A Beginners Guide To Parkinson’s Law: How To Do More Stuff By Giving Yourself Less Time

This post is part of a series on productivity laws and actionable ways to incorporate them into your work in order to simultaneously become more efficient and elevate your work to a higher level.

If you’ve spent any sort of time reading about productivity hacks, you’ve probably run across Parkinson’s Law before. You might know the name or concept, but you may not know exactly it is or how you can implement this law to be as effective as possible. This post will show you exactly how to do that.

Parkinson’s Law Definition:

Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

How Parkinson’s Law Works In Real Life

Whether or not you’re aware of it, you’ve probably experienced Parkinson’s Law many times in real life:

  • In college, you had all semester to write a paper, and yet you wrote it in the last 72 hours before the deadline, and emailed it in at 5am on the morning it was due.
  • You had all week to finalize a proposal, but waited to do it until 4:30pm on the Friday.
  • All year you knew you had a wedding or beach vacation to get ready for but you put off healthy eating and went on a crash diet four weeks before the trip.

allnighter

If you’ve experienced any of the above scenarios, you know exactly what I’m talking about. For months on end, you’re paralyzed and incapable of working, and then suddenly you become a machine in the final week before a task has to be done.

What happened?

Parkinson’s Law

Cyril Parkinson, a British historian, first observed the trend during his time with the British Civil Service. He noted that as bureaucracies expanded, they became more inefficient. He then applied this observation to a variety of other circumstances, realizing that as the size of something increased, its efficiency dropped.

He found that even a series of simple tasks increased in complexity to fill up the time allotted to it. As the length of time allocated to a task became shorter, the task became simpler and easier to solve.

This concept goes hand in hand with the belief that you need to work hard rather than efficiently. That mentality is reflected in the fact that managers often reward workers for (butt in seat) hours rather than hours spent actually working or results produced.

However, as negative as this rule sounds so far, you can flip it on its head to use it to your advantage.

How To Use Parkinson’s Law To Your Advantage.

Unfortunately, very few people will actually tell you to work less. Even fewer people will force you to work less. That means that if you’re going to implement Parkinson’s Law, you’re going to have to do it yourself. You’re going to have to apply artificial limitations to your work in order to do it more efficiently. Here are a few tips for doing just that:

  • Work without your computer charger. Force yourself to get stuff done before your computer runs out of battery.
  • Use the Pomodoro technique. The Pomodoro technique helps you to systematically chop your tasks into chunks, and forces you to set a specific timetable for accomplishing them. For more details on how to implement the Pomodoro technique, check back for our full guide on this next week.
  • Restrict your time artificially by moving throughout the day. Force yourself to move every two hours, and create a set task list. Check out the workplace popcorn strategy for more on this.
  • Instead of trying to write 1,000 words in a day, run x miles in a day, or go to the gym, make a rule to do XYZ before 10am. Get it done early and then let yourself coast. You’ll be surprised at how much this frees up the rest of your day.
  • An extreme example of this is to stop working after noon altogether. I don’t do this (I have too much work to do!) but Sean Ogle swears by it. If you wake up early enough, you can certainly use this to get more done and to have more free time.
  • Blackmail yourself. Get an accountability partner who will fore you to pay up, literally, if you work past a certain time or take too long to something. I do this with Vic for fitness stuff and with Joanna for work stuff. In addition to enjoying the mental victories, if you use this approach, you’ll be motivated by real financial consequences.
  • Set a hard deadline. Find a four-week program or an eight-week fitness program, set a specific goal for the end of that length of time, and set it in stone. Have something like a photo shoot planned to motivate you to hit your goals. You can certainly lose ten pounds in six months, but you can also do it in eight weeks if you set eight weeks as your limit.
  • Limit tasks like responding to email to thirty minutes a day. Instead of agonizing over each email, spend thirty minutes on your emails at the end of the day and be done with it. You’ll find that smaller tasks take up much less time this way.
  • Does your coffee shop close at a certain time? If so, force yourself to stop working when it closes.

hours

Stop Working Late

When I first worked at a marketing agency, I used to work late all the time. I’d take work home with me or stay at the office. I was convinced that I needed to show my “dedication”, “earn my stripes”, and simply get more stuff done, and that working more hours was the way to do this.

Nope.

Interestingly enough, I worked more but got less done. On top of that, I was stressed all the time. WTF?

I was an addict, not to work, but to thinking that I was working. It got so bad that one day I decided enough was enough. I remember specifically saying that I was no longer going to work after 6pm. Full stop.

Like an addict, I had a hard time at first. I was scared, worrying that I was never going to get enough done, and that there wasn’t enough time in the day.

I was wrong.

I actually found out that I was more productive than ever and that I had time for a social life outside work again. The counterintuitive thinking actually works. Creating artificial restraints on my work created more freedom.

Refuse to bring work home. This is easily the best advice, and it works 100% of the time when I implement it. Simply refuse. Don’t work from your bed or couch, no matter how comfortable that may be. When you leave the office, coffee shop, or co-working space, simply stop working. There will be enough time to work tomorrow. Let your home be just that – your home.

Use Restrictions To Create Freedom

The overarching lesson from Parkinson’s Law is that restrictions can actually create freedom.

This is completely counter-intuitive thinking but it’s true. Even outside of simple task management, restriction creates freedom. Try these exercises on for size:

  • Think of ten things you see on a daily basis. Now think of ten things in your local coffee shop. Which was easier?
  • Name twenty words in Spanish. Now count out the numbers 1-20 in Spanish. Which was easier?
  • Name ten fun activities. Now now think of ten different water activities. Which was easier?

