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What is Parkinson’s Law? How to Get More Done, Quicker

Learn how knowing Parkinson’s Law can help you face procrastination & get things done faster, plus see tips to improve your time management.

By Fellow.app  •   February 7, 2023  •   8 min read

Despite living with time all our lives, some people have a tendency to underestimate how fast time flies. Meanwhile, they overestimate the quality at which they can complete a project in a short amount of time. Or maybe they underestimate how much stress having to work through a project on a short timeline can cause. 

Here’s another way to think of it: A month can seem like a long time to finish all your work, but it probably isn’t. You’ll likely procrastinate – or at least prioritize more pressing tasks first – and be left with way less than a month for your work. This is the basis of something known as Parkinson’s Law. 

So, then, what is Parkinson’s Law? Find out below, and learn how you can use this law to improve your personal productivity.

What is Parkinson’s Law?

Parkinson’s Law has nothing to do with the legal system. Instead, it’s the old adage that work expands as more time is allotted to accomplish a task. Cyril Northcote Parkinson first introduced the term in an essay published in the Economist in 1955. He used his experience in the British Civil Service as the basis for the idea.

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3 Examples of Parkinson’s Law

Even if you hadn’t heard of Parkinson’s Law before reading this article, chances are you’ve experienced it in action at some point in your life. Here are a few examples so you can truly understand how Parkinson’s Law works.

1The 40-hour workweek

The typical workweek in most industries is 40 hours, so you’re probably all too familiar with eight-hour workdays. But have you ever wondered why so many people adopt that model? Well, for one, there’s the assumption your team will complete every task in the same amount of time. But how true that is depends on the industry and team member. 

For example, a typical 40-hour week is likely less justified in retail than it would be in something like engineering. In engineering, the work is more complex and requires more time to finish, whereas retail team members sometimes complain about boring, slow shifts. But that extra time for engineers is a double-edged sword because it makes the engineer more likely to face Parkinson’s Law.

2Administrative tasks

Let’s say you’re a manager and you have a light amount of work to do this week. Maybe the most important thing on your to-do list is filling out a simple form that you’ve done a hundred times before. Because of your light workload, you have plenty of extra time to complete this simple task. You figure a few extra breaks won’t harm your productivity.

You probably don’t realize it in the moment, but you’ve fallen into Parkinson’s Law. You might find this easy task taking up your entire workday because you just can’t focus on completing it.

3Studying right before a test

You’ve probably dealt with Parkinson’s Law even before you fully entered the working world. For example, something you might’ve done when you were a student was waiting until a day or so before a test to study for it. Fair – there were probably so many other things you liked more than studying. You might’ve spent the time hanging out with friends or otherwise enjoying some leisure time while dealing with school stress. 

Sure, some people can get by like that. But, for the most part, this would lead to lower grades because you weren’t as familiar with the materials as you could have been. 

Overcoming Parkinson’s Law in time management

You’ll almost certainly face Parkison’s Law in some way, shape, or form at some point in your life, but you can absolutely overcome it. Below are a few helpful tips for doing exactly that. 

1Plan your work strategically

You should avoid being too fast and loose with deadlines when you’re trying to complete a task. A detailed plan can ensure that you’re regularly making progress without a mad dash toward the finish line in the final week. 

There are a few scheduling methods to help you better organize your task schedule. For example:

  • Defining SMART goals. You can use the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound) system to set a clear timeline for completing a goal. This can make your goal a more direct counter to Parkinson’s law.
SMART goal setting
  • Creating lists of tasks and actions. Breaking down a large project into more manageable tasks can help you make steady progress on it.
  • Establishing a timeline. Setting your own milestones for a large project and deadlines to reach them can keep you productive despite the distant overall due date.
  • Figuring out the resources you’ll need. Knowing what resources you need to complete a project and planning your work process around getting them can help keep procrastination at bay. Some of these resources can include funding, access to fellow team members, or specific equipment.
  • Deciding when you’ll check your progress. Setting dates to review how much progress you’ve made and how much work you have left can keep you accountable. If you’ve reached a key date and haven’t advanced much, you might need to rearrange things in your schedule. 

