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Last Updated on February 17, 2021

How to Use Parkinson’s Law to Get More Done in Less Time

How to Use Parkinson’s Law to Get More Done in Less Time

Work expands to fill the period of 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[1], 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 and 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—the amount of work expands to fill the time available for its completionmeans 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[2]. It may not even fill the extra time with more work, but just stress and tension about having to get it done.

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Parkinson's Law

    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[3].

    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.

    However, Parkinson’s Law is simply 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!

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    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.

    Running Against the Clock

    As you get started with Parkinson’s Law, 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.

    Get Better at Judging Time

    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 if you’re not used to using Parkinson’s Law.

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    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.

    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!

    Crush the Cockroaches of the Productivity World

    When implementing Parkinson’s Law, 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 of 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.

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    Learn to Prioritize

    These are tasks where 10% of what you do is important and 90% is absolutely useless when it comes to Parkinson’s Law. 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 read up on new practices), and emails that are actually high-priority. To help you with this, Lifehack’s got this free guide on How To Create More Time Out Of A Busy Schedule to help you prioritize your everyday tasks. Grab your free guide here.

    Experiment with how far you can take this. Make your criteria for what makes an email important very strict and the penalties harsh! That means using the Delete button, by the way—I’m not advocating violence against your colleagues.

    The Bottom Line

    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.

    By using Parkinson’s Law correctly, you can get more done in less time and learn how much time each of your tasks really requires.

    More Tips on Being Productive

    Featured photo credit: Alejandro Escamilla via unsplash.com

    Reference

    More by this author

    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

    How to Use Parkinson’s Law to Get More Done in Less Time How to Master the Art of Prioritization the Right Way 3 Simple Strategies for Dealing With External Distractions The Importance of Scheduling Downtime How to Make Decisions Under Pressure

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    1 7 Ways to Concentrate Better in a Toxic Work Environment 2 Why You Can’t Focus and 20 Things You Can Do to Fix It 3 How to Not Get Distracted: 10 Practical Tips to Sharpen Your Focus 4 How To Get Rid Of Your Social Media Addiction 5 How To Create A Daily Schedule To Organize Your Day

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    Last Updated on March 4, 2021

    7 Ways to Concentrate Better in a Toxic Work Environment

    7 Ways to Concentrate Better in a Toxic Work Environment

    Many of us have had the misfortune of working in a toxic work environment, where the atmosphere in the workplace is filled with negativity and politics. It’s unpleasant and can lead to stress, anxiety, and a more negative outlook on life.

    Many years ago, I found myself working in a small country house hotel and restaurant with a team of great front-of-house people who worked well together, but with a newly installed kitchen team that saw front-of-house employees as the enemy. They wanted to create conflict where there previously was none.

    The kitchen team was led by a highly respected head chef who was a minor celebrity TV chef, and when he joined our hotel, he insisted on bringing in his own team. This meant the existing kitchen team was fired, almost without notice, and overnight we were dealing with a team of strangers.

    At first managing this negative work culture was easy; we just stayed out of the kitchen as much as possible. But then one day, the general manager of the hotel left, and he was replaced by the head chef. From then on, it felt like open warfare.

    In less than a week, a workplace that was a pleasure to go to turned into a nightmare. I remember driving to work with a feeling of dread, bordering on fear. I wasn’t sleeping well, I smoked a lot more, and I had this constant, horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach, even on days when I was not working.

    I remember one evening after we had finished a shift, and all the customers and kitchen team had gone home, sitting down with a colleague to talk about the situation. I was fortunate as my colleague was a little older and wiser than I, and he had a forward-looking, philosophical attitude to life. He taught me that no matter the environment you are working in, if you focus on doing your best work every day, and avoid getting caught up in the politics, you can rise above it.

    Looking back now, I am glad I experienced this culture. I learned a lot about how to deal with negativity in a toxic work environment, and the lessons I learned then still help me today.

    What Causes a Toxic Work Environment?

    A toxic work environment can come about in many ways, but poor communication is often at the root of it. This may include a lack of communication between the boss and the employees regarding roles and expectations, or a lack of communication between coworkers that leads to misunderstandings and resentment.

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    Poor leadership is another common culprit. If a workplace lacks a good leader, it can lead to a chaotic workplace or one where everyone looks out for only themselves instead of working together. In my case, the head chef favored one set of employees, making it difficult for the other set to enjoy their work.

    If a workplace has little opportunity for growth or learning, it can also turn toxic. When workers feel stagnant, they can experience the effects of burnout and boredom, which can cause other coworkers to feel less motivated to do their work well.

    Fortunately, there are things you can do to manage your mindset in a toxic work environment.

    How to Concentrate in a Toxic Work Environment

    Here are seven lessons I learned from experiencing two years of working in a highly toxic work environment.

    1. Don’t Get Sucked in

    We are faced with a choice in a toxic work environment. You can react to the negativity and become part of the problem, or you can rise above it. Rising above it involves not being provoked. Allow the negativity to pass over you.

