Beating the Parkinson’s Law

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by Zubair Lone

Have you experienced a scenario where you had been literally sitting idle on a task, paralyzed and incapable of working, for weeks altogether and then suddenly you become a high-performance machine and complete it in the final couple of days, just before the task needed to be done? If your answer is yes, then you have experienced what is known as ‘Parkinson’s law’.

According to Parkinson’s Law, work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. The idea has been around since 1955 and has been given by Cyril Northcote Parkinson, a British historian and noted public administration and management scholar.

Cyril Northcote Parkinson

Cyril Parkinson noted that as the bureaucracies in English offices expanded they became more and more inefficient. He applied this observation to a variety of other circumstances. He found that as the time allotted to a task is increased, the task gets complex and the people working on it get slower owing to the luxury of more time. Contrarily, as the length of time allocated to it gets shorter, the task gets simpler and the people get faster and efficient.

Essentially, Parkinson’s Law is among the basic principles of both public administration and project management. For instance, if a task that could take three days to complete at the worst is allocated a week; magically, the time spent on this task will expand and it will be finished at the last minute of the last day of the allocated week. And at times, it may take even longer! A variant of Parkinson’s Law in the context of cost management can be stated as: total costs expand so as to exhaust the total budget available.

However, interestingly, Parkinson’s Law doesn’t just apply to public administration or project management alone. Students have an entire academic session to prepare for the finals, and yet they start calling friends and teachers for notes and ‘important topics’ at the eleventh hour. Or it so happens that your shopping list will expand till you empty your pockets. Your appetite will increase till you empty your kitchen refrigerator. Your belongings will expand to fill the entire storage space available. Whatever the application, the end result of Parkinson’s Law is similar in every case. You are not left with enough time; savings; storage space; or you are putting on those extra kilos by overeating. A domestic variant of Parkinson’s Law may even help us to understand why housewives spent so many hours at their chores!

Francesco Cirillo

As such, understanding Parkinson’s Law is the first step towards beating it. An obvious solution to beat it is by setting limits and hard deadlines- a limit on the number of tasks to be done and the amount of time available for each task or a limit on the amount of money you have available for shopping or a limit on the size of your daily food serving and so on. However, the key here lies in choosing these limits wisely. To prevent you from becoming complacent, they should not offer large margins of comfort.

Zubair Lone

Accordingly, applying short artificial limits and breaks to systematically chop a longer task into smaller chunks is a practical and effective method. Pomadaro Technique is one such method developed by Francesco Cirillo, a lecturer at Berlin School of Economics. The main premise behind the technique is to work in blocks of time, typically 25 minutes long called pomodoro sessions (can be longer up to 50 minutes), followed by a 5 to 10 minute break. Each pomodoro session demands your full attention on the task and every break requires you to step away from it. The Italian word pomodoro (tomato) is after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that Cirillo used as a university student. The result is improved productivity maintained through undivided focus, managing distractions and taking regular breaks.

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