Let’s take a little trip down memory lane.
You’re back in high school, sitting at the kitchen table. It’s 8pm on the night before a big project is due, and you’ve got…just about nothing down on paper. Sound familiar? Sure, it might have been finishing a presentation or studying for an exam, but we’ve all found ourselves in that situation at one time or another.
Do you remember that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach as you wondered how you were possibly going to get it done?
I wish I could tell you that it’s something we all grow out of eventually, but unfortunately, for most of us, it’s not. Managing our time is an ongoing challenge, and sometimes only a looming deadline can get us to kick into gear. In fact, there’s a name for that phenomenon: Parkinson’s Law.
In this post, we’ll talk about what Parkinson’s Law is, where it comes from, and how you can trick yourself into working around it, so you can escape that cycle of procrastination and panic and have a more predictable, productive work life.
What is Parkinson’s Law and where did it come from?
Parkinson’s Law, named after historian Cyril Parkinson, is the idea that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,” which he introduced in a column in The Economist in 1955. While our friend Cyril was mostly concerned about the seemingly-endless expansion of bureaucracy in the United Kingdom, based on his experience in the military and civil service, many people over the last half century have found it applies to their organizations as well. The gist of his original theory was that most people would rather just hire more underlings to take things off their plate than become busier or more productive. Why not, when they could plausibly justify the hire by saying “Look, my projects take up all the time that I have already!”
However, for our purposes, we’re going to take the opposite attitude towards Parkinson’s Law – the working world has changed a lot over the last sixty five years, and we’re all under pressure to accomplish more than ever before, especially if you own your own business. With that in mind, we’re declaring it: Parkinson’s Law is the enemy. If we allow a small number of projects to take up our whole week, we can’t possibly meet the expectations of modern work, so it’s on us to figure out a way around it.
How to Avoid Parkinson’s Law in Your Work
No one’s going to hold it against you that you, too, are subject to the laws of human nature, but it is your responsibility to find a way around it and get more done. In this section, we’re going to discuss a few ideas to help you short-circuit Parkinson’s Law and become more productive.
Schedule Your Week in Advance
Most people who hear about Parkinson’s Law for the first time focus on the way that work tends to fill up our time, but they’re missing out on an important point. In the second half of the sentence, Parkinson himself specifies “the time available for its completion,” and I’ve got good news for you, dear reader – you can control that! The time you allow for a task to get done is the one variable in this equation that’s entirely under our control, and believe it or not, if you set tighter constraints on how long you have to finish a task, you’re probably going to be surprised by how much more you can get done.
This means sitting down at the start of each week (or better yet, the Friday before,) taking your to-do list, and mapping it out onto your Woven calendar. Think seriously about how much time each task should take, since that’s all we’re going to allot for it, then use the private tags or descriptions to assign a priority to each of the tasks on your list. Once your list has been mapped onto the calendar, move your top priority to Monday morning, and then sort everything else after that by how important it is to get done that week.
There are three keys to making this strategy successful: scheduling your time in advance, filling your schedule with other worthwhile activities, but also being strict with yourself! Sure, you’ll have to circle back and finish the project at some other point in your week, and you can set aside a couple of time blocks for that as well, but you need to know when you sit down to work that there’s a cutoff time or Parkinson’s Law will just kick in again. Your first task will end up being the only task you work on, and everything else will get pushed into the future, so it’s better to have a strict deadline and do your best to finish it in the time you’ve allotted for it.
That’s not to say it’ll be easy the first time out – becoming more productive is definitely an adjustment, but the headline here is that you’re not powerless to keep a few (boring) projects from taking over your life. You can control how much time is available for them, get as much done as possible, then move along. After all, you’ve scheduled other important tasks and shortchanging them won’t do you any good.
