Parkinson’s Law and Time Management

Do you have a moment to spare? Perhaps a moment is all that you have to spare!

There are two kinds of tasks that you engage in – things that you have to do and things that you want to do. As a responsible individual, you would like to complete things that you have to do before you start on things that you want to do. However, if all your time is stuck in things that you have to do, where will you find time for the things that you want to do?

If you only do the things that you have to, you merely exist. Only when you do things that you want to do you really live. What can you do about it?

One solution, championed by David Allen, is the “Four D” approach to reducing the tasks on your list:

  1. Delete the unnecessary tasks;
  2. Delegate what can be done by others;
  3. Defer the less urgent tasks;
  4. Do the rest.

Here is my solution: If you can complete your “have-to” tasks in less time than expected, you can use the time you save on things that you want to do. In other words, estimate how much time you need for any task, complete the task quickly, and use the time you save on something dear to your heart.

The biggest problem with this solution is Parkinson’s Law. Parkinson’s Law states, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” As soon as you set up an expectation, an estimate for the duration of the task, the estimate becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The task will take the expected time.

I have put together four techniques to overcome Parkinson’s Law.

1. Effectively Use “Wait” Time

You spend a large portion of time waiting – in doctors’/dentists’ offices, in queues at the post office, bank, supermarket or airport security, waiting for a meeting to start or to be served at a restaurant, etc. On your task list or appointment list, identify potential wait opportunities. Likewise, identify tasks on your list that you may be able to complete during any wait time. Put these together and you will effectively get two things done at the same time.

2. Effectively Multitask

Multitasking, i.e. trying to do more than one thing at a time, is considered counter-productive. On the other hand, the human animal has learnt to walk and talk at the same time. When some action has been performed over and over again and has been relegated to the “automatic” section of the brain (the cerebellum), it can be combined with other tasks. In other words, “thoughtless” tasks can be combined. Tasks that require thinking cannot be combined. As you make up your To-do list, identify tasks that can be done mechanically and plan to combine compatible tasks. This “two-for-one” deal will reduce the items on your list.

3. Front-end Load the task

“Front-end loading” is my term for getting the heaviest (most significant, riskiest, most complex) part of your task done up-front. This reduces the burden, and the momentum that you will reach will sustain you through the task. Success begets success, and early successes set the mood for greater achievements.

4. Set an Artificial Deadline

Carefully challenge yourself to achieve more. Set a limit between 65% and 85% the original estimate as the new deadline, and, so that you do not treat this artificial deadline lightly, put about 25% more items on your list and challenge yourself to complete everything. Parkinson’s Law works in reverse – if you give yourself less time on any task, it will shrink to fit the available time. Of course, as in anything else, overdoing this will hurt you in the long run. Know your capability and slowly push your limits.

Some of my clients have achieved significant improvements in productivity by controlling Parkinson’s Law. It works, but requires one secret ingredient – you must believe in your ability to complete tasks in less time than expected.

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