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The Lever #019: How To Combat Parkinsons Law

Being productive is largely a matter of making smart use of your time.

How much time does it REALLY take to do something?


But first:

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I gave a talk at a conference yesterday.

While I knew about it for weeks the presentation didn't get put together until the day before. While this may have been a little rushed, it came out just fine.

You are probably familiar with this phenomenon. How things take as long as they take and no longer.

Parkinson's Law

It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

- Cyril Northcote Parkinson

The first line of the article "Parkinsons Law", published in The Economist in 1955 (then later published as a book in 1957) will be familiar to any student of productivity.

But the law in its original form wasn't concerned with productivity, or time for completion, or beating procrastination at all.

It was originally concerned with how bureaucratic organizations expand in size, regardless of the amount of work to be done. The key drivers for this expansion were two things:

1. Officials want subordinates, not rivals (and therefore need promoting)

2. And that officials make work for each other (more officials = more work)

Thus work expands.

The original idea was expressed by the formula:

Where x is the number of new hires annually,

K is the number of employees promoted to make room for new hires

M is the hours per person dedicated to making work for others

P is the number of years worked

And n is the amount of administrative works (for which the organization was designed to complete) that actually get completed.

He observed that the number of people employed in a bureaucracy will increase 5-7% each year, even without an increase in work.

The Coefficient of Inefficiency

Parkinson developed another rule that built on the first.

The coefficient of inefficiency was a tongue-in-cheek attempt to answer the question of when a committee or organization gets so big that it becomes totally inefficient.

If you've ever worked in a big organization then you can relate. Everything takes longer than it should, decisions are made by committee, and nothing ever seems to get done.

Parkinson concluded that the idea size of a committee was somewhere between three and twenty, with somewhere around eight being optimal. This agrees with the concept of Communication Overhead, where the solution to spending countless hours talking about work, rather than doing the work, is to keep teams small - no more than eight.

How You Can Leverage Parkinsons Law

If work expands to fill the time available then the corollary must also be true:

Work contracts to fill the time you give it - Horstman's Corollary.

Or, put another way:

If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do - the Stock-Sanford Corollary.

While you should obviously give yourself enough time to do a proper job (and be able to manage any last minute delays) there is truth in these statements. Much of the time you build up the importance or scope of the job, then drive yourself crazy as you procrastinate on it. Then you finally do it and it wasn't a big deal at all.

Here are some other strategies that can help combat Parkinson's Law and improve productivity:

1. Instead of allowing open-ended deadlines, set specific, realistic deadlines for your tasks. This can help you stay focused and avoid procrastination. False deadlines work great too!

2. Breaking down a large project into smaller, more manageable tasks can help you stay on track and prevent the project from feeling overwhelming.

3. Tools like timers, calendars, and to-do lists can help you manage your time more effectively and stay on task.

4. Prioritize your tasks based on their importance and urgency, and focus on completing the most important tasks first.

5. Distractions can be a major obstacle to productivity. Try to limit distractions by turning off notifications on your phone or computer, closing unnecessary tabs or apps, and working in a quiet, distraction-free environment.

6. Instead of allowing tasks to drag on indefinitely, try to cultivate a sense of urgency and motivation to complete tasks efficiently.

A great method for keeping tabs on these projects is by using my Cascade Planning system:

Time on Task

Everything you do is a task.

Every task takes time.

Understand that there is an optimum amount of time to complete every task.

When you exceed that time, it's our old friend Parkinson creeping in.

Push back by knowing how long things normally take, and by implementing the tips above.


Your next steps:

1. Subscribe to The Lever (if you haven't already)

This covers a science-based productivity concept each week, in about five minutes. Try a free chapter of my new book when you subscribe. And if you like it...

Peaceful Productivity outlines the time-management system I've created over the years as a ship's Captain and business executive. It will help you plan, prioritize, and get more of the right things done. Also available on Amazon  

This short course will teach you the fundamentals of a powerful timeblocking system to make sure you never miss an obligation and always show up prepared. Give yourself the space you need to create the life you deserve.

Smart systems to make you productive, prolific, and profitable | Find me on Twitter @SeanPHogue | Sign up here for the weekly newsletter, The Lever, and create some leverage in your life.


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