9 Ways to Beat Parkinson’s Law

9 Ways to Beat Parkinson’s Law

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“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
Parkinson’s Law

Even if you are not familiar with its name, how often have you fallen prey to Parkinson’s Law? And what can you do to escape it? Or to work with it?

Firstly, you have to recognise the symptoms. When you have too much time to complete a task, there is a tendency to slack off, or even defer, until the task becomes urgent. Then, when meeting the deadline seems nigh on impossible, you become super-productive and miraculously pull it off – getting the job done just in time. This is an example of Parkinson’s Law at its finest! Even with a full month to complete an assignment, most people work very unproductively (if at all) until the last few days – when they pull one or two all-nighters and manage to get it done right at the last minute.

Are you proud of this achievement? Maybe while the adrenaline is rushing through you, you feel that way, but when the stress hormones have dissipated – get real. The first part of your work time was unproductive, as it was slow, inconsistent, erratic or non-existent. It was only towards the end, as your deadline became urgent, that your productivity increased.

Learn from this. Perhaps you could have done a much better job, with more success – and felt great – if you had worked smarter , not harder.

Do you thrive on pressure? Or does the stress nearly kill you? You know yourself best, so work to your strengths.

If you know that you enjoy a tight deadline, and the ‘rush’ of rushing to meet one – then time it right. Do the planning, the thinking and the preparation well in advance. Then, leave it to complete in a short time scale like the day before, if you thrive on living on the edge. Consider the risks of last-minute emergencies or illness preventing you from pulling it off at the last minute, and make contingencies if you like. Maybe two days before is enough!

If, however, you know that you are definitely not excited and driven by last minute panic and pressure, embrace that fact, and set yourself earlier, shorter deadlines well ahead of time. If you invest time on a task right after the assignment was handed to you, you could complete it much sooner, less desperately, and spend the remaining time working productively on other things. Or even refining and adding value to your initial work in your spare, unpressured, creative thinking time.

How you can you beat Parkinson’s Law?

1. Break Down Your Tasks and Deadlines
Parkinson’s Law always strikes hardest when you have enormous tasks with far-away deadlines. It can all seem so intangible, ‘out there’ and too daunting to even begin. The best way to fix this is to break those big, monolithic tasks into many smaller, bite-sized tasks, along with several intermediate deadlines to complete them.

In addition to helping you to review your progress, frequent, achievable deadlines create a mild sense of urgency during the whole duration of your work, keeping you naturally engaged and focused on what needs to be done.

Determine the scope of the task or project as soon as possible. Decide what needs to be done – and by when. This is your breakdown of smaller tasks or your action plan. Add dates or deadlines to each task, so you can measure your progress towards completion. Delegate each task where you can, and encourage everyone to make a start at the earliest opportunity.

Identify what resources are needed for the future completion of your project or task. Take steps to put them in place straight away. Contact your accountant today. Build that team now. Order those materials. Each step you take is a step closer to the finish line. Defy Parkinson’s Law by taking action, and beating distant deadlines.

2. Know What ‘Done’ Means
It’s not always easy to know for sure when a task is finished. The more of a perfectionist you are, the more likely you’re a victim of Parkinson’s Law: there’s always one more little thing to add, one little refinement to be made.  Instead of quantity of work done (number of pages or hours spent), aim for greater quality, and when you’re happy with it – leave it alone. Know where to draw the line so you don’t spend a lot of time ‘overdoing’ it.

3. Set Clear Boundaries
Most of the time, Parkinson’s Law kicks in when we’re doing too much stuff at the same time. The dreaded multi tasking! Avoid at all costs! Days become a jumble of tasks and hardly any ever get completely finished. And, with the huge number of distractions that tend to creep in, it only gets worse.

To avoid the effects of Parkinson’s Law and to finish tasks sooner, work on them one at a time, focused and with as few distractions as possible.

Restrict time allocations to tasks. Short bursts of focused activity, under the pressure of time limits, will make you more productive and effective. Give yourself only five minutes to answer emails. You’ll surprise yourself by how succinct you manage to be: one word will often suffice. If you are afraid of seeming rude, add a line to appear along with your automated signature: ‘Please forgive my brief response, but I value your time as well as mine.’ Or explain, ‘I am experimenting with minimalism!’

Allow yourself only a limited time with your PA. See how that restricted timescale shifts your focus to pinpoint your priorities. All else falls by the wayside. Which is as it should be.

4. Challenge Yourself
A tight time limit or deadline forces your brain to figure out ways to get the job done in the restricted time available. Don’t add “safety buffers” when you estimate and allocate time for your tasks. If you pad your estimates with ‘spare’ time and contingency, that time will be wasted as a result of Parkinson’s Law kicking in.You will simply take as long as you have time available. So keep it tight.

Set almost impossible, yet believable, challenging deadlines for yourself.  And achieve them. Underestimate the time it will take – at least internally within your business. It’s no good telling a client you can complete this project in a week, when your team will actually need two weeks. This is not about putting unnecessary pressure on yourself or staff, or jeopardizing customer relations and accountability by imposing unrealistic or impossible deadlines.

Your aim is to encourage yourself and other people to work differently, and to take some risks. It will involve stepping outside your own comfort zone; so appreciate that for everyone – getting outside the comfort zone means an element of discomfort. Introduce this as a challenge, not a threat. Encourage yourself and others to rise to the challenge by making it fun and offering rewards, not by threatening with punishments and adverse consequences.

