In 1955, a British historian and author, Cyril Northcote Parkinson made an interesting statement. He observed that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. This observation was first published in The Economist in 1955 and since republished online. He called it the Parkinson's Law.
To Parkinson, the Parkinson’s Law boils down to is the essence of what takes a lady of leisure an entire day to write and dispatch a postcard while taking a busy man three minutes. The total effort of the task is identical but the time spent on finding a postcard, writing it, searching for the address, etc. is the difference between a person who has time and another who doesn't.
On an organizational level, Parkinson found that the number of employees and the quantity of work completed has no direct correlation. Yes, you hire more people to give everyone more time to get more work done, but with the Parkinson’s Law at play, the work will eventually expand to fill every employee's’ available time.
Notes: I cover more of this and four more time management strategies that will change your work and life here.
Implementing the Parkinson’s Law
This law quickly explains why many top performers get so much done in a short amount of time while others lag behind. If you give yourself a project that takes three days to complete, it will take three days, but if you give the same project two weeks, sure enough, it will eventually take two weeks to complete.
If you’re constantly seeking ways to improve your productivity, Parkinson’s Law is nothing strange to you. Here, I’m going to show you a step-by-step process you can use to implement the law.
Step 1: focus on important tasks
First, you need to write down every single task you have at hand. Then, separate the list of tasks based on their importance and focus solely on them. Important tasks are not necessarily urgent, so never mistake an urgent task for an important one.
Instead of evaluating items based on their deadlines, go through your tasks based on the value they create once completed. At the same time, make sure these values are aligned with your current vision and goals.
Step 2: allocate time for each of them
Now, set the amount of time you need to complete them just like you usually do. I suggest you focus on only one to three tasks at this point. You can set the time based on how much you typically spent on the particular task.
Step 3: cut the time into half
Here comes the fun part. Challenge yourself to cut the allocated time in half.
If you set three hours to write a blog post, try one and a half.
If you usually took an hour to run through your emails, challenge yourself to finish it in half an hour.
If you take two weeks to draft a proposal for your client, try doing it in a week.
These self-enforced deadlines are going to create an urgency that pushes you to complete the work. It also forces you to focus on the project until it’s completed.
Step 4: execute, review, reflect
The final step is to start executing. Then, review the efficiency of your performance. At the same time, ask yourself this: “Am I feeling stressed out with the short timeline or tight deadline?”
What you want is to find the right amount of stress that motivates you to focus but not too much stress so that it paralyzes you. If you find it easy to finish the task in half the time, cut the time down by 10% to 20% again. On the flip side, add 10% to 20% more time for a task if you’re overly stressed out by the timeline.
When less is more
Besides creating a false sense of urgency, the Parkinson’s Law works because it creates a tangible starting point and ending point to a task. It’s hard for us to get started and stay focused when our mind is not clear about when it will end.