Advertising
Advertising

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.

Advertising

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!

    Advertising

    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.

    Advertising

    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.

    Advertising

    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.

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

    Trending in Focus

    1 What Is Decision Fatigue And How To Combat It 2 What Is Block Scheduling? (And How It Boosts Productivity) 3 How to Work More Efficiently and Stop Rushing to Meet Deadlines 4 10 Negative Effects of Social Media That Can Harm Your Life 5 The 5 Stages of Getting Over Cell Phone Distraction

    Read Next

    Advertising
    Advertising
    Advertising

    Published on May 3, 2021

    What Is Decision Fatigue And How To Combat It

    What Is Decision Fatigue And How To Combat It

    How often have you had the experience of needing to make tough decisions that pull you in different directions? You go round and round in circles and, in the end, you either flip a coin or make a snap decision because you’re just too tired to think anymore. Or maybe, you simply put off reaching a decision indefinitely, which is sometimes easier than making a tough call.

    Can you relate to this currently? If so, then you’re likely suffering from decision fatigue. Poor decisions are made not because of incapability but because arriving at one or more choices takes its toll—to the extent that it severely weakens our mental energy.

    Now that we know what decision fatigue is, let’s explore the primary ways to combat it to enable a stronger mental state coupled with better decision-making.

    1. Identify and Make the Most Important Decisions First

    If you have a busy personal or work life where many tricky decisions are on the table every day, this can easily and quickly become overwhelming. In this instance, create mental space by initially laying out all situations and challenges requiring a decision. Use a basic software tool or write them down on paper—a notepad file or word document is sufficient.

    Once you have your complete list, carefully pick out the most important items needing a conclusion sooner rather than later. Be mindful of the fact that you can’t treat everything as urgent or requiring immediate attention. There have to be some things that are more important than others!

    Prioritize and Declare the Appropriate Options

    Equipped with your most pressing items awaiting decisions, add another layer of scrutiny by prioritizing them even further. The result should allow you to identify, in order, your most urgent and important tasks without any conflicting priorities.

    The last part of this exercise is to highlight all of the options to consider for your most important decision and work through them one by one. With the visual representation of options and most critical decisions out the way first, you’ll be able to think more clearly and prevent decision fatigue from subtly kicking in.

    Advertising

    2. Implement Daily Routines to Automate Less Important Decisions

    “Shall I have a healthy lunch today?” “Should I wake up earlier tomorrow?” “What time should I prepare dinner tonight?”

    As trivial as these questions appear to be, each one still requires a decision. Stack them on top of other straightforward everyday questions in addition to more significant ones, and things can start to add up unpleasantly.

    Small or less important decisions can eat away at your time and productivity. When many other decisions need to be made in parallel, it can lead to decision fatigue. However, there’s a method to avoid this. It involves streamlining aspects of your life by automating repetitive decisions, and this drives the ability to make better decisions overall.[1]

    It’s Your Routine—Control It to Create Time for Other Activities

    Instead of having to decide multiple times per week if you should have a healthy lunch, create a daily routine sufficiently ahead of time by dictating what healthy food you’ll eat for lunch every day. In doing so, you’re putting that particular decision on autopilot. Your predefined routine commits you to a decision immediately and without hesitation.

    Invest time into highlighting all of the trivial and recurring situations requiring decisions daily, then implement a collective routine that relieves the need for you to give them much thought (if any thought at all).

    3. Put a Time Limit on Every Decision

    Making complex or big decisions increases the risk of draining your energy. This is especially true if you struggle with the fear of making the wrong decision. The doubt and worry bouncing around inside continuously are enough for the majority of people to become fed up and exhausted.

    To make good decisions, you need to be in the right position to act. A tactic to deploy is to essentially force yourself to act by setting a time limit on your decision-making process. What might seem a little daunting—given that it can create a sense of added pressure—actually provides clarity on when you need to conclude since you can see the end in sight.

    Advertising

    Grow in Confidence by Reducing Hesitation

    After making the decision, it’s time to move on. You’ll feel good and build self-confidence knowing that you didn’t linger on the choices available.

