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Does Parkinson's Law Help or Harm Workplace Performance?

The Good and the Bad

I recently read a fascinating piece online by “Developing Good Habits” that explains the good and bad points of Parkinson’s Law. In case you are not familiar with it, Parkinson’s Law holds that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” It was first espoused in 1955 by Cyril Northcote Parkinson, a famous British historian, management theorist, and author.

Parkinson’s Law suggests that if you proactively give yourself time constraints, you will be able to get more work done in less time. However, if you allow yourself five days to finish a task that should take three hours, then (psychologically) the task will expand in complexity and seem more difficult, and it will fill the entire week.

While it might not fill the entire time with more work, you will have an increased amount of stress and tension about finishing the task for the entire week. So, the more time you allow yourself to complete a task, the longer you'll put it off. In order to manage your time in the most effective way, you have to shorten the amount of time you are willing to allow yourself to finish something.

In his book, The Personal MBA,  Josh Kaufman recommends using Parkinson’s Law as a counterfactual simulation question (also known as a “What if” question), asking what would it look like to complete a task in a very short amount of time.

If you can visualize yourself doing this and the steps you would need to take to get there, you will be able to do it because your thought process will cut out any extra steps that are not necessary.

It’s been suggested that the so-called “Pomodoro Technique” can increase productivity. By breaking up each of your tasks into small blocks of time—25-minute time blocks according to the theory.

This strategy can be effective because you fully concentrate on one task for the 25 minutes without changing your focus or multitasking. During those 25 minutes, you ignore incoming emails, text messages, or other distracting activities such as social media. You are just completely focused.

In order to be more productive, you have to know exactly how you are spending each hour and minute of your day. You may think that you need to get more accomplished, or that you never have enough time to do everything, but if you make the effort to track how you spend your time, you will likely realize that you are spending a lot of time on unnecessary tasks. These tasks can then be eliminated.

Other steps to enhance productivity is to take breaks frequently, limit certain tasks to 30-minutes each day, don’t work late into the night because it can lead to a Parkinson’s Law approach to work productivity, and having an accountability partner who helps you stay on track toward achieving your goals.

According to Developing Good Habits, an  accountability partner can help with a lot of things, such as dealing with unexpected challenges and setbacks, creating a positive and lasting change, carrying out action plans, and improving your personal effectiveness. Parkinson's Law

Some people gravitate to Parkinson’s Law because they are procrastinators. They tend to delay starting tasks and over-think them. They tend to leave decisions and actions until later and have trouble prioritizing work.

Most people think procrastination is a bad thing – it increases risk and potentially rushing towards a deadline and dropping quality to get past the post. However, in an article by Agilify, some of the benefits of the Law are pointed out. For example, Parkinson’s Law enables teams to focus on delivering productivity in smaller increments to get feedback on completed tasks.

Also, procrastination or thinking about a task more thoroughly allows you time to be open to new possibilities. New ways of solving the task.

The idea is that you might not always want the team to speed up and find the answers fast – despite the fact than many organizations see “agile” as purely that. We may want the team to slow their thinking and delay decisions until a later point – in order to allow more information or ideas to surface.

The bottom line is the key to workplace productivity is to careful think through what the work entails, what are your goals in tacking it, who should you assign tasks to, how much time should you allow for completing tasks, and how do you introduce internal controls to meet these objectives.

Parkinson’s Law has good points and bad points. The goal is to understand how it works in completing various tasks and establishing time limits for workplace productivity, not keep it open-ended.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on November 16, 2021. Steve is the author of Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.