Parkinson’s law is the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time which is available for its completion”, which signifies that the more time people dedicate in advance to a certain task, the longer it will take to complete it, even if it could have been completed in less time.
For example, according to Parkinson’s law, if someone is given a week to complete a task should really only take them a day to finish, they will often end up unnecessarily stretching out the task, so that it will take them the whole week to complete it.
Parkinson’s law has important implications in a variety of situations, both when it comes to increasing productivity, as well as when it comes to predicting people’s behavior. As such, in the following article you will learn more about Parkinson’s law, and see how understanding it can benefit you in practice.
Examples of Parkinson’s law
The best-known example of Parkinson’s law has been described in the article where this concept was first proposed:
“It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Thus, an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and despatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half-an-hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the pillar-box in the next street. The total effort which would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil.”
— From “Parkinson’s Law”, by C. Northcote Parkinson, in The Economist (1955)
Furthermore, examples of how Parkinson’s law can affect people’s behavior appear in a wide variety of other situations.
For example, students will often take as long to finish an assignment as they’re given, so that regardless if they’re given a week, a month, or a whole semester to complete an assignment, they will likely finish it right before the deadline.
Similarly, contractors will often take as long to complete a task as they’re allowed to, even if they could complete it in far less time than that.
Finally, when people decide to work on some project, whether it’s a business idea that they want to develop or a story that they want to write, they will often end up taking significantly longer to get started and to finish those things than they need, especially in situations where they don’t have a concrete deadline for finishing the project.
The reasons for Parkinson’s law
The phenomenon described by Parkinson’s law has been observed in a number of scientific studies, which show that when people are given extra time to complete a task, they will generally take advantage of that time, even if they don’t really need, and even it doesn’t lead to better performance on the task.
Furthermore, this effect sometimes extends to subsequent attempts to perform the same task. This means that if someone is given extra time to perform a task the first time around, they will often take longer than necessary to complete the task again in the future, even if you remove the explicit instructions giving them extra time.
This research suggests that when people are given a task to perform, they often think in terms of “how much time do I have to complete it?”, rather than in terms of “how much time do I need to complete it?”. This mindset can cause people to waste time needlessly, and work in a relatively inefficient manner.
However, there are additional factors that can lead people to take longer to complete tasks if they have more time to do them.
Most notably, people often struggle with procrastination, which can cause them to delay working on tasks until right before the deadline regardless of how much time they have to complete them, since they can’t bring themself to get started earlier. Similarly, the concept of anchoring can often cause people to take longer to complete tasks, if they stretch their estimates of how long a task should take them based on how much time they’re given to complete it.
How to account for Parkinson’s Law
To account for Parkinson’s law, before scheduling a task or getting started on it, you should first try to determine how much time it should take to complete it. When doing this, you should focus not on how much time is available for completing the task, but rather on how much time it should realistically take in order to complete it, without compromising performance.
Then, you should do your best to complete the task within that timeframe, or, if you’re accounting for Parkinson’s law while scheduling tasks for others, encourage them to complete their work within that timeframe.
To achieve this, you can set artificial time constraints (i.e. deadlines), beyond the original ones that initially applied to the task. For example, if a certain task could technically be completed by the end of next month, but you know that it’s possible to get it done within a few days, you can set a deadline for yourself to finish the task within that timeframe.
In general, the deadlines that you set should be based on the following factors:
- The amount of that should be dedicated to the task. For example, this can involve deciding to dedicate only 1 hour to a task, even though you can afford to dedicate 10 hours to it.
- The point in time by which this task should be completed. For example, this can involve deciding to finish a certain task by the end of the week, even though you’re allowed to take a month to do it.
Finally, note that in some cases, when you try to account for Parkinson’s law, you might end up discovering that your original time estimates were wrong for some reason.
