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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.

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 Master the Art of Prioritization The Importance of Scheduling Downtime How to Make Decisions Under Pressure 11 Free Mind Mapping Applications & Web Services How to Use Parkinson’s Law to Your Advantage

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Last Updated on January 21, 2020

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

Curiosity

Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

Patience

Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

A Feeling for Connectedness

This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

How to Self-Taught Effectively

With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

1. Research

Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

Learning the Basics

Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

Hitting the Books

Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

Long-Term Reference

While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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2. Practice

Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

3. Network

One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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4. Schedule

For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

Final Thoughts

In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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