Why everything you thought you knew about Parkinson’s Law is wrong

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

Even if you haven’t heard the term, Parkinson’s Law, I’m sure you are familiar with the idea:

The law states that if you reserve some amount of time for a given task, the task takes up the whole time, no matter if the task could be done faster or not.

And the implication?

  1. In his post The Not-To-Do List: 9 Habits to Stop Now, Tim Ferris suggests: “Review Parkinson’s Law — and force yourself to cram within tight hours so your per-hour productivity doesn’t fall through the floor”.
  2. In his 22 Tips for Effective Deadlines Scott H. Young says: “Use Parkinson’s Law – Parkinson’s Law states that tasks expand to fill the time given to them. By setting a strict deadline in advance you can cut off this expansion and focus on what is most important.”

Just as you thought:

What these guys are saying is that if work expands to fill the available time slot, you need to make the time slot tighter to become more productive.

But is it really this simple? Can you really make productivity sky-rocket by just making your deadlines as tight as possible?

No, you can’t.

While the law described above might be true, it doesn’t say anything about making deadlines tighter.

What it says is that if you reserve too much time, you’ll probably spend the extra time doing something not related to the task itself. But what happens if you reserve too little time? Do you get the task done even faster?

And if you do, what happens then?

  1. You can get the job done faster, but with lower quality. But before you rejoice and choose this option, remember that the loss of quality will likely come and haunt you later – you’ll lose the time benefit at that point anyway.
  2. You can get the job done by telling your people to work overtime (or working overtime yourself). The work gets done, but the price will be high: burn outs, loss of motivation, high turnover.

But most likely:

  1. You don’t get the work done and set a new deadline (using the same Parkinsonian approach).
  2. You don’t get the work done on the second deadline either (as it wasn’t based on any real estimates).

And when you finally get the job done, you are stressed out, broken. Finished. You feel like a failure. How come I couldn’t make it?

But be honest, you saw it coming? Didn’t you?

If your schedule is based on nothing more than an idea of making things as tight as possible, there is really no reason to assume that you would finish your project by that schedule.

It’s the same as counting:

  1. There’s an important meeting in Paris in two hours.
  2. I am in New York, so the distance is 3635 miles, or 5851 km.
  3. Well, that means that I just need to travel at 1817 mph. Can do.

To get your work done you need time. It’s a law of nature.

8 thoughts on “Why everything you thought you knew about Parkinson’s Law is wrong

  1. There are at least SR-71 and MIG-25 being capable to fly 3200+ km/h and . This would leave time for quick taxi ride and tax-free shopping :-)

    Sometimes extreme requirements can create extraordinary designs. But usually hurrying in sake of hurrying leads to disasters.

  2. Isn’t this more about management of tasks than about their planning?

    I’d never interpreted this as meaning I should move up deadlines, but rather that taking into consideration that work expands to fill available time is important when monitoring the progress of a task – to keep people moving forward without making deadlines too rigid or too tight, while at the same time not letting things go longer than they really need to go.

  3. Petteri: Oh yeah, so the project is actually doable ;)

    David: That’s an interesting point. But could you elaborate a bit on how you actually use the “law” for monitoring the progress? Do you mean that you look more closely to see if people are done with their tasks (and doing something else already), or do you use it for planning some minor deadlines?

    To me it’s somehow quite hard to see this practice used in anything else than planning…

  4. Great post! Thanks for bringing up the topic. Since reading the 4-hour Work Week I’ve been pondering on the concept – and what to do… Somehow there is truth in it, say, I do tend to bring more stuff when I use a bigger bag, and do more research when more time is allowed for a project. So, does a tighter schedule helps? To a certain extend, yes. But it has to be reasonable. Compressing everything into an insanely tight schedule would only add pressure and harm quality, as you have rightly pointed out.

  5. Thanks Grace!

    I haven’t read the 4-hour Work Week yet, but I think I should. Or what do you think? Is the book worth all the hype it has been getting these last weeks and months?

  6. I think a given job may or may not be specially susceptible. In cases where it is a danger you provide closer management, more defined interim deadlines, or more carefully spelled out schedules. I don’t think it’s ever about changing the available time. You still plan for what it ought to take. You just need to be more aware of the potential to stretch.

    In our business there are two kinds of issues with this. The first is just the normal tendency for things to expand. The second, applying more often to when creativity is involved – art – has the added dimension of “is it done?” In this scenario someone will keep tweaking for all the time allowed – even if really it could have been “done” long before. It’s an interesting facet to the original problem.

  7. You’re right, the point about “is it done?” makes sense. So I suppose for people who want to polish their work to perfection it’s pretty important to have some kind of time limit…

    But again, if you are one of those people who want to do their work as perfectly as they can, it can cause you to be unhappy with the results, and lower your motivation. But I guess that’s another discussion. :)

  8. I latelly discovered your blog which I think is really nice. Keep up the good work.

    To the topic:
    I use the Parkinson’s law for setting up schedules to avoid countless perfecting: Unless I have a deadline, I keep tweaking and perfecting my lessons – and skipping the other tasks. The deadline forces me to “do well-enough” to be satisfied and not to burnout on preparations as some of my teaching friends have gone.
    But you’re right – too tight schedules can “flaw” your product. You haste to do in time and thus you omit important things. Here comes the David’s mention on planning: setting up a schedule forces you to check what lays ahead of you and therefore plan number of timeboxes more proprietly.

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