it unnecessarily. When proper deadlines are in place, we act with urgency, are decisive, and remain focused
  • Complexity: Our perceived complexity of a task is amplified when there is no urgency or clear deadline to complete it. The tendency is to put it off until the last minute rather than sit down right away and figure out how to tackle it
  • Psychological: If the deadline is too distant, our brain tells us to postpone the work since we have “plenty of time” 
  • Bureaucracy: Lengthy or unnecessary processes and paperwork bog us down and make completing tasks inefficient. This bureaucracy is especially observed in larger organizations where there are layers of approval to go through 
  • Scope creep: Tasks and projects evolve, especially when the deadline is far. The reality is that when there is too much time available, the tasks increase in complexity and then take longer to complete
  • Distractions: Those pinging noises our phones make, the chatty colleague in the cubicle next to you, and, of course, social media. We’re surrounded by distractions and they do an excellent job of lengthening tasks
  • Poor time management: Without a proper strategy in place to manage time, it runs away from us

How to Overcome Parkinson’s Law

The answer to overcoming Parkinson’s Law lies in effective time management and there are several strategies you can employ here.

Use a Time-Tracking Tool

Time-tracking tools come in many forms. From writing down your tasks and hours on a sheet of paper to using specialized apps or software such as My Hours

Whichever tool you opt for, it will help you plan out the days leading up to the deadline of your project or task and create a clear roadmap to follow.

The crucial part is that you must be honest about how much time you think each task will take as this will allow your time tracking to be as accurate as possible. Plus, doing this forces you to think about the actual time needed to complete the task rather than the overall available time.

Break the project up into milestones and set aside time for each one. The idea here is to use these periods to fully focus on the task at hand. 

If you are using an app or software, you will likely feel tempted to press pause on the time tracker and do something different or unrelated. If you are tracking time manually, it can be easy to ignore it altogether. When this happens, try to recognize that this is Parkinson’s Law trying to creep in and resist the urge.

Tip: Don’t forget to factor in time for your general day-to-day tasks such as checking emails or updating spreadsheets. Creating a set amount of time for these will allow you to focus on them for a concise period without it becoming excessive.

The data you gain from time tracking also serves as a valuable tool when planning future projects. 

When similar tasks crop up, you can refer back to your previous time sheets to see how long it took you to complete them. Doing this makes your time predictions more accurate and allows you to set realistic deadlines. 

Plan and Prioritize Tasks

You likely have a good idea of what you need to achieve in the coming days or even weeks.

Write down what you need to do and organize these to-dos according to their priority. For this, you can use the Eisenhower Matrix – an effective way to visualize which tasks must be completed first, and which ones can wait.

In a nutshell, you organize your tasks into four categories:

  • Important and urgent tasks must be done right away
  • Important but not urgent tasks should be scheduled and completed before they become urgent
  • Urgent but not important tasks should ideally be delegated to another team member
  • If a task is neither important nor urgent, you should throw it out of your to-do list entirely
The Eisenhower Matrix

Employing this technique reduces the likelihood of missing deadlines and allows you to focus on the right things at the right time.

Break Things Down

It can’t be emphasized enough how important it is to break larger projects or tasks down into manageable pieces. Feeling overwhelmed is a key trigger for procrastination and quickly sets Parkinson’s Law in motion.

Let’s say you work in an office with a large filing room. This has gotten out of hand with loose piles and boxes of unfiled paperwork everywhere. The moment you walk through the door, you are instantly overwhelmed, and your first instinct is to close the door and ignore it.

Looking at the room in its entirety makes the job feel monumental. However, if you break it down by section, it starts to feel more achievable. For example, tackling the job one box or pile of paper at a time. 

Doing this lets you set a clear path for any project and work through it efficiently without succumbing to overwhelm or the procrastination that inevitably follows.

Create Deadlines

Deadlines are somewhat of an art form. Often, they are either too tight or too generous. 

An overly generous deadline is where we often experience the phenomenon of “leaving it to the last minute.” Moreover, an unrealistically tight deadline will create too much stress.

Here are some tips:

  • Once you have broken the project into smaller steps, set manageable and realistic deadlines for each one
  • If the project completion date seems too far away compared to the amount of work involved, don’t be afraid to bring it forward. Doing so will create a buffer of time which you will appreciate should tasks run over
  • If the project completion date is too tight and cannot be moved, consider assigning more resources to the project to make it achievable
  • For projects involving multiple individuals, split responsibility for deadlines among the group so it doesn’t fall on one person

Employ Time Management Techniques

If you struggle to manage your time efficiently or stick to the deadlines you’ve set yourself, you may find it beneficial to employ a time management technique.

Besides helping you stay focused on the task at hand, a time management technique will also ensure you’re taking regular pauses and not getting fatigued or burnt out.

Some popular techniques include:

  • Making a to-do list: Ticking off tasks as you complete them helps you stay motivated. To boost the effectiveness of your list, incorporate the Eisenhower Matrix.
  • Start with the toughest task: Once completed you’ll feel accomplished and all other tasks will seem easy in comparison.
  • Remove distractions: Turn off that phone, set your communication channels to “do not disturb,” and tell that chatty colleague you’ll catch up with them over lunch. 

If you prefer something a little more structured, you might like to try the following:

Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique is a popular method of time management. It consists of short 25-minute bursts of work (called a “Pomodoro”) followed by a five-minute break. After four Pomodoros, you can take an extended break.

This method is great for preventing procrastination and multitasking. The 25-minute windows promote a sense of urgency and increase motivation to get the task done.

Timeboxing

Another good but simple method to employ is something known as “timeboxing.” 

All you do is open your calendar and create a block of time (like scheduling a meeting) that you will dedicate to a certain task.

This method is entirely flexible. You can fill your entire day with timeboxes, or you can dedicate parts of the day and leave the rest open. You can schedule a day at a time, or do it for the coming weeks.

Studies on Parkinson’s Law

Prolonging Work

The “Timeless Demonstrations of Parkinson's First Law” was a set of studies completed in 1999. Participants were given four sets of photos of men and women and asked to rank them according to the level of education they believed each person had.

Participants were given sets one and two to judge. However, before they were given the third set of photos, they were informed that the fourth set had been canceled.

This resulted in the participants dallying over the third set and taking longer to judge them when compared with how long it took them to judge the first two sets.

The study was replicated two more times with different participants, and the same phenomenon occurred. Each study saw the participants prolonging the time it took them to judge the third set of photos.

More Time Than Needed

Another study, “A Replication and Extension of the Excess Time Effect,” conducted in 1967, showed that too much time allotted for tasks will result in them taking longer to complete.

Participants were given a five-minute task to complete. However, the amount of time each participant had to complete it differed. Some were given five minutes; others were given 15 minutes.

The participants who were given the excess time spent significantly longer working on the task than those who were given only five minutes.

Additionally, the participants were also presented with a second task that was either identical to the initial task or completely different. The participants who initially had excess time for the first task and were given the identical second task took much longer to complete it 

Final Thoughts

Parkinson’s Law will always be hovering in the background waiting to pounce. And it’s likely that even if you know what it is, you’ll still succumb to it once in a while.

However, by taking steps to manage your time efficiently, setting reasonable deadlines, and breaking things down, you’ll become much more effective at keeping it at bay.

If you do find that Parkinson’s Law has crept into your projects, take a step back and try to understand why. Look at where you were spending your time and what factors influenced it.

Then, once you learn why you procrastinate or fill your time unnecessarily, develop a time management strategy to avoid it happening for future projects.