One of the best ways to maximize your productivity is to plan out what you need to do in advance, which you can do with a brain dump, a ruthlessly curated daily schedule, a collection of planning tools, or any other number of methods. Unfortunately, even the best practices come with a dark side if you take them too far. In this case, that dark side is Parkinson’s Law, which you’ll run into if you’re giving yourself too much time to work on something. Here’s what it is and how you can beat it to be even more productive.
What is Parkinson’s Law?
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Parkinson’s Law, basically, is the idea that however long you give yourself to do something is how long it will take. It was conceptualized by a historian named C. Northcote Parkinson in a 1955 essay for The Economist. It’s usually used to examine the work of public administration and bureaucracy, but can be applied to everyday people and their everyday tasks, too.
Parkinson even came up with some mathematical formulas to emphasize his observation, but we don’t need to get into that. Instead, we’ll focus on some of the interpretations and extrapolations. The first way Parkinson’s Law can work is that if you know you have time to do something, you’ll drag it out or procrastinate on it. The second way it can work is by giving you time to complicate your task. If you have a day to clean your kitchen, you’ll spend it finding just the right supplies, making a complicated plan, fretting over which old things to keep and which to throw, and all sorts of other little complications. If you have an hour, you’ll get in there and do the dishes, throw out the trash, and wipe down the counter. A deep clean every now and then is important, of course, but sometimes you just have to get in there and get it done.
How you can defeat Parkinson’s Law
To defeat Parkinson’s Law, you need to give yourself less time to do your tasks, as scary as that sounds. Consider the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which says that to be your most productive, you have to have just the right amount of stress, which is not too little and not too much. When you have too much time to devote to something, you don’t have enough stress to motivate you.
Spend two weeks shaving some time off your allotments for different responsibilities. Just try it. Use timeboxing if you’re not already, which involves scheduling your entire day down to the minute, using blocks of time in your calendar. If you think it will take you 30 minutes to answer all your emails in the morning, give yourself 20. If you think it will take an hour to compile reports for a big project, give yourself 45 minutes.
Also, before you start a project, take some time to think of how it plays into the bigger picture. You can write this down every morning (since you’ll have a few extra minutes in every day if you’re shaving time off task allotments, anyway) for an extra push and some visualization. Instead of focusing on the fact that you have to clean the kitchen or pull those reports, look at your larger mission. You’re cleaning the kitchen because you need the house clean before your dinner party this weekend. You’re pulling those reports because you need data to rely on for your quarterly client presentation, which secures your company’s sustainability and funding. Whatever it is you need to do, don’t think of it as a stand-alone, one-off task that you can handle over a period of time; think of it as part of a larger puzzle and something you should work on so you can keep building toward the bigger picture.
Finally, set your own deadlines for projects and tasks. Even if your boss wants the reports at the end of the week, set your own deadline for Wednesday to create some pressure and urgency, pushing you into that Yerkes-Dodson sweet spot. Giving yourself less time, both to work on things and to get them completely done, will create a slight sense of rush and stress, which will stop you from micromanaging, procrastinating, or otherwise engaging in Parkinson’s Law behavior.