    Only consider revisiting a previous decision if something unexpected occurs that impacts it. If that’s the case, then follow the same process by ensuring you make the revised decision before a new deadline.

    4. Seek Input From Other People—Don’t Decide Alone

    There’s a time and place to make decisions alone, but sometimes, it’s appropriate to involve others. If there’s any degree of struggle in reaching a verdict, then seeking opinions from people in your network can lessen the mental burden of indecisiveness.

    Do you feel comfortable seeking input from other people to help make decisions? Trust and feeling secure in your relationships are crucial to answer “yes” to this question.

    Explore the Thoughts of Others and Gain a Different Perspective

    An insecure business leader likely won’t trust their team(s) to help them make decisions. On the other hand, an assured and secure business leader realizes they don’t “know it all.” Instead of going solo on all work-related decisions, they install trust among their team and get the support required to arrive at the best possible decisions.

    The ability to make a great decision can depend on the information related to it that’s at your disposal. When faced with a difficult choice, don’t be afraid to lean on the relevant people for help. They can offer valid alternatives that are otherwise easy to overlook or hold the key to you making a well-informed decision.

    5. Simplify and Lower the Number of Available Options

    You’re standing in the store, facing an aisle of more than 20 varieties of peanut butter. You have no idea which one to choose, and although there are subtle differences, they all look fairly similar. No doubt you’ve been in this situation at least once in the past (maybe with a substitute for peanut butter!).

    Advertising

    This is a classic example of having too many choices—an event that makes you prone to decide to do nothing or waste time by continually pondering on which product to buy.

    According to the psychological concept known as choice overload, simply having too many options can be disruptive and overburdening, causing decision fatigue.[2] Using the example above, you might make the easiest choice of avoiding any further thought, which often results in the purchase of the wrong item.

    Extract Meaningful Information and Evaluate Options With a Binary Outcome

    To simplify and lower your range of options, leverage the information available and extract what’s most important for you to make a decision. Is it the price? The protein content? Whether it has sustainable packaging or a combination of multiple details?

    Keep a tight lid on having too many important components. Prioritize if necessary, and implement a binary outcome (of “yes” or “no” / “true” or “false”) to help arrive at decisions earlier, such as defining a limited price range that the product must fall within.

    6. Eliminate Unnecessary Distractions

    Arguably, attention is the currency of the modern world. The ability to concentrate better than the next person can mean the difference between a successful student, a thriving business, a happy parent, and a great decision-maker.

    So, how can you improve your attention span to make better choices and avoid decision fatigue? There are many strategies, and one of the most optimal ways is to eliminate distractions. Today, the easiest distractions are a result of technology and the devices running it—all of which are at your fingertips 24/7.

    Create Extended Periods of Time to Increase Focus

    These distractions might be small or large, but the broader issue is the frequency of them, and they repeatedly cause a break in your focus. Dealing with this while trying to make the right decision can be mentally debilitating.

    Advertising

    Technology distractions commonly relate to email, instant messages, push notifications from mobile apps, and scrolling through social media feeds. Access to all of these technologies and tools must be limited to scheduled time blocks (ideally, using a calendar if it’s during a working day).

    Switch off notifications entirely to all of the above to prevent distractions (where possible) when it’s not time to look at them. This enables you to think more deeply and focus for prolonged periods of time, ultimately boosting the chances of making good decisions.

    Final Thoughts

    Decision fatigue is a real phenomenon that can deplete energy levels and increase stress. It can affect anyone who has to make decisions, whether they are minor or major ones.

    Overcoming decision fatigue needs patience and dedication. By applying the best practices discussed in this article, you’ll be on the path to implement valuable changes. These changes will increase your productivity, as well as drastically improve your consistency and ability to make the right choices.

    More About Decision Fatigue

    Featured photo credit: Jake Melara via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] FlexRule: Decision Automation
    [2] Behavioral Economics: Choice Overload

    Read Next