If this means that you truly need more time than you originally thought in order to finish your work at an acceptable level, simply readjust your expectations, add the extra time that you need, and keep working until you finish the task. For example, if you thought that you’ll be able to finish some assignment in 2 hours, but it’s clear that you’ll need an extra hour in order to finish it without sacrificing quality, then simply take that extra hour for your work.
Conversely, if this means that you need less time than you originally thought, you should readjust your expectations in a similar manner, and finish your work earlier rather than dragging it on. For example, if you thought that you’ll need 2 hours to finish some assignment but it’s clear that you can finish it earlier, simply finish it earlier, and move on.
Overall, to account for Parkinson’s law, before scheduling a task or getting started on it, you should first try to determine how much time it should realistically take to complete it, without compromising performance. Furthermore, to ensure that that time isn’t wasted, you can set artificial deadlines, which limit either the amount of time that can be dedicated to the task (e.g. 15 minutes) or the point in time by which this task should be completed (e.g. by the end of the month).
Extending Parkinson’s law
Though Parkinson’s law revolves around the time it takes to complete work, the underlying principle behind it can be extended to areas beyond time management and personal productivity.
Specifically, an extended and more generalized version of Parkinson’s law is that “work expands to consume the resources available for its completion”. Essentially, this means that once resources, such as time, money, and effort, are made available for a certain task, people tend to use them all up, even in cases where they’re unnecessary.
Evidence of this extended version of Parkinson’s law is available in various domains. For example, researchers examining public management found that “contracting expands to consume the administrative resources available for its generation and management”. This means that just as people tend to take up as much time as they have available when they need to complete a task, contractors tend to use all the available resources that they can, regardless of whether they need them or not.
When accounting for Parkinson’s law, you can account for this extended version of the law, which takes into consideration all the potential resources that might be used for a task, similarly to how you account for the original version of this law, which takes into consideration only the time spent working on a task.
Specifically, when analyzing an upcoming task, you should ask yourself “what resources do I need in order to complete this task”, rather than just taking advantage of all the resources that are available. When in doubt, ask yourself whether the downsides of using a resource past a certain point outweigh the benefits of using it, and if they do, then you should limit the use of that resource.
Furthermore, you can, in advance, set artificial constraints on the amount of resources that can be used to complete a certain task. For example, if you can afford to spend $500 on a certain project, but know that you can get it done properly for only $100, you can set that as a limit to prevent yourself from overspending your money.
Apply Parkinson’s law with common sense
The key thing to remember when accounting for Parkinson’s law is that when choosing how much time or others resources to dedicate to a task, you should choose an amount that ensures that you don’t waste anything needlessly, but which simultaneously ensures that you don’t compromise the quality of your work.
That is, when accounting for Parkinson’s law, you should focus on setting realistic time (and potentially resource) constraints, and making sure that you abide by them as much as possible. This is as opposed to doing things such as setting minimal time constraints, which will guarantee that you don’t spend too much time on each task, but which can result in subpar work.
For example, if you know that a certain task takes around 10 minutes to complete, you won’t be able to cram it into 2 minutes and still do a good job, and you shouldn’t try to. Rather, your goal here should be to identify the fact that it takes about 10 minutes to complete the task, and set that as a time limit, to prevent yourself from wasting 30 minutes on it just because you can.
This concept is exemplified by the following corollary to Parkinson’s law:
“If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.”
— The Stock-Sanford corollary to Parkinson’s law
Note: the Stock-Sanford corollary to Parkinson’s law is an example of circular reporting or citogenesis. Specifically, its first appearance in literature appears to be in the Wikipedia article on Parkinson’s law, where it was added by an anonymous user who did not provide any supporting references. Later, its initial appearance in the Wikipedia article led to its use by other writers, whose work eventually ended up being used as a reference on Wikipedia in support of this term.
The origin of Parkinson’s law
Parkinson’s law first appeared in a 1955 article in The Economist titled “Parkinson’s Law”, written by British author and historian C. Northcote Parkinson.
