Parkinson’s Law: The Secret Reason Your Competition Making More Money Than You In Less Time

Keril Sawyerr
Dec 4, 2017 · 5 min read

What’s in it for me? Learn how to apply a principle called Parkinson’s Law to revolutionize the way you work and look like a rockstar while doing it.

It’s 5 PM on a cold, wintry Thursday in December and you are flustered… again. Why? Um, where to begin? The phone is ringing. Your friends are texting you. Your client is texting you. Your mom is trying to Facetime you. And you need to get your boss that report by 7 PM. On top off all that, you are also trying to make it on time to your 7 PM date. What do you do? There is a simple answer. You block off one hour to complete the deliverable to your boss. You turn off all communication devices, flip on some classical music, and give yourself one hour to complete the task and get the report to your boss. Then you can get in an uber, return all the phone calls and texts piling up. And based on this plan, you will also make it to your date on time. Oh and hey, you just leverage Parkinson’s Law, my friend. Let me explain.

You’ve likely heard of Cyril Parkinson. He was a British naval historian and author of some 60 books, including one entitled Parkinson’s Law, his best-seller. One of its most famous quotes was published in a 1955 issue of The Economist: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” In yesterday’s world, it was intended to be humorous.

Was it funny 60 years ago? Perhaps. But today, the concept of ever-increasing growth for growth’s sake demands ever-rising productivity. “Working smart” takes a backseat to “working hard,” an idea which is often detrimental to achievement and efficiency. Not to mention, it’s wholly unnecessary.

Companies are beholden to stakeholders who demand increasing profits. While today’s workers are over 200%[1] more productive than they were when Parkinson touched pen to paper, the Western worldview encourages — even requires — professionals to contribute more and more value to organizations.

That “value” usually translates to time. And time usually means busywork. In some cultures, workplace-related exhaustion and stress are treated as badges of honor: if you’re not tired, you’re not working hard enough. As a driving philosophy, this is dangerous.

We can lay blame on both sides of the equation. We’re conditioned to believe that “time”, rather than “productivity”, equals “value”. We must KEEP BUSY after all, for reasons unknown… and perhaps unjustified. Couldn’t you contribute greater value by completing a project in 6 hours instead of letting it expand to fill 8?

Think back to a project or presentation you had to put together far more quickly than you wanted to, due to time constraints or uncontrollable circumstances: you and your team aced it, thanks to dedication, focus, and efficiency.

This could always be the case. You could harness that mindset, apply it to your everyday projects, and use Parkinson’s Law to auto-enforce that level of efficiency and productivity… and exercise much more control over your life.

Applying Parkinson’s Law to your sales career and life

The law is colloquially applied to inflating bureaucracy; inspectors of inspectors and frivolous levels of middle-management whose very existence often creates more work for everyone involved in a project.

On a personal level, judicious application of Parkinson’s Law works more like this: if we budget three days for a task that could take an afternoon to complete, we’ll subconsciously allocate that amount of time and our project will expand in scope or complexity to fill it.

That may be “hard” work, but it’s neither smart nor fast.

There are better ways to do things, both in business and in life.

What are those better ways? Ahem…

  • Narrow down details. If you or your team allocate too much time to a project, you’ll inevitably focus on minutiae that are at least somewhat irrelevant to overall success. Instead:
  • Prioritize tasks. Identify the critical components of a project and either tackle or delegate them accordingly. If you find you have an excess of time, you can use it to refine or move ahead with something else entirely. But:
  • Ruthlessly create efficiencies. It’s easy to drag small simple tasks out far longer than actually needed. While it may feel comfortable to do so; filling “extra” time with other activities like social media or checking email (again!) is the opposite of efficiency. To truly control your time you should:
  • Eliminate busywork. Set and meet compressed deadlines by eliminating wasted hours. Busywork makes us look and feel productive when the reality is often the opposite. It’s important to:
  • Accomplish more in less time. Make your deadlines somewhat-stressfully (but always realistically) short. Stick to your schedule without compromise; when we’re crunched for time, we’re forced to think, work, play, and live much more efficiently.

Enjoy an expanded sense of freedom.

Try this now:

Artificially limit your time by breaking your day up into small chunks, each with strictly-enforced, actionable to-do lists. For example, limit all email correspondence to 30 minutes per day. You’ll create more succinct, on-point messages and free up time you can dedicate to other tasks.

Be realistic about what you want and what’s achievable. It’s fine to shoot for the stars; optimism can be wonderful. But when tasks inflate beyond practicality, you need to match that expansion with increased effort and workload, delaying results.

Refine your task-time projections. At first you’ll probably allocate too much or too little for some tasks; be aware of this (timers and systems like the Pomodoro Technique can help immensely) and continually optimize your schedule for balanced efficiency.

Create internal competition. Pretend you’re constantly being watched, over-the-shoulder, and dedicate yourself to more than “being busy.” Focus on progressing through your to-do list; always moving forward. You can even compete with yourself for daily tasks like emails, striving to beat your old record without compromising quality.

Joel Runyon of IMPOSSIBLE shares a brilliant idea: “Work without your computer charger.

Force yourself to get stuff done before your computer runs out of battery.”

Procrastinate productively. Spend the afternoon with your family and leave yourself with what you consider the bare minimum amount of time to complete quality work. You’ll approach tasks with fresh vigor and force yourself to focus on using every moment more productively.

*One important caveat:

As with all things, it’s important not to take this principle to the extreme. Some detractors point out that Parkinson’s Law can be interpreted to mean “if you leave things to the last minute they’ll only take a minute to do.”

Obviously that doesn’t make practical sense. But it is a valid criticism and serves to illustrate the potential pitfalls in dramatically reducing tasks’ time allocations: there’s a marked difference between “bare, efficient minimum” and “detrimentally rushing.”

Achieve more. Work less. Enjoy freedom.

To sum up, if you’re rushing you’re working inefficiently and/or allocating too little time to projects. If you find yourself with extra “free” time (easily wasted on emails, social media, and whatnot), you can safely reduce future time investments in similar projects and use your newfound time to pursue other, more productive and interesting activities.

Exercising Parkinson’s Law (with care) can have a dramatic effect on your productivity, professional value, and sense of personal well-being. People will notice.

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