Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Even if you are not familiar with its name, I’m sure you’ve fallen prey to Parkinson’s Law countless times… what can we do to escape it?
Do You Recognize These Symptoms?
We all know the drill: when we have too much time to complete a task, we tend to slack off until the task becomes urgent. Then, when meeting the deadline gets nigh impossible, we become super-productive and miraculously pull it off — getting the job done just in time.
The quintessential example of Parkinson’s Law in action is school assignments: even with a full month to complete an assignment, most people work very unproductively (if at all) until the last few days — when they pull one or two all-nighters and manage to get it done right at the last minute.
If you are like one of those students, you know that ‘working’ on the assignment filled up the whole time available — even if only psychologically — despite the fact that you spent little time in actual, productive work. Had you invested this short amount of time right after the assignment was handed to you, you would have completed it much sooner and could have spent the remaining time much more joyfully (either truly resting or working more productively on other stuff).
Does that mean we’re doomed to work at our peak only when we’re faced with looming deadlines? How can we get rid of this unproductive behavior and beat Parkinson’s Law? It turns out there are a few things you can do. Read on.
6 Surefire Ways to Beat Parkinson’s Law
1. Break Down Your Tasks and Deadlines
Parkinson’s Law always strikes the hardest when you have enormous tasks with far-away deadlines. The best way to fix this is, of course, breaking those big, monolithic tasks into many smaller, bite-sized tasks, along with several intermediate deadlines to complete them.
In addition to showing how you are progressing, frequent, achievable deadlines create a mild sense of urgency during the whole duration of your work, keeping you naturally engaged and focused on what needs to be done.
This method works great indeed, but note that you still need to take those intermediate deadlines seriously — which is not always easy!
2. Know What ‘Done’ Means
It’s not always easy to know for sure when a task is finished. The more of a perfectionist you are, the most likely you’re a victim of Parkinson’s Law: there’s always one more little thing to add, one little refinement to be made, isn’t there?
Sure, I am all for aiming for greater quality: the hard part is knowing where to draw the line so we don’t spend a lot of time overdoing it.
If you suffer from this same problem, one thing that helps a lot is to precisely define the output of your tasks. The trick is to be as specific as you can about them — and then simply stop when you complete them.
For example, ‘write white paper draft’ allows too much room for interpretation by your inner perfectionist. ‘Write a 1000-word unedited stream-of-consciousness-style text’ works much better, doesn’t it? Being specific upfront helps keep our perfectionism in check.
3. Set Clear Boundaries
Most of the time, Parkinson’s Law kicks in when we’re doing too much stuff at the same time: our days become a jumble of tasks when hardly any ever gets completely finished. And, with the huge amount of distractions that tend to creep in, it only gets worse.
To avoid Parkinson’s Law’s effects and finish tasks sooner, we must work on them one at a time, focused and with as few distractions as possible.
The best way I know to do that is by corralling your tasks using time boxes. Get a countdown timer and set a time limit to work on them — a contiguous block without distractions to finish or at least make progress on those tasks.
Another great way of setting boundaries is by clearly separating between work and leisure. If you restrict the time available for work (and honor it, of course), you’ll learn to fit all your work into these boundaries. My favorite technique to keep work boundaries well-defined is the time budget (where you define how much time you spend on each area of your life).
4. Challenge Yourself
When you have a tight time limit or deadline, it forces your brain to figure out ways to get it done in the time available.
So, it’s time to stop adding hidden “safety buffers” when you estimate and allocate time for your tasks: if you pad your estimates, they will be wasted as a result of Parkinson’s Law kicking in.
What works here instead is to set challenging deadlines for yourself. Not too challenging — mildly challenging, I’d say. The trick here is that they must still be believable — otherwise you’ll just disregard them.
Take those time boxes you set for yourself (in item #3 above) and now shrink them! Can you do the same task 10% faster? Maybe 20%? A litttle more, perhaps? As soon as you set an expectation — an estimate for the duration of a task — the estimate becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The task will take the expected time, so take advantage of that!
The good thing about regularly challenging yourself that way is that you’ll improve your estimation skills very quickly, in addition to having fun finding creative ways to win these self-imposed challenges. If you practice (and your tasks are well-defined and small enough), it becomes increasingly easier to effectively set challenges for yourself.
5. Create Incentives to Finish Early
One reason Parkinson’s Law is so prevalent — especially in corporations — is that people rarely have the right incentives to finish early:
- —”Finished already? Here’s more work for you.”
- —”You’re fast! Guess we can bring the deadline forward next time!”
Even without pointy-haired bosses around, sticking to the current task as long as possible is often desirable, as it can act as a security blanket: maybe you’re avoiding your next task because it is too daunting, for example.
So if you finish early, give yourself mini-rewards: take a quick break, browse the web, go for a walk — do whatever takes your fancy — and enjoy the feeling of having deserved it. The key here is to associate rewards with results, not with time spent — so don’t fool yourself.
Of course, incentives for finishing early only work if the task is well-defined (i.e., you know exactly what ‘done’ means), otherwise most of us will just cheat (by doing a sloppy or incomplete job) in order to get the reward sooner.
6. Know What’s Next
Lastly, something that happens too often is hanging on too long to a task solely because we don’t know exactly what to do next.
Most of the time, the cognitive effort in planning tasks is much higher than that required to actually carry them out. That means that if we don’t have anything ready to be acted on, we may not have the required energy to stop, plan on-the-fly, and then get back to work. The easy way out is to stick to the current task for as long as we safely can.
One thing that I always strive to do is separate planning from doing, and make sure to always have a few next actions in the pipeline so you can keep the momentum going and avoid having to stop to reassess what you should be doing.
Over to You
Are you a victim of Parkinson’s Law? What works best for you in beating it? Share in the comments!
…and, while we’re still at it, writing this article reminded me of an oldie (but goodie) short video I enjoy. It’s not exactly about Parkinson’s Law, but it’s somewhat related and always makes me chuckle…
(If you can’t see the video, watch it on Youtube)
- Credit for intro photo: Robbert van der Steeg.