Have you ever been given an assignment for an essay that’s due in a month, but waited until the last few days to write it? Or maybe you’ve had to give a work presentation at the end of the week, but put everything together an hour before you had to give it? Or maybe you’ve set a big goal for yourself to get completed in five years, but don’t seem to be making any progress?
If you’ve ever experienced this kind of procrastination, you’ve experienced Parkinson’s Law.
Parkinson’s Law is a theory developed by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in an essay published in The Economist in 1955. Cyril wrote his essay after spending a lot of time in the British Civil Service where he noticed tasks took up as much time as they were allotted.
Cyril wrote that:
“work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
Essentially, Cyril saw that if someone was given a certain amount of time to complete a task, they would complete it within that amount of time, no matter how long it actually took to complete. If they were given a week to finish, it took a week. If they were given a day to finish, it took a day.
Of course, Cyril wrote that work expands, which means that it can’t necessarily contract. A task takes as long as it takes to complete, but if you allot more time to it than necessary, people will end up using all that time.
This explains why we often wait to the last minute to write our essays or prepare our presentations: the task doesn’t actually take as long to complete as we’ve given ourselves time for, so we wait until it gets closer to the deadline to finish it.
While you may be thinking “Parkinson’s Law sounds like something to be avoided at all costs!”, the truth is that you can use Parkinson’s Law to your advantage. There are a few tricks you can employ to make sure Parkinson’s Law works for you, rather than the other way around. In fact, understanding Parkinson’s Law can improve your productivity in all aspects of your life.
Let’s look at a few ways you can use Parkinson’s Law to get your work done faster and more efficiently.
Create Artificial Deadlines
Usually, other people decide our deadlines for us.
A boss or a professor puts a due date on a project and we just accept that as the deadline. That’s when the paper is due, so that’s when I’ll have it done. That’s when the presentation is due, so that’s when I’ll have it done.
However, as Parkinson’s Law has shown us, sometimes these deadlines are arbitrary. What if you ignored the “given” deadline, and decided on your own personal deadline that was much earlier?
We can create our own deadlines and speed up the timeline on a project significantly. So instead of waiting for the last minute to finish something, we can set an earlier, artificial deadline for yourself in order to get the project done ahead of time and free up more time for yourself.
Next time you get a task with a deadline, consider how long you actually think it will take you to complete. Is it really going to take you a whole week to draft that proposal? Or could you get it done in an hour? Is it going to take you three years to write your book? Or could you actually finish it in six months?
Try setting a new deadline for yourself that is significantly closer than the original deadline. This method can help you use deadlines to get things done faster than you expect and get ahead of the game.
Break Down Big Tasks
Parkinson’s Law usually rears its ugly head with large projects and deadlines in the far future. Rather than getting started on these projects right away, we wait until we start feeling the pressure to get them done.
In order to keep from procrastinating until it’s too late, split up your projects into smaller tasks and give them each a new deadline. Set your deadlines for the smaller tasks earlier than you expect so you can keep on track. This way, you’ll have turned your big project into manageable chunks with deadlines that feel more urgent.
Create a Challenge
Sometimes, a new deadline isn’t enough to spur us into action, so another trick is to create a challenging deadline. This is a deadline that you know you probably won’t make and is much, much shorter than you would normally take to complete your task.
For example, say you have an essay due in a week but you’re having trouble getting started. Set yourself a challenge to write as much of the essay as possible in just one hour.
Realistically, you probably won’t get done in that time (though if you do, congrats! You’re essay is done!). Your essay also probably won’t be very good. But the important thing is that you’ll have something to work off of, and you’ll have hit the ground running instead of twiddling your thumbs waiting to start.
With a challenging deadline, simply see how much you can accomplish. It’s much easier to edit a bad essay than to write a perfect essay from nothing.
Apply Parkinson’s Law to Your Everyday
Parkinson’s Law doesn’t just have to be used for large projects, though. You can also use it to your advantage with everyday tasks. Have you ever worked an 8-5 job, but finished up all the work you had to do in the last hour of the day?
A great hack to improve your productivity during your every day is to pretend you have to leave work early and have to get everything done before then.
For example, if you start work at 8, pretend you have somewhere to be at 10 am and see if you can get everything done before then. You can even actually plan something for 10 am in order to really motivate yourself. It can honestly be as simple as a coffee break.
Even if you don’t finish everything, you may be surprised at how far along you get! Plus, by frontloading your workload this way you free up more time during the day to relax and take it easy.
You can even set yourself a challenge in your day-to-day where you try to complete every task one day ahead of time. So if you need to complete something for work, you would always try to get it done the day before. Shaving off just one day from the deadline will probably not stop you from being able to complete the task, plus you’ll end up ahead in your work. You’ll end up feeling much more on top of things simply by only shaving off one day from your deadline!
Rather than letting Parkinson’s Law rule your productivity, you can wield deadlines as your own weapon to get things done faster than you normally would. Once you understand Parkinson’s Law, it’s easy to apply its principles to your own projects, essays, presentations, goals, and more. Play with reassigning deadlines, breaking up your projects and goals into smaller parts, and challenging yourself to get things done faster than you expect.