How to Overcome Parkinson’s Law and Improve Personal Productivity

Time matters

Some of you may have heard the phrase: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” I believe even if you have never heard of it, you must have acted in accordance with this law without even knowing it.

For example, if we have to submit an assignment or finish some business on time, most of us, probably, start writing it shortly before the deadline and finish exactly on the due day, not earlier (well, of course, there are exceptions, but not many, I suppose).

Do you recognise the symptoms? Probably, each of us at least once in our life faced a similar situation. Every time, we wondered why we become super productive a week or two before the deadline and can’t bring ourselves to start the job right after we get this assignment (or whatever it is).

The answer is simple. This is because of Parkinson’s law…

Why does it call Parkinson’s Law?

The term was first coined by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in a humorous essay he wrote for The Economist in 1955.

It tells the story of a woman whose only task in a day is to send a postcard – a task that would take a busy person about three minutes. But a woman spends an hour looking for a card, another half hour looking for her glasses, 90 minutes writing a card, 20 minutes deciding whether to take an umbrella with her for a walk to the mailbox … and so on, until her busy day is over.

Why is the task expanding and filling all of your time?

Besides the fact that the job itself is becoming more complex, procrastination is another key link in Parkinson’s Law. Knowing that we have a certain amount of time to get something done often “inspires” us to postpone work until the very last minute – and our delays in getting started mean that the time it takes for the task increases.

I know quite a few people who live by this law. My niece, for example, always uses this “approach” in all aspects of her life: school, work, hobbies, etc. For example, she always postpones work on assignments for three days until the appointed day.

Once, she even put off receiving a parcel that was sent to her from another country until the last day. When she came to the post office, it turned out that the parcel had already been sent back to the sender … Sad story, but let’s get back to the topic…

Why does it happen?

One assumption is that looming deadlines are motivating. Yerkes-Dodson’s Law states that there is an optimal level of arousal that gets better the performance of our task. So, this looming threat of a critical date gives us the incentive we need to focus and steer our efforts back on track.

Overcoming Parkinson’s law

It is quite obvious that this is a purely psychological problem and nothing more. Does this mean that we are all doomed? Absolutely not! As with any problem that is only in our head, we can deal with it by creating the right mindset and approach.

Below you can find the approach that I apply to almost every activity in my life. From a certain age, I have planned any task in my diary. Now I feel comfortable doing this in my mind, but you can use one of the planner apps on your phone. Their use can significantly reduce the time for planning and monitor the implementation of the plan.

So, here is how to overcome Parkinson’s law.

1. Break the whole task into subtasks and set its own deadlines

Parkinson’s Law is always fuelled by huge projects and tight deadlines. Taking a long time to complete a specific task creates a paralysing fear. In turn, the deadline tells you that if not a single line was written a week before delivery, this doesn’t mean that the project is not ready, but simply that it is still in the process of writing.

Therefore, to begin with, break this huge monolithic task into subtasks and set its own deadline for each subtask. Build a sense of urgency in completing these subtasks. The latter is the main condition. Believe that your personal deadlines are just as important, and get a little fear in yourself.

2. Clarify what “done” means for you

A vague task has a lot of flaws and a reason for shirking. The divided chunk of the whole task can be perfected endlessly, that is why perfectionists are most affected by Parkinson’s Law. Therefore, even before you start, you must honestly determine for yourself when to stop.

Be very specific. After you’ve done what you’ve planned, just stop: subtask done, full stop. The task “write five pages” is not as specific as “write ten thousand words.”

3. Set boundaries

Parkinson’s Law hits us when we try to do a lot of things in one sitting. Our day begins to resemble a jumble of many things, and at the same time, none of them is brought to its logical end. And when we allow ourselves to be distracted, things only get worse. Although it would be more accurate to say that it is the distractions that are the problem that doesn’t allow you to complete the work you have started.

Therefore, in order to defeat the dragon Parkinson, we must focus on one subtask and remove all irritants. Set a time frame for each task. Promise yourself that you will spend your time on amusement, but only if you work exactly one hour on your task. Entertainment is not going anywhere, rest assured.

It is quite obvious that taking on a task without a specific deadline is rather ambiguous. However, if you set aside a certain amount of time to complete and know that after that you can do something more enjoyable, then you can focus on your task with more attention and enthusiasm.

4. Challenge yourself

A limited amount of time per task always makes the brain work several times better. If you have a gut feeling that a task will take you 30 minutes, set a goal to get it done in 10 minutes. You will be amazed at what your brain is capable of when you are back against the wall.

If the job fills the time available, then play with Parkinson’s Law. Challenge not only yourself but ‘him’ too. Make this law work for you.

5. Create incentives for quick job completion

In any office, this is always a problem. If you finished your work earlier than planned, you will be given another. Moreover, they will set more stringent deadlines. Therefore, we are not interested in getting the job done quickly.

However, when it comes to your personal project, everything changes. It is in your best interest to complete the work as early as possible.

If you have broken the project down into subtasks and finished the first subtask earlier than planned, you may be tempted to work on the second subtask longer. Don’t fall into this trap.

Instead, encourage yourself to complete the next subtask as soon as possible. I suppose you know what you love the most, so think ahead about how you will pamper yourself. Only the reward should outweigh the desire to stay under the warm blanket of completing the subtask at a normal pace.

Be sure to define in advance what it means to successfully complete a subtask. Otherwise, you will have the opportunity to deceive yourself in order to receive a reward as quickly as possible.

6. Set the next task

The trap of staying in the current task as long as possible works even if you don’t know what to do next. This is psychologically true, because why quickly complete a task if you don’t know which one is next. So, set your next task as soon as possible.

Many people find planning boring and unnecessary. Some of you may even think that only planning freaks are organising their whole life in advance. You are partly right. it’s hard to call it fun. However, the benefits of planning cannot be overstated. It really works wonders.

There is a strong likelihood that if we don’t have a clear plan of action, we are wasting our energy. I agree with that. Conversely, modern technology, as well as software applications, can save our time and hence energy.

So, what are you waiting for? Let’s get down to business and come up with your next plan!

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