Productivity
Parkinson’s law and how to become more productive

Parkinson’s law and how to become more productive

Most of us that are into productivity have probably heard of Parkinson’s law before. If you haven’t yet, this will probably blow your mind.

What is Parkinson’s law?

Parkinson’s law dictates that “work expands to fill the time available for its completion”. This means that when we give ourselves a certain amount of time for a task the task then also will take up that time.

It often starts with people having an inflated idea of how long tasks take to complete. Due to this, they will set deadlines for these tasks way further ahead than they need to be. When there is enough time to complete the task, oftentimes that task will increase in complexity. The extra amount of time makes it possible to think about all the things that could make the task or its results even better. In essence, there is nothing wrong with this. However, the true question is if it is making the result of the task better or If it is expanding the scope of the task and therefore simply making it a different task. 

Besides increasing complexity, procrastination also plays a big role in Parkinson’s law. Knowing that we have × amount of time left to do the task often motivates us to leave work until the very last minute. The Yerkes-Dodson law explains this by describing that there is an optimal level of arousal which improves task performance. With a fast-approaching deadline, we get the excitement (or anxiousness) needed to focus on the task at hand. 

For example, if you have a 3-hour task but give yourself two weeks to complete this task, the task will probably fill those two weeks. It is not that the task has just magically increased in time, but the stress of getting that task done has changed. Because you will feel less stressed you won’t push as hard to complete the task as when you would have with a deadline in 3 hours.

How to work with Parkinson’s law

Define the scope of the task

Clearly define the scope of your project or task and don’t allow the scope to be broadened once it is set. When working in teams clearly define this scope and the role of each team member.

When being conscious about the scope of your projects and tasks it will become easier to work on them, since you know what you are working towards. With this also comes the added benefit of being able to finish parts or sub-tasks, giving you a mental boost to work on the remaining ones. Allowing a scope to constantly change and broaden will make it almost impossible to finish.

Time-block

This technique blocks × amount of time to perform an activity. In this time block, you should only be focusing on the specific activity. Any distractions should be removed prior to the time block. Instead of setting a timer, I like to have music on for the amount of time set. When the music ends I know the time block is over. If you are interested in working in time-blocks, check out the Pomodoro technique.

When wanting to assess how good your time projections are, do the following: write out the different tasks, and assign the amount of time it takes to complete them. Then try to complete them in half of the assigned time. Treat this time as a strict deadline.

Two minute rule

As can be read in David Allen’s book: Getting Things Done. Any task that can be performed in under 2 minutes should be carried out right away. By avoiding postponing small tasks you will stay in a more action-minded mode as well as keeping your thoughts clean of all sort of small “to-do’s”.

Pareto principle

Follow the 80/20 rate (Pareto principle):  80% of the results came from 20%. of the work. Try to identify the 20% tasks and achieve these in the shortest amount of time possible. Knowing that procrastination on these tasks will affect 80% of the results gives you that extra kick to really work on these tasks.

Watch out for time-fillers

Check when you spend time reading emails and other distractions like WhatsApp or Facebook, these little time-fillers will steal time away. I recommend setting one time-block a day for the essential time-fillers like emails. Make sure to only work on them in the set time bracket. This will ensure that you spend your time on important things throughout the day.

In Timothy Ferriss his book The 4-hour workweek he calls these time-fillers time wasters. The technique of working on these at a set time each day I have started doing after reading his book. More about the 4-hour workweek can be found here.

Some notes to keep in mind

The techniques mentioned above are some of the ones I find helpful. However, they might not work for you. Therefore, I recommend you create your own methods. Specify the method to specifically meet your day-to-day life and work.

Experiment with setting short deadlines, however, there is a line between the “bare minimum” and “not enough time” make sure you don’t cross this line too often since it will cause you stress and deteriorate the quality of your work.

When we knuckle down for a specific task we could lose sight of other important tasks or elements in our life. Therefore, when planning a task consider what available time you have and what other projects are running at the same timeline.