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Overcome your fear of deadlines with Parkinson’s law

How to figure out the right amount of time for any project.
Black and white photo of a woman holding a stack of papers, illustrating Parkinson's Law.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images
View of a woman's arms struggling to hold stacks of business papers, 1960s
Key Takeaways
  • “Parkinson’s law” says that a job will expand or shrink to fit the resources we give it.
  • A solid grasp of Parkinson’s law can help us better handle deadlines and targets.
  • Techniques such as “timeboxing” and “Agile project management” illustrate the practical business uses of Parkinson’s law.

If you open the news, you’ll occasionally get to read a happy headline like, “Roger, from Nearby City, has won $4 million.” Which is lovely. Good for Roger. Roger, enjoying his mansion, private jet, and five-star holiday in Qatar. When people read about lottery winners, there’s often an accompanying schadenfreude if you read of how quickly they lose their fortunes. There’s a curmudgeonly joy in stories where millionaires go on a year-long splurge, only to end up exactly where they were before they won the lottery. Roger is back at his desk, with his Honda Civic parked outside.

When you win the lottery and suddenly have a bank balance with considerably more zeros, you adapt your life. It might be that you start out prudentially. You buy business class, not economy class, flights. You go to the fancier store to get your groceries. After a while, your life fits your bank balance. It is a strange fact of human nature that we will spend as much as we have or work only as long as we need. We will run to the finish line, and no more.

This idea is now known as “Parkinson’s law.” It’s the observation that a job will expand or shrink to fit the resources we give it. Knowing this, we can learn how to use it to our advantage.

Target practice

At its core, Parkinson’s Law — elaborated by naval historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson in his 1958 book Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress — is about our relationship with deadlines and targets. When you give yourself a long time to do something, then you take your time. You do things slower. Of course, sometimes this is a good thing: Writing a doctoral thesis or producing a breath-taking podcast series takes time. In other cases, though, the time given to a thing ends up making you slower and less efficient. If you give yourself a week to clear out the garage, it will take a week. If I offered to pay you $2,000 to do it in an afternoon, you’d have a clean garage by dinner. If you give a certain type of student a month to write a 1,500-word essay, they will spend four weeks drinking coffee and thumbing through books. They will actually write the essay in two frenetic days at the end.

There are two pieces of general wisdom to garner from Parkinson’s law. The first is to keep targets elastic. And elastic does not only mean it has to expand. We all know of projects that have gone way beyond their deadlines or due dates. We’ve all had to say, “Yeah, sorry, I’m going to need a bit more time.” Sometimes, though, a job is easier or is finished quicker than anyone expected. Giving people flexible output targets, such as, “This week, do these five jobs when you can,” can often elicit just as good, if not better, work than requesting conformity to a standard 9-5.

Second, it’s important to learn just how much work a job requires. Even accounting for every worker being different, you can still get a ballpark figure for how many hours a task will take. Putting the effort into quantifying and weighing jobs will make management more efficient; you can allocate tasks based on realistic time needs rather than simply guessing.

All of which is likely old hat to anyone who has been on a management course or read a business book or two. We live in a world of performance targets and professional reviews, after all.

How to apply Parkinson’s law

So, what practical tips can we learn from Parkinson’s law? What can we take back to our companies to use? Here, we suggest three.

Timeboxing. Set yourself a fixed time limit to do a project or a job — it could be five minutes or it could be a month. The point, though, is to stop working on that job when the time is up. That’s it. It’s time to show the class. The most important thing about “timeboxing” is not just that it makes you work more efficiently, but that it allows you and the company to reflect on what a job involves. Did you finish the job? What did you do, and what didn’t you do? Make a note and refine the timebox for next time.

Meaningful meetings. It’s a cliché now to attack the pointless meeting. “This could have been an email” is as much a meme as it is a reality. Not all meetings are bad. In an age of digital nomads and working from home, meetings can establish and reinforce a workplace culture. A survey by Slack of 9,000 workers showed that going remote had decreased workers’ “sense of belonging.” Meetings combat that. But the lesson from Parkinson’s law is to focus on the purpose of the meeting. What are we here to do? How much time does that need? On Big Think+, the New York Times bestselling author and former Yahoo! Executive, Tim Sanders, gives us five “ground rules” for effective meetings.

Break it down. Agile project management is a way of operating where you break down big tasks into much smaller ones and tick them off quickly. It is a popular method of work in software development and is used by big companies like Spotify. The logic behind the Agile approach is that sometimes Parkinson’s law works to overwhelm you. When you’re presented with a huge, multi-month time frame for a job, it’s easy to lose yourself in, “Where do I start?” Agile breaks jobs down and moves quickly. Traditional project management is about building a plane on the ground. Agile project management is about building the plane in the air.

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