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How to Use Parkinson’s Law to Your Advantage

How to Use Parkinson’s Law to Your Advantage

Work expands to fill the time available for its completion. If you’re into productivity, you’ll know this proverb as Parkinson’s Law. This interesting statement was made by Cyril Northcote Parkinson, the famous British historian and author, in 1955 – first appearing as the opening line in an article for The Economist and later becoming the focus of one of Parkinson’s books, Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress.

Parkinson was qualified to make such a statement, having worked in the British Civil Service, seeing first hand how bureaucracy ticks. Bureaucracy itself is a by-product of our culture, thanks to the limiting belief that working harder is somehow better than working smarter and faster.

Parkinson’s Law – work expands to fill the time available for its completion – means that if you give yourself a week to complete a two hour task, then (psychologically speaking) the task will increase in complexity and become more daunting so as to fill that week. It may not even fill the extra time with more work, but just stress and tension about having to get it done. By assigning the right amount of time to a task, we gain back more time and the task will reduce in complexity to its natural state.

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I once read a response to Parkinson’s Law insinuating that if it were an accurate observation, one would be able to assign a time limit of one minute to a task and the task would become simple enough to complete within that minute. But Parkinson’s Law is exactly that – an observation, not some voodoo magic. It works because people give tasks longer than they really need, sometimes because they want some ‘leg room’ or buffer, but usually because they have an inflated idea of how long the task takes to complete. People don’t become fully aware of how quickly some tasks can be completed until they test this principle.

Most employees who defy the unwritten rule of “work harder, not smarter” know that, despite the greater return on investment for the company, it’s not always appreciated. That’s related to the idea that the longer something takes to complete, the better quality it must inherently be. Thankfully, the increasing trend of telecommuted employment is changing this for those lucky early adopters, but only because employers have no idea what you’re doing with all that spare time!

Let’s look at a few ways you can apply Parkinson’s Law to your life, get your to-do list checked off quicker and spend less of the work day filling in time just to look busy. This is relevant whether you work in an office or at home, since “work harder, not smarter” is a cultural idea that many individuals fall prey to even when nobody’s supervising their work.

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Running Against the Clock

Make a list of your tasks, and divide them up by the amount of time it takes to complete them. Then give yourself half that time to complete each task. You have to see making the time limit as crucial. Treat it like any other deadline. Part of reversing what we’ve been indoctrinated with (work harder, not smarter) is to see the deadlines you set for yourself as unbreakable – just like the deadlines your boss or clients set.

Use that human, instinctual longing for competition that fuels such industries as sports and gaming to make this work for you. You have to win against the clock; strive to beat it as if it were your opponent, without taking shortcuts and producing low-quality output. This is particularly helpful if you’re having trouble taking your own deadlines seriously.

At first, this will be partially an exercise in determining how accurate your time projections for tasks are. Some may be spot on to begin with, and some may be inflated. Those that are spot on may be the ones that you are unable to beat the clock with when you halve the time allotment, so experiment with longer times. Don’t jump straight back to the original time allotment because there may be an optimum period in between.

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If you work at a computer, a digital timer is going to be very useful when you start doing this. It’ll also save you a bit of time, because a timer allows you to see at a glance how much longer you have. Using your clock involves some addition and subtraction! There are free utilities available for OS X, Linux, and Windows.

Crush the Cockroaches of the Productivity World

Look for those little time-fillers, like email and feed reading, that you might usually think take ten or twenty (or even, god forbid, thirty!) minutes. These are the “cockroaches” of the productivity world – little pests that do nothing but make your life a pain in the backside, pains that you can’t seem to get rid no matter how much you run around the house with a shoe or bug spray.

Instead of doing the leisurely 20-30 minute morning email check, give yourself five minutes. If you’re up for a challenge, go one better and give yourself two minutes. Don’t give these tasks any more attention until you’ve completed everything on your to-do list that day, at which point you can indulge in some email reading, social networking and feed reading to your heart’s content. Not that I recommend you spend all your spare time that way!

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These are tasks where 10% of what you do is important and 90% is absolutely useless. This forces you to tend to the important tasks – feeds you need to read in order to improve in your work (for instance, if you’re a web designer who needs to be read up on new practices), and emails that are actually high-priority. Experiment with how far you can take this. Make your criteria for what makes an email important, really strict and the penalties harsh! That means using the Delete button, by the way – I’m not advocating violence against your colleagues.

You can experiment with Parkinson’s Law and squashing your deadlines down to the bare minimum in many areas of your life. Just be conscious of the line between ‘bare minimum’ and ‘not enough time’ – what you’re aiming for is a job well done in less time, not a disaster that’s going to lose you employment or clients.

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The Gentle Art of Saying No

The Gentle Art of Saying No

No!

It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

  1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
  2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
  3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
  4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
  5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
  6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
  7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
  8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
  9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
  10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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