    Instead, focus on doing the best work you can. When you arrive at work, start your day.

    If you are in sales, focus on being the best sales person. If you are in administration, focus on making sure you do your work accurately and in a timely way. If you are a bar manager (as I was), make sure your bar is clean, stocked, and open for business when the first customer comes in.

    Don’t give the negative influences and passive aggressive coworkers an excuse to attack you. When you see negative energy coming your way, pause, identify the emotions that are surfacing, and let them pass.

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    This, of course, can be easier said than done. For a little extra help, check out Lifehack’s free guide: End Distraction And Find Your Focus.

    2. Become a Beacon of Positivity

    Often a toxic work environment is caused by workplace bullying. When you see this happening, become a rock of support for the person or people experiencing these attacks to help them feel safe and heard. Be nice, attentive, and understanding. If you see your colleague make a mistake, quietly fix the mistake or gently point it out.

    Never attack or be negative. Instead, be a good listener, offer support, and take your attacked colleague out for lunch and give them the space to talk things through.

    If there are signs of a toxic workplace, having a non-judgmental colleague who offers support, an ear to listen, and kindness applies an antidote to the stress, upset, and fear[1].

    Surviving a toxic work environment

      3. Have a Plan

      The best way to stay away from the negativity is to have a plan for the day. How will you start the day? What tasks will you accomplish by the end of the day?

      Having a plan for the day takes your focus away from the toxicity around you and puts your focus on doing your work.

      For me, I made sure the first task I did when I arrived at work was to clean my bar and make sure my fridges were stocked. I did not want to give an excuse to the unpleasant members of the team to attack me. My purpose every morning was to set an example, to be ready for when the diners came in. And when the diners did come in, I gave them my full, undivided attention.

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      This focus on my plan for the day kept me away from the politics. It gave me a positive purpose and enabled me to stay above what was going on around me.

      If you’ve lost your motivation while working in a toxic environment, you can check out this Lifehack Fast-Track Class to get back on track: Activate Your Motivation

      4. Stay Away From the Toxic People

      This is often easier said than done. Sometimes, the toxic people in your organization are your bosses and are unavoidable. However, in most workplaces today, there are quiet corners where you can get on with your work when you see the red flags of a hostile workplace.

      Working in an open-plan office can leave us at the mercy of disruptive colleagues and bosses, but if you can find yourself a quiet corner where you can get your head down and do you work, you will, for the most part, stay away from the negative forces working around you.

      When you “hang out” with the toxic people, they will drag you into their toxicity. Quietly and calmly explaining you have a lot of work to get on with and moving to a different place leaves you less vulnerable to their negative influence.

      5. Talk to Your HR Department

      This is one where you need to be careful. You do not want to make accusations or get involved in a blame game when you’re in a toxic work environment. Instead, you want to explain to your HR department that you find it difficult working with a particular person or team[2], and that it’s beginning to negatively affect your personal life.

      Where possible, make it out that this is your fault, not theirs—you do not want to make things worse for yourself. Explain that for you to do your work, you need to be moved somewhere else so you can concentrate and be more focused.

      In a toxic work environment, you will find your HR team is likely fully aware of the problem and will understand your request and do whatever they can to accommodate you.

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      The worst thing you can do is ignore the problem. If the situation is preventing you from doing your work, you need to have that conversation with HR, or if you do not have an HR department, your boss.

      You can learn more about when to go to HR or your boss here.

      6. Listen to Music

      Buy yourself some headphones, not earphones. This is a trick I use on airplanes. Sometimes I want to be left alone to think, read, or just be left with my thoughts. Having my headphones on stops my fellow passengers from interrupting me with questions about what I do, where I’m from, and where I’m going.

      In a toxic work environment, wearing headphones achieves the same result. When we see someone with a pair of headphones on, we automatically leave them alone unless we urgently need to ask them something.

      Whether you actually listen to music or not is less important. The wearing of headphones prevents interruptions and allows you to quietly get on with your work.

      7. Work From Home

      With the current global pandemic, the ability to work from home is more accessible than ever before. Being able to stay outside your toxic work environment will allow you to focus on your work and not on what is going on around you.

      If you do have the option to work from home, then do so for your mental and physical health. One thing I learned is that the people causing the toxic environment do not last long in a company, and the turnover rate is quite high. They either move on by their own accord or are fired or moved to another position where they can cause less harm.

      Final Thoughts

      I have intentionally not suggested that you leave your job, but if you do find yourself feeling stressed and fearful, then the best advice would be to find another company. Nobody should work in a toxic work environment, and if you have taken all the necessary steps to resolve the issue with your company and nothing changes, then you should take steps to leave.

      I understand this can be very difficult, particularly with a complicated job environment and toxic employees around you, but the harm to your health and wellbeing is not worth it. If you need the income, then start looking for a new job and work life. The good news is most companies do not have toxic work cultures, and with a little effort, you should be able to find a new job.

      More on Dealing With a Negative Workplace

      Featured photo credit: Siavash Ghanbari via unsplash.com

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