Mastering Time Efficiency: A Guide to Parkinson’s Law

What is Parkinson’s law?

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

Parkinson’s Law was first introduced in an article written by Cyril Northcote Parkinson for The Economist in 1955. The article was later included in a book titled “Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress,” published in 1958. This book is one of the primary publications directly related to Parkinson’s Law.

The concept suggests that the amount of work required to complete a task will increase if more time is given to accomplish it, primarily due to inefficiencies and mismanagement of resources. If less time is given to complete the same task, it can be completed more efficiently.

Parkinson’s Law is often used in discussions about time management, productivity, and business efficiency. It suggests that setting tighter deadlines could lead to increased productivity by forcing people to focus on the task at hand and eliminate unnecessary elements.

Impact on Productivity

  1. Work Efficiency: By stating that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,” Parkinson’s Law suggests that individuals and teams often use more time than necessary to complete tasks if too much time is given. This can lead to inefficiencies, as the work is stretched to meet the allocated time.
  2. Procrastination: Parkinson’s Law can explain why people tend to procrastinate, particularly when they have long deadlines. They may delay starting a task because they feel they have plenty of time, only to find themselves rushing to complete the task as the deadline approaches.
  3. Prioritization and Focus: When people become aware of Parkinson’s Law, they may start prioritizing their tasks more effectively and concentrate their efforts on the most important tasks. This can improve productivity by ensuring that key tasks are completed in a timely and efficient manner.
  4. Resource Management: Parkinson’s Law can also apply to the use of resources other than time, such as money or staffing. For example, if a department is allocated a large budget, it might find ways to use that entire budget even if it’s not necessary, which can lead to wasteful spending.
  5. Task Complexity: The law can lead to the artificial inflation of a task’s complexity. As the time to fill expands, simple tasks can become unnecessarily complicated, resulting in decreased productivity.

Understanding and effectively managing Parkinson’s Law can help increase productivity. By setting more realistic and tighter deadlines, prioritizing tasks effectively, and efficiently managing resources, individuals and organizations can counteract the negative impacts of Parkinson’s Law.

Tips to Manage Parkinson’s law

  1. Set Realistic Deadlines: Create firm and clear deadlines for tasks. The tighter deadlines can help keep work focused and efficient.
  2. Break Down Larger Tasks: Divide larger projects into smaller, manageable tasks. This can make the work seem less daunting and allow you to create shorter, more urgent deadlines for each part.
  3. Prioritize Your Work: Not all tasks are equally important. Identify and prioritize your tasks based on their importance and urgency. This can help you focus on what’s most important first.
  4. Limit Distractions: Distractions can cause a task to take longer than necessary. Reduce or eliminate interruptions and distractions to stay focused and efficient.
  5. Use Time Management Techniques: Techniques such as the Pomodoro Technique (working for a set amount of time, e.g., 25 minutes, then taking a short break) can help manage work time effectively.
  6. Implement Accountability: Share your deadlines with others or use project management tools to hold yourself accountable.
  7. Stay Organized: Keep your workspace and schedule organized. Knowing exactly what needs to be done and where things are saves time.
  8. Avoid Perfectionism: Understand that not everything has to be perfect. Spend time on details that matter.
  9. Learn to Delegate: If there are too many tasks, consider delegating where possible. It’s about working smarter, not harder.
  10. Review and Reflect: Review your work habits regularly. Reflect on what’s working and what isn’t, and adjust your strategies accordingly.

The objective of managing Parkinson’s Law is not to rush tasks but to work more efficiently, ensuring the time allocated to each task is appropriate and not unnecessarily prolonged.


Tasks that demonstrate Parkinson’s law

  1. Writing a Report or Essay: If you have a week to write a report or an essay, you might spend the first few days doing casual research, brainstorming, or even procrastinating. Then, as the deadline approaches, you might find yourself rushing to put everything together. However, if you had only one day to write the same report, you’d likely focus immediately on the most essential points, write more efficiently, and complete it in that shorter timeframe.
  2. Meeting Deadlines at Work: In project management, if a project timeline is unnecessarily long, team members might use that extra time to add unnecessary features, over-complicate their work, or procrastinate. By contrast, a shorter and more focused timeline can encourage the team to prioritize the most critical tasks and execute them more efficiently.
  3. Household Chores: If you give yourself an entire day to clean your house, you might end up taking breaks, getting distracted, or spending too much time on minor details. If you set a goal to complete your cleaning within two hours, you’re more likely to focus on the most important tasks and finish them quickly.
  4. Budgeting: Parkinson’s Law can apply to money as well as time. If your income increases, you might find that your expenses rise to match it (a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “lifestyle inflation”). You might start spending more on non-essential items simply because you have more money available.

These examples illustrate how Parkinson’s Law can lead to inefficiency. Being aware of this principle can help in setting realistic and more efficient deadlines, as well as better managing budgets and other resources.

Where Parkinson’s law does not work?

While Parkinson’s Law can offer valuable insights in many contexts, there are also situations where it may not apply effectively or could even be counterproductive. Here are a few examples:

  1. Complex Tasks: For highly complex tasks or projects that require significant time and effort, attempting to compress the timeline might lead to oversights, mistakes, or lower quality work. For example, rushing a scientific research project or software development process could result in errors or less robust results.
  2. Creative Processes: Creative work often benefits from having time for ideas to incubate and evolve. Rushing a novelist, an artist, a musician, or a designer might impede the creative process and lead to subpar work. While deadlines can sometimes stimulate creativity, overly strict time limits might not always be beneficial.
  3. Learning and Mastery: Skills acquisition and mastery often take time and cannot be rushed without sacrificing the depth of understanding or proficiency. For instance, rushing through a language learning process might leave gaps in vocabulary, grammar, or pronunciation.
  4. Physical Processes: Many processes in the natural world or involving physical goods cannot be sped up beyond a certain point. For example, crops take a certain amount of time to grow no matter how efficiently the farm is run, and manufacturing processes often have a minimum time requirement for quality control.

In these examples, reducing time or resources based on Parkinson’s Law could actually have a detrimental effect on the outcome. It’s essential to understand the nature of the task at hand and apply this principle wisely.

Quotes related to Parkinson’s law

Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.

Cyril Northcote Parkinson

Expenditure rises to meet income

Cyril Northcote Parkinson

Parkinson’s Law dictates that a task will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for its completion

Tim Ferriss in “The 4 Hour workweek”

If you want to get more done, shorten your deadlines

Robert C. Pozen

The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved

Parkinson’s Law of Triviality by Cyril Northcote Parkinson

Leave a Reply