The opening sentence of the article contains the adage that eventually became known as Parkinson’s law:
“It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
However, Parkinson’s law originally did not refer to this adage. Rather, it described a phenomenon where the growth of a bureaucratic or administrative body is often associated with a substantial decrease in its overall efficiency. As Parkinson states:
“Granted that work (and especially paper work) is thus elastic in its demands on time, it is manifest that there need be little or no relationship between the work to be done and the size of the staff to which it may be assigned…
The fact is that the number of the officials and the quantity of the work to be done are not related to each other at all. The rise in the total of those employed is governed by Parkinson’s Law, and would be much the same whether the volume of the work were to increase, diminish or even disappear.”
This, he suggests, is based on two factors: officials’ desire to increase the number of their subordinates, but not their rivals, and officials’ tendency to make work for each other.
To support this principle, Parkinson’s provides the following evidence:
“The accompanying table is derived from Admiralty statistics for 1914 and 1928. The criticism voiced at the time centred on the comparison between the sharp fall in numbers of those available for fighting and the sharp rise in those available only for administration, the creation, it was said, of ‘a magnificent Navy on land.’…
What we have to note is that the 2,000 Admiralty officials of 1914 had become the 3,569 of 1928; and that this growth was unrelated to any possible increase in their work. The Navy during that period had diminished, in point of fact, by a third in men and two-thirds in ships. Nor, from 1922 onwards, was its strength even expected to increase, for its total of ships (unlike its total of officials) was limited by the Washington Naval Agreement of that year.
Yet in these circumstances we had a 78.45 per cent increase in Admiralty officials over a period of fourteen years; an average increase of 5.6 per cent a year on the earlier total.”
He then follows this with additional evidence:
“Before showing what the rate of increase is, we must observe that the extent of this department’s [staff of the Colonial Office] responsibilities was far from constant during these twenty years. The colonial territories were not much altered in area or population between 1935 and 1939. They were considerably diminished by 1943, certain areas being in enemy hands. They were increased again in 1947, but have since then shrunk steadily from year to year as successive colonies achieve self-government.
It would be rational, prior to the discovery of Parkinson’s Law, to suppose that these changes in the scope of Empire would be reflected in the size of its central administration. But a glance at the figures shows that the staff totals represent automatic stages in an inevitable increase. And this increase, while related to that observed in other departments, has nothing to do with the size—or even the existence—of the Empire.
What are the percentages of increase? We must ignore, for this purpose, the rapid increase in staff which accompanied the diminution of responsibility during World War II. We should note rather the peacetime rates of increase; over 5.24 per cent between 1935 and 1939, and 6.55 per cent between 1947 and 1954. This gives an average increase of 5.89 per cent each year, a percentage markedly similar to that already found in the Admiralty staff increase between 1914 and 1928.”
Note: Parkinson’s law, as discussed in this article, should not be confused with Parkinson’s law of triviality, which is a related principle proposed by Parkinson, which describes a phenomenon where people spend a relatively large amount of time, energy, and other resources dealing with relatively minor issues.
Summary and conclusions
- Parkinson’s law is the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time which is available for its completion”, which signifies that the more time people dedicate in advance to a certain task, the longer it will take to complete it, even if it could have been completed in less time.
- For example, according to Parkinson’s law, if someone is given a week to complete a task should really only take them a day to finish, they will often end up unnecessarily stretching out the task, so that it will take them the whole week to complete it.
- The behavior underlying Parkinson’s law is motivated by a number of factors, such as people’s tendency to focus on how much time they have to complete a task, rather than how much time they need, as well as the common tendency to procrastinate on tasks until right before the deadline.
- To account for Parkinson’s law, before scheduling a task or getting started on it, you should first try to determine how much time it should realistically take to complete it, without compromising performance.
- To ensure that that time isn’t wasted when working on tasks, you can set artificial deadlines, which limit either the amount of time that can be dedicated to the task (e.g. 15 minutes), or the point in time by which this task should be completed (e.g. by the end of the month).