This article was originally published on my company’s website at https://www.tosc.io/blog/parkinsons-law-setting-deadlines, on October 8, 2020. If you’ve got any questions or comments, or just want to connect, shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!
The old adage that says work expands to fill the time allotted
Picture this scene. You’ve just sat down at your desk and you’re in the zone. You know you’re working at a peak productivity time, you’ve got a clear goal to accomplish, you’ve got a cup of tea, and you’re ready to go. But then you see a cartoonishly big, red circle drawn around Friday on your calendar. You’ve got a task to do by a set deadline. And it’s making you nervous.
I’ve had this red circle keep me awake on many different occasions and for completely different reasons. Sometimes it was a task that is unpleasant or very complicated, that I just don’t want to start. Sometimes it was a task that is just so undefined that I didn’t even know where to start. There is a part of me that knows I should just buckle down and do whatever it is that needs to be done. Instead I will keep lobbing it over a figurative fence (or the date lines on a calendar) until a due date screams for attention, and makes me come to terms with actually completing the work.
Perhaps you’ve felt something similar. So, what is it about that red circle that haunts us?
Let’s talk deadlines
Actually, first, let’s talk about that word. Deadline. Why does that sound so morbid? Why is a due date associated with the finality of death? Why is the line not simply sick, or stunned, or have a mild case of allergies? And come to think of it, why is it a line? Aren’t there any more welcoming shapes? A circle, a smiley face, a rainbow? Why is it called a deadline; could we not have called it a semi-allergenic rainbow?
I digress, back to deadlines.
I don’t know who created deadlines — or who named them — but do you ever think to yourself why can’t your client or your boss just wait until it’s done? Has a voice inside of your head ever said: it will take as long as it takes?
Enter Cyril Northcote Parkinson. (With a name like that, it won’t take much to convince you that he was British naval historian.) In a 1955 essay from the Economist, he postulated that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” (Parkinson’s Law — The Personal MBA) In simple terms, a task will take as long as you let it take.
Think about it like this. Someone has left a form on your desk with a sticky note on it that says “please fill this out, whenever you get a chance.” Assume the form has maybe a dozen simple questions, and assume you’ve got a typical amount of daily work to do as well; how long do you think that form will sit on your desk? When will you actually fill it out?
Now what if that post-it note had said: “Fill out by end of the week” or “Fill out by close of business” or “Fill out in the next hour or you won’t get free donuts on Monday”? I’m guessing that changes the priority of that form. You make time for it — especially if there are donuts involved. It’s not necessarily that the form will actually take you any more or less time to complete; the work will simply be prolonged until you see a due date.
“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” - Cyril Northcote Parkinson
There have actually been studies on this theory, now commonly known as “Parkinson’s Law”. This BBC article says, in a very British way, that people will “dally” when given extra time to work on something. They also found that, when given the extra time, the task wasn’t completed any better or with any more accuracy, it just took longer.
So does that mean you should set really tight deadlines for yourself? As you’d expect, the same article suggests that if you aren’t given enough time, people tend to panic, and things could go awry. If a deadline appears “menacing” it becomes all consuming, and stress, nervousness, and anxiety abound.
So what should you do? I’ve heard a lot of people say that they work to a deadline. I think that’s a fairly universal trait, even if it manifests itself in different ways. Sometimes I’m good at getting a task done “early” but I’m also a bit of a perfectionist. I’ve found myself ‘perfecting’ a working solution and ending up with an Excel spreadsheet that could get nominated for a special effects award, without actually adding any usefulness to the functionality. Conversely, if something is not so interesting, I might place it on a back burner, just because I can. Apparently, humans, are easily distracted. I myself have never really had this prob — oo, squirrel!
Sorry, where was I?
Elizabeth Tenney, a professor interviewed for that BBC piece, offers this sage piece of advice: “Cut yourself off rather than keep tinkering for all time.” Whether tinkering means overcomplicating or dilly-dallying, the sentiment is the same. Use a deadline to confine yourself to finishing the task.
Setting Deadlines as a Freelancer
Ultimately, for a freelancer, a deadline is a contract; an exchange between buyer and seller, and it is important and beneficial for both parties. The client knows when to expect their task completed, as a completed task is actually a part of their own to-do list. Conversely, it will help you, as a freelancer, to organize and prioritize your work. Missing a deadline might mean the difference between losing a client and getting a bad review or winning a repeat customer and maybe some new referrals.
(If you’re curious to see deadlines from your clients point of view, I’d suggest reading this blog post from Twine on how and why clients might ‘enforce’ deadlines.)
If you’re having a hard time getting started, try these tips from GoDaddy on how to create workable deadlines with your client as a freelancer.
If deadlines are still making you nervous try these techniques from Forbes, on some practical suggestions to handle “deadline stress”.
And, remember, nobody is perfect. If you’re just starting out as a freelancer, or even if you’re a seasoned pro, you might make a mistake. If you do find yourself about to miss a deadline, it’s OK, but you need to let your client know. This article from The Muse helps explain what you