Survive Stress & Manage Time Better Using Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s Law proclaims, “It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

'Parkinson's Law, and Other Studies in Administration' by Cyril Northcote Parkinson (ISBN 0395083737) This adage’s namesake is British historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson, who first detailed it as an opening remark in his famous 1955 The Economist essay.

Parkinson’s Law has spawned many serviceable corollaries:

  • A wardrobe expands to fill all the available closet space.
  • A hoarder’s corpus of unwanted items and junk expands to fill his available space—in closets, cabinets, attics, garage, etc.
  • Data expands to fill the space available for storage.
  • Boredom expands to fill the space and time available to an affected individual.
  • Meetings expand to fill the time available. (Appropriately, if you set an hour for the meeting, people will use the entire hour, in spite of how much is on the agenda.)
  • No matter how much money people earn, they tend to spend the entire amount and a little bit more besides.

Parkinson’s Law for Stress-Management and Time-Management

Parkinson's Law for Time Management From a stress- and time-management perspective, the functional implication of Parkinson’s Law is that tasks take as much time as you allot for them. In other words, the amount of time that you have to perform a task is the amount of time it will take to complete the task.

For example, if you have two hours to process engineering data, clean your wardrobe, bake a cake, or build a birdhouse, you are likely to fill those entire two hours performing that task, even if the task need not necessarily take as much time if you were efficient enough.

Idea for Impact: Put Bookends on Your Activities

According to Parkinson’s Law, work can contract to fill in the time you give it. You can apply artificial limitations to your work in order to finish it more efficiently. Consider setting time limits on all your activities.

Set a timer for each task you’re trying to get done. If you reckon something may take 90 minutes, set a timer for 90 minutes—or better yet, challenge yourself to be more efficient by setting a timer for 60 minutes. During that time, allow no interruptions and distractions. Keep your nose to the grindstone, apply yourself thoroughly to the task, and get it done.

For habitual procrastinators who tend to put off looming tasks to a later time and exert themselves at the “last minute” prior to an imminent deadline, one other corollary to Parkinson’s Law may be helpful: “If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do,” possibly producing mediocre results.

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