Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion – this law was first articulated by Cyril N. Parkinson in 1955 in his article for The Economist.
The law was a result of personal observations Parkinson made while working in the British Civil Forces. It dealt mainly with the issue of bureaucracy where a strong belief that working harder and longer was better than working smarter prevailed.
Revealing the Law
If you spare three days for the task which normally can be done within three hours you will extend its performance for those three days. At the same time you will be assuming they somehow become more difficult than they really are. Generally these tasks don’t require additional time to perform them but stress and the feeling they are difficult nevertheless remains.
The classic example of Parkinson’s law in action is a school task. Imagine it was assigned to students a month ago. They however, worked on it in tiny bits and began accomplishing the most difficult part only when there’s only a day or two left. Still somehow they manage to perform the most complicated and time-consuming work within a very short period of time and work more productively than during the whole month.
What results from such procrastination is that the work is repeating itself and increasing in quantity – but only at a first glance. Parkinson called this the multiplication of staff and work.
Multiplication of Staff
Imagine a manager who thinks he’s got too much work and he clearly isn’t able to complete everything on time (regardless whether it’s true or not). He then decides to delegate some of it to his subordinates. If there aren’t enough of them – he hires new ones. More people employed means bigger expense for the company and paradoxically, more work for all staff.
Multiplication of Work
The work previously done by a single employee is now being done by several of them, say five (depending on the complexity of the task). They have to consult with each other, wait for one another in order to proceed further, wait for the manager’s approval, etc. Both them and their manager indeed work more than before – but not productively, let alone the time to perform the task is increasing dramatically.
After the manager finally receives the work, checks, corrects and finalizes it, they produce nearly the same result they would have done on their own from the very beginning.
Overcoming Parkinson’s Law
1. The law is most likely to occur when the task is complicated and takes a lot of time to accomplish. To prevent extending the time it’d be best to divide the work into several stages with a clear deadline for each. Obviously these deadlines have to be met, otherwise there’s no point in defining them.
2. Define clearly when exactly the task is completed. The more time you spend on tiny final improvements the more likely it is you won’t complete the task in the near future. It’s therefore better to define specific criteria beforehand and then just follow them, otherwise there could be no end to checking and re-checking.
3. Try to motivate yourself to meet the deadlines faster. Employees are usually reluctant to do this because they’re afraid of getting additional work or assigning less time for the next task.
4. Rewarding oneself after the task is done works well. However, one should reward oneself for actual results, not the time spent on achieving them.
4. Plan what to do next. Employees might extend the time because they don’t have a clear vision of what needs to be done further or reluctant to plan new activities as it means changes to the routine.
Although Parkinson’s observations were made for bureaucratic organizations, they can be applied to modern companies too, especially the ones with more or less complicated hierarchy. Remembering about the curious impact the law makes on us helps boost productivity on a personal level too.