5. Create Incentives to Finish Early
One reason Parkinson’s Law is so prevalent in businesses is that people rarely have the right incentives to finish early:

  • ”Finished already? Here’s more work for you.”
  • ”You’re fast! Guess we can bring the deadline forward next time!”

Even when you’re the leader, it can be more desirable to continue ‘perfecting’ your current task for as long as possible than to start another. It can act as a security blanket. Maybe you’re avoiding your next task because it seems too daunting, for example. It’s the unknown! Cue: spooky ‘whoo-oo-oo!’ sounds. But set an example to your staff. Finish early when you are done.

So build in some incentives to finish each stage of your work. Promise yourself that if you finish them early, you will give yourself mini-rewards. Take a quick break, browse the web, go for a walk. Do whatever takes your fancy and enjoy the feeling of having deserved it. The key here is to associate rewards with results, not with time spent – so don’t fool yourself. Make the results tangible in their outcome – your goal should be to ‘finish this project’, not to ‘spend an hour’ on it (and still leave it unfinished).

6. Know What’s Next
We often hang on too long to a task, simply because we don’t know exactly what to do next. So ensure that you always have a few ‘next actions’ on your to-do list or in the pipeline, to keep the momentum going and avoid any stopping to reassess what you should be doing.

Move on. Enjoy having ‘no time to think’. Use instinct and intuition instead to make your decisions. Then act on them. As Malcom Gladwell says in ‘Blink’: too much thinking, and too much information just clouds the issue. Your gut reaction is usually the right one.

7. Consider how you can Use Parkinson’s Law to change the rules of the game.
Deliberately use your awareness of Parkinson’s Law to achieve things. If you know how it works, how can you use the law to accomplish incredible things in short spaces of time?

Set yourself apparently impossible (but achievable) artificial deadlines – and then announce them publicly. Tell everyone, ‘The project will be finished in three months!’ Do or die. Decide on an audacious goal, and tell everyone your deadline – to set up a public expectation. This also sets you up for public humiliation if you don’t complete it when you say you will. This can be sufficient incentive to ensure that you do it within that time limit! However, the journey towards that goal and deadline should proceed from that moment onwards. Not even I would pull off a large-scale project the night before! Small parts of the process can be achieved each week as you sprint towards the deadline date. If you thrive on the adrenalin-rush of last-minute pressure, I anticipate that you’ll be up – still sprinting – the night before your deadline.

The US space programme put a man on the moon within a decade. There was no time wasted: the ‘space race’ was declared an open competition, and no time or resources were spared. Massive progress and innovation occurred as a result – not only relevant to space travel. If people had just been left to develop at their own pace, Parkinson’s Law would have meant a deadline ‘to infinity and beyond’. Setting foot on the moon might never have happened. Be bold and audacious in your goals and deadlines.

Now that you are aware of the impact of Parkinson’s Law, you can work with it – and laugh in the face of it. What you might have previously regarded as impossible is now a reality.

How can this be used to take you to places you never dreamed of?

Look to really achieve Herculean things in very short spaces of time! It can be fun.

Further Reading:

The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris (Amazon Link UK, US)

Blink by Malcom Gladwell (Amazon Link UK, US)

If the above topic, or indeed any of my blogs are of interest to you, then contact me and let’s talk! Drop me an email at getintouch@marcwinn.com.

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add a comment
  1. Thanks in favor of sharing such a good thought, piece of writing is nice,
    thats why i have read it entirely

  2. Great article. I have been looking all over the web for a couple of hours for something to help me talk to our employees about Parkinson’s Law and how to use it to our advantage. Out of the plethora of articles and blogs yours is by far the best.

  3. Eric Glasgow says

    best article on parkinson’s law I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a ton. finally someone who understands the struggle and the solution to it. All the other articles are hopeless vague or inactionable. For example, your point about no safety buffers really hits home, only someone who has had lots of experience with Parkinson’s Law would understand how harmful those seemingly helpful buffers can be.

  4. Thank you for perspective on this reality of business. Your title is “9 Ways…”; however, there are only 7 points numbered. Curious. Clever if done intentionally to serve your point! Less is more…

  5. Parkinson’s law is the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”
    Can you apply it to these cases?
    But it has applied to the growth of computers, “You will always fill available storage and use the maximum computer power until the next generation comes out”
    It also applies to information “information expands so as to fill the time and space available for its collection”
    It also applies to thinking: “thinking expands so as to fill the time available to solve a circular argument”

  6. Jaynemarie Styles says

    Around age 60 I noticed that my handwriting was getting smaller and I was writing faster. I also noticed a small tremor in my right hand. The doctor went over my different symptoms and he suspected I’d either had a small stroke or the beginnings of Parkinson ‘s disease. After finding a neurologist and some testing I was diagnosed with the beginning stages of Parkinson’s disease. That was 4 years ago. I took Sinimet four times a day to control my symptoms, which include falling, imbalance, gait problems, swallowing difficulties, and slurring of speech, A year ago, I began to do a lot of research and came across Rich Herbal Gardens (ww w. richherbalgardens. c om) and their Parkinson’s HERBAL TREATMENT. After seeing positive reviews from other patients, I quickly started on the treatment, I experienced significant reduction/decline in major symptoms, including tremors, muscle weakness, speech problems, difficulty swallowing, balance problems, chronic fatigue and others, The truth is you can get off the drugs and help yourself by trying natural methods, i live symptoms free.

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