Parkinson’s Law, or The Importance of Challenging Deadlines

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Have you ever heard of “Parkinson’s Law”?

It’s a statement that was first written by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in 1955, and it goes like this:

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

— Cyril N. Parkinson

I believe this doesn’t need any explanation, as I’m sure that every one of us has experienced (and maybe still experiences) Parkinson’s Law. 

Just think about the time you almost failed to pay a bill in time, even though you had known about it for at least one month. And how can we forget about students and their favorite “sport”? Studying for a test or an exam only a few days (or even THE day) before, perhaps staying up until midnight or later, is a regular experience for almost every student.

“So, basically, it means that the more time we have, the more time we waste. But how do I use Parkinson’s Law to my own advantage?”

Don’t worry, we’re getting to it.

How to Use Parkinson’s Law to Your Advantage

You only have to follow five simple steps:

  1. Choose one task
  2. Estimate how much time you think you’ll need for its completion
  3. Cut that time in half
  4. Set a timer, and put it in a place where you can constantly see it
  5. Work and focus deeply, with no distractions. Try to complete the task before the timer rings.

See, the “technique” is extremely simple, but the benefits you can gain by applying Parkinson’s Law to your advantage are definitely not small.

At first, you will probably have to experiment a little. If you find that you can’t get the work done by the end of the timer, you have two choices:

  • First, make sure that you failed not because you were too distracted and wasted time on non-important stuff (such as checking your smartphone…), but because that specific task actually required more time;
  • Second, if you’re sure that you didn’t get distracted and didn’t waste time, but still failed to stick to the new deadline, then you should probably give yourself more time. But don’t go back to the original deadline just because you failed once. Always try to find a time limit that is both challenging and, at the same time, enough for completing that specific task.

Why It Works

Why is it useful to set challenging deadlines for yourself, you ask? 

To answer this question, I’m going to ask you to think about when, as a student, you often wasted so much time that, in the end, you had to prepare for a certain exam with only one day remaining.

How did you feel? What did you do? How did you work? 

Now, if you’re like most students in this kind of situation, you probably went into “Super-student” mode:

  • “Hey! Want to hang out?” Hell nah! I’ve got to study!
  • “I’ve sent you two photos, which one do you prefer?” Hell nah! I’ve got to study!
  • “Hey, we need one more player for this game, wanna join?” Hell nah! I’ve got to study!
  • “Lunch is ready, come and eat with us!” Hell nah! I’ve got to study! 

You were only focused on studying for the upcoming exam, you didn’t have time and energy to waste on unimportant stuff, you only wanted to use the remaining time to study as much as possible. (And yes, some people actually go as far as getting angry for having to “waste” time on eating, showering, going to the bathroom, or anything else.)

After taking the exam, you probably also realised that you actually didn’t need that much more time to prepare well, that if only you had “just one more day”, you would have done much better.

I used studying as an example, but you can also find a similar situation elsewhere, such as work projects. In fact, most people, when given X days for a project, actually start working hard and with full focus only after completely wasting the first two thirds of their time, or even more.

So there you have it, that’s the answer to your question.

Please Note: Parkinson’s Law is NOT a Magic Pill

I shouldn’t have to say this, but some people really go and set unreasonable deadlines right away. 

‘Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’, right?; so it’s only reasonable that, if I set a super small time limit, Parkinson’s Law will make me insanely productive and help me complete this huge task super fast, right?” 

I hope you also find this kind of “reasoning” ridiculous. Saying something like that only means that one doesn’t even want to try the effectiveness of Parkinson’s Law, and prefers to mock it instead.

If you have a really big task to complete, you should first break it down into smaller tasks, then apply Parkinson’s Law to every smaller part of the original task. This is the best way to accomplish big results in a small amount of time (at least, compared to yours or other people’s average time).

Also, time limits work especially well for small tasks that are kind of important but, more often than not, consume way more time than necessary. I’m talking about things like reading the emails or the news. Just put all those “time eaters” in one slot of time, and complete them in the least amount of possible.

Twice the Work in Half the Time

By following self-imposed deadlines and time limits, you will avoid Parkinson’s Law and its unreasonable but seducing idea that “If you’ve got X days to do this, why should you complete it in less time?” Instead, you will use it to your own advantage.

Remember, however, that you must see your new deadlines as unbreakable. It’s easy to ignore self-imposed limits, because they aren’t as “real” as the actual ones, but you have to do your best to honor them.

You will become more productive and achieve more, because you will work deeply on every task. You won’t waste time on trivial stuff, because a challenging time limit doesn’t allow you to waste a single minute.

By working hard and with laser focus, you will really be able to do twice the work in half the time. This also means more time for yourself and your hobbies and passions 😉

Isn’t it great?

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