Race Yourself to the Finish
Especially when you’re first adjusting to this way of working, it can be tricky to break your work into manageable chunks. Instead, a lot of people will give themselves three hours to finish a particular task, then find themselves cramming all the work into the last 30-60 minutes (sound familiar?) Fortunately, The Pomodoro Technique <link to previous post once it’s online> can help you set mini-deadlines within the time blocks you’ve allotted to a task.
Let’s say you’ve set aside three hours on Monday morning to finish an important report. Instead of leaving that report as one big block on your calendar, try going into Woven and creating six separate 30-minute slots on your calendar to help you stay focused. Then get yourself a Pomodoro Timer like TomatoTimer.com to help you time your progress, splitting your work into 25 minute sprints and 5 minute breaks to help you stay focused. You wouldn’t be the first person to get distracted for 20 minutes and get reminded by the timer that you’ve gone off track. Fortunately, that still leaves you a few more Pomodors to get the project done.
If you’re really feeling proactive, or very unclear on what you need to do to finish the project, take a few minutes at the start to assign a separate goal for each of your Pomodoros so that one part of the work doesn’t take up more time than it should. All of this will become more intuitive with practice, but the Pomodoro Technique is a tried and true way to help break free from Parkinson’s Law and can be a very effective tool, whether you’re just starting out or need to pump your productivity muscle a bit for a difficult task.
Keeping track of how many Pomodoros different tasks take over time can also give you a benchmark to reference when you’re scheduling your tasks for the next week. Plus, if you have a competitive streak like most busy professionals, trying to beat your personal record can help keep you on track next time as well.
Starve Your Time Wasters
Struggling with Parkinson’s Law is frustrating enough when we’re working on something important, but who among us hasn’t wasted an hour crafting the perfect reply to a comment or rearranging our desks for “productivity?” There aren’t many feelings worse than getting to the end of the day and realizing you’ve spent most of your time on things that don’t really matter.
This happens to everybody, though, so the other half of scheduling out your week is making sure those time wasters don’t have room to breathe. But that doesn’t mean you can just book wall to wall productivity and pretend that those interruptions don’t exist. They’re part of everyone’s work, and acting like they won’t come up just gives you the excuse to take care of “just this one thing” when you’re supposed to be working on something else.
Instead, build time into your day for dealing with your inbox, straightening up your desk, coffee breaks, and the like. Just make those times shorter! While all of the minutiae of our modern work might never stop rearing its ugly head, setting aside a designated part of your day for dealing with it means you can ignore it when you’re working on something more important. You know exactly when you’ll get to it and keep working on the things you’ve prioritized. Pro-tip: this works great for needy bosses and chatty coworkers because you can tell specifically when you’ll be able to get back to them.
Additionally, taking the time to consciously decide how much you’re willing to schedule for organizational stuff gives you the power to determine just how much of your day they’re really worth. Life happens, of course, but knowing that you’ve set aside 15 minutes to clear your inbox can help you power through it much faster than you might have in the past, with less room for it to expand. If you starve these sorts of tasks of oxygen, you’re gifting yourself more time for the parts of your work that are productive and fulfilling.
Ultimately, Parkinson’s Law isn’t a rule, it’s just a way of describing a frustrating part of human nature that we all have to work around. That’s a big part of learning how to get more things done and be an effective modern worker, especially since we’re all working remotely right now. However, once you realize that there’s an element of it that you can control – “the time available” variable – you can say no to Parkinson’s Law and actually start using it to your advantage.
We can’t start to change until we have some clarity about what we’re doing, so taking the time to develop a bit of self awareness about your working habits is critical. Once you acknowledge that your work expands to take as much time as you’ve allotted for it, you can choose your own limits and get a lot more done than before. That might just make you a more effective workaholic, but it might also give you more time to start a new initiative that advances your career, start a rewarding side project, or just make sure you’re done in time for dinner with the family every night.
Taking control of one element of your work – your scheduling – can give you a lot more control over the rest of your life. If you haven’t downloaded Woven yet, check it out here to see how our industry-leading calendar can help you build a more productive, more fulfilling way to work.