Specificity and restrictions create freedom and nourish creativity. Add them to your arsenal of tools as you become an uber productive and efficient creator.

How To Use Parkinson’s Law To Do The Impossible

While it’s not specifically articulated in Parkinson’s official theory, you can also use the inverse of this rule to increase the quality and magnitude of your work.

If you expand the scope of your ideas, and the magnitude of your goals, you can often create a gap between what you’re currently capable of and what you want to do. When you create that gap, you figure out how to grow into that gap. You suddenly figure out how to fill the gap.

A great example of this is when we first partnered with PoP. I thought we might be able to raise 10k. If I aimed for that, we probably would have raised exactly 10k, or maybe a little more. Instead, I decided to stretch, and we aimed for $25,000. We ended up raising a little over $26,000. That’s what I’m talking about when I mention the “edges of impossible”.

I’ve referred to this in the past as “shoot first, aim later” or “jump … and then figure it out on the way down.” Pick a big goal, commit to it, and you’ll probably find that you’re able to figure out a way to achieve it.

The Takeaway

Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

If work expands to fill the time allotted to it, make less time available to get more work done quicker.

How can you add artificial parameters to your life and work in order to become more productive and more prolific, and to operate on a bigger scale? Which techniques work for you?

Further Reading On Parkinson’s Law

Check out these additional resources for more on Parkinson’s Law:

Photo credit: Mireille Raad and Ben Sutherland

Comments

  1. says

    Love this article Joel- some really simple but implementable ideas… love the ‘work without a charger’ challenge. I’ve got really bad at procrastination and putting off hard tasks lately so this list has a few ass kickers i’ll be trying out. Thanks :-)

  2. says

    Fantastic article. I used your previous article on breaking up tasks into certain time increments to great success. I have been working from home for myself for a few months now and I find I can’t focus at my house, but when I go to the coffee shop I get a lot more done.

    The idea about not using your charger is great. My battery life is right at the sweet spot for this where it only lasts about an hour and a half anymore.

  3. says

    Joel,

    Thanks for another solid read. I have enjoyed the two pieces that you have published about productivity as they are practical and helpful.

    I have in the past year began to experiment with some of the ideas that you mentioned above, mainly the not doing any work after a certain period of time. Before, I used to subscribe to the belief that the more hours that I invested at work, the more efficient I was. But more than anything, this investment took so much away from other areas of my life, especially my side project that I wanted to spend time growing. It wasn’t until I made a conscious effort to leave my work at work and not bring it home and use my time at home for my family and pursuing my side project (CYL), that I noticed a dramatic improvement in the quality of my life and in my productivity.

    Parkinson’s Law attacks the conventional notion that in order for a goal or task to be worthwhile or meaningful, it must take a lot of time. BS. You are absolutely right, the expectation that we put on things as far as how long they will take will determine just how long it truly will take us to get them done.

    I plan on sharing this article with my peeps, lots of good stuff here.

    Thanks again Joel for sharing your insight and strategies. Super helpful as always.

    Jeremy

  4. says

    The one thing that works well for me in terms of productivity is using something I read in Sparring Minds.

    An accountability chart.

    It’s simple. Before doing anything, write what you aim to achieve and what you really achieve after the task.

  5. says

    I really appreciated this post, as I could certainly use a reminder on how to more efficiently use my time! I was especially grateful for the advice of setting time-constrained goals – all too often I find myself in a flurry of activity trying to cancel off all the neglected items on my to-do list at a time when I should really be prepping for bed, or at the very least relaxing with a book and a nice cup of tea.

    To answer your question, one technique which I’m finding very helpful right now is the five minute session. This really helps me in activities that I’m hesitant to complete – I’ll clean for five minutes, practice my mandolin for five minutes, study flashcards for five minutes, etc. Often I’ll end up engaging in my task for a longer period of time, but by giving myself permission to only work for five minutes I am able to attack the task with my full attention as well as remove the resistance I had towards the activity in the first place.

  6. says

    Joel, I’m down with this. But what to do if you’re running your own business? I find that many of my days are spent working for my clients and then additional time is needed to continue to build my business, acquire and fulfill multiple contracts and keep content flowing on all my channels. In addition, I teach two nights per week, adhere to my own fitness regimen and stay on top of my wellness goals. What would you suggest when a schedule is that packed?

  7. says

    Great article, and excellent actionable advice. We ALL need a reminder sometimes to just GTD (get things done)! Getting up early and enjoying your non-work time is also important. Thanks!

  8. Chris says

    Great article. Just started reading Parkinson’s Law or The Pursuit of Progress and it’s relevance in today’s world, bearing in mind it was first published in 1958, is astonishing. Wonderful to read this take on it. I will be looking to test and adopt some self managing behaviours here.

  9. says

    Some excellent ideas, thanks for publishing these articles… When I first learned of Parkinson’s law a few years ago I created an online one hour countdown timer that I could use at work to set short deadlines for individual tasks. That is my tool to set artificial parameters A few other people started using so over time, in small one hour timed increments it’s evolved into hourgoal.com. I still use it daily for setting and tracking short deadlines to try and evade Parkinson’s Law.

    Rod

Trackbacks

  1. […] A Beginners Guide To Parkinson’s Law: How To Do More Stuff By Giving Yourself Less Time by @joelrunyon: Parkinson’s Law states that a task will expand to fill the amount of time available to complete it. This is why, for example, students often find themselves furiously scribbling their assignments the night before the deadline. Cold shower enthusiast Joel Runyon proposes a foolproof strategy for overcoming Parkinson’s Law – just give yourself less time! […]

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