2Track how long it takes to complete your work

Using a time tracker can do wonders for your time management skills. Tracking your time can help you keep an eye on how fast you get through your work. From there, you can better plan around each task to ensure they all get the same amount of attention throughout your workweek. 

3Set your own deadlines

According to Parkinson’s Law, work expands to fill the time allotted. If something you’re assigned has no definite due date, the work could expand to the point where you forget to do it all. Setting your own deadlines can help keep your eyes on the prize. You’ll likely motivate yourself toward completing your work in a timely manner. 

That said, making your own deadlines can be easier said than done – it involves more than just picking a date. Before setting deadlines, make sure to:

  • Understand what each task or project will require. 
  • Prioritize tasks and projects on your schedule by importance.
  • Figure out which of your teammates will be most helpful in completing your work. 
  • Finally, decide the deadline based on all the information you figured out above.

4Use the timeboxing method

Timeboxing can be a direct counter to Parkinson’s Law when it’s used right. Before you start on a task, you’ll figure out how long you’re going to spend on it, and you stick to that time frame. Once the time is up, you start your next task, no questions asked. Essentially, timeboxing won’t let your brain apply Parkinson’s Law and artificially limit the amount of time you spend on your work. 

Another method to help tackle your to-do list is the Pomodoro technique, which caps how long your work at preset intervals of 25 minutes. After your 25 minutes pass (a.k.a. one Pomodoro interval), you’ll take a five-minute break before starting on another 25 minutes of work. 

5Try a task management tool

If all else fails, using task management tools that track when you work – and for how long – can help you beat Parkinson’s Law. With these tools in your belt, you can work more efficiently than ever.

Pro tip: Keep the momentum going after your meeting is over. With Fellow’s action items, you can assign, visualize, and prioritize all your meeting to-dos in one place and sync them with Jira, Asana, and Zapier.

5 tips to improve your time management 

Now, you have a few tips for conquering Parkinson’s Law, but improper time management can still rear its ugly head if you’re not careful. Here are a few tips to help you get control of your work schedule. 

1Set reminders for yourself

Understanding the deadlines for each of your tasks and setting reminders throughout the day, week, or month can keep these responsibilities on your mind. At the same time, you shouldn’t let this stress you out, either. Try planning out your reminders to fit into how you’re comfortable working. That could mean making a tiny bit of progress every day or working on longer sections during certain parts of the week.

2Use a daily planner

You should keep track of the tasks you need to complete for the day with a planner. Having a solid idea of what you’d like to accomplish for the day can keep you motivated to reach the bottom of the list. Fellow can act as a digital planner, allowing you to organize important ideas, personal tasks, and OKRs. With Streams, you can plan your week, document professional achievements, monitor company objectives, and collaborate with colleagues on projects. Not to mention, you can prioritize tasks and monitor progress as you work towards your personal goals, helping you stay on track.

3Work on each task for only a certain amount of time

As the timeboxing method of time management shows, figuring out how long you’ll work on a project or task can help you complete it. Setting a timeframe for your responsibilities can keep you moving forward until time runs out.

4Avoid distractions

Our daily lives are full of distractions that can keep us from working as efficiently as we can. Creating a block of time where you turn off your notifications can help you focus your efforts and condense your time spent on a task. 

5Stick to a routine

A strict routine for your role in your organization can help you stay focused on your work, even on the most chaotic days. There’s power in knowing what the day holds for you – you can lean on that to overcome any time management woes. 

Take back your time in the workplace

While Parkinson’s Law doesn’t exactly keep you from getting work done, it can lead to you racing against the clock. Some people prefer that kind of motivation, but maybe you could benefit from improved time management. 
With Fellow’s tools for collaborative meeting agendas and taking meeting notes in real-time, your meetings can take less time while still being productive. You’ll get meaningful moments for collaborating with your team and plenty of time to focus on your own work. Consider Parkinson’s Law a thing of the past.

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