We all know the feeling: you have more things on your to-do list than hours in the work day. Maybe you find yourself spending the whole morning on the first task, then starting to panic at lunchtime. If you’re wondering how to be more productive, the answer could be as simple as knowing about Parkinson’s Law.
Whether you’re working in an office or out of one of Blueground’s fully outfitted and furnished apartments in New York City, Paris, Los Angeles, or other cities worldwide, you can benefit from putting this retro theory into practice. Simply put, Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” This adage can be traced back to the Economist, which first published Cyril Northcote Parkinson’s satirical essay “Parkinson’s Law” in 1955:“It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Thus, an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and despatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half-an-hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the pillar-box in the next street. The total effort which would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil.”
As silly as this example seems, you can probably relate. Who hasn’t spent a whole afternoon making tiny formatting changes to a 20-page bulleted report with charts and illustrations, simultaneously neglecting two or three other tasks that could have been wrapped up in the same amount of time?
Although Parkinson’s original essay was written in the spirit of fun, it was inspired by his real career. The inefficiency and mismanagement he observed first hand as a member of the massively bureaucratic British Civil Service in the mid-20th century is what led him to take pen to paper.
The simplest way anyone can be more productive is by calling themselves out for any kind of Parkinson’s Law-based malingering over a deliverable. In other words, perfect is the enemy of good.
Writing for Atlassian’s Work-Life blog, Kat Boogard points out how the time-dilation effects of Parkinson’s Law are even more clear when applied to group projects:
“You and your team have two weeks to plan a surprise party for one of your colleagues. It’s more than enough time to reserve the conference room, order a cake, and buy some party hats.”
“But because you know you have more than enough time at your disposal, that party grows more and more complex. Kate wants to create an embarrassing slideshow. Brandon is eager to decorate the conference room. Maureen thinks your team should create a handmade card. Now that party that should’ve really been a simple and quick undertaking is something that actually requires the two weeks to complete. That’s Parkinson’s Law in action.”
Boogard’s example rings true because we’ve all had this experience while working on a group project. Because each person has a different priority, the time needed to come to a consensus will overshadow the time spent executing on decisions. This is not only inefficient, it’s frustrating for everyone involved. It might even be fair to assume that the fictional Kate, Brandon, and Maureen will end up feeling put out by the time the party actually begins.
The party planning example above is also an apt illustration of another of Parkinson’s “laws” — the Law of Triviality. This law says that people within organizations often give undue time and attention to trivial matters. The concept is also referred to as “bikeshedding.” That’s a nod to a 1957 essay in which Parkinson presents the example of a fictional committee that exists to approve the plans for a nuclear power plant. Instead of addressing the complex technical issues of plant operation, the group spends the majority of their time discussing how to build the facility’s bike shed.
Obviously an office party planned by committee could fall into the same trap of using far too much time to execute a simple plan — while neglecting their everyday tasks. Boogard also cites a second factor that comes into play with group projects: social loafing. This is, as she puts it, “the tendency of people working in groups to put forth less effort than they would on solo projects.”
It’s undeniable that prioritizing the trivial while simultaneously hoping that everyone is trying just a little bit harder than you are won’t produce good results, whatever the task at hand may be.
So how can you avoid deadline disaster or falling victim to bikeshedding? Boogard sees an informal kickoff as the key to setting expectations for the entire life cycle of a project. At this meeting the value of the project to the company as a whole should be discussed, in addition to its scope. (It’s also a good idea to discuss what isn’t within scope at this meeting.)
Each person’s role on the team should be clearly defined during the kickoff as well. The team also needs to make a plan for what can become a “tradeoff” if other priorities interfere with the project down the road, as well as set a timeline for completion.
In an article for Lifehack, Joel Falconer draws on his experience at startups to supercharge Parkinson’s Law-based time savings:
“As you get started with Parkinson’s Law, make a list of your tasks, and divide them up by the amount of time it takes to complete them. Then give yourself half that time to complete each task. You have to see making the time limit as crucial. Treat it like any other deadline.”
Half of the time? You read that right. This approach may seem counterintutive, but Falconer is simply dropping the maxim to “pay yourself first” into Parkinson’s world. Treating yourself as the client also helps you feel more drive and agency as you work.
“Part of reversing what we’ve been indoctrinated with (work harder, not smarter) is to see the deadlines you set for yourself as unbreakable—just like the deadlines your boss or clients set,” according to Falconer. “Use that human, instinctual longing for competition that fuels such industries as sports and gaming to make this work for you. You have to win against the clock; strive to beat it as if it were your opponent, without taking shortcuts and producing low-quality output. This is particularly helpful if you’re having trouble taking your own deadlines seriously.”
Another advantage to Falconer’s half-time hack is that you’ll come away with more perspective on how long you’re really spending on your key deliverables.
Falconer stresses that in order to stick to your guns, find a way to not only track the time you’re spending on each task but to alert yourself when it’s time to move on. “If you work at a computer, a digital timer is going to be very useful when you start doing this. It’ll also save you a bit of time, because a timer allows you to see at a glance how much longer you have. Using your clock involves some addition and subtraction!”
If you want to take time policing to the next level, you can also try the Pomodoro Technique. This time-tracking method involves working on one task for 25 minutes, then taking a 5-minute break. After three back-to-back “pomodoros,” you should take an even longer break.
Are you feeling inspired to hack away at your work day? At Blueground we prioritize experience over everything else, whether it’s productivity at work or feeling at home in a new city right away. Our turnkey furnished apartments in Europe, the Middle East, and North America are individually selected and designed. All of our comfortable homes come with everything you need to work remotely. If you’re still renting the old-fashioned way, find out more about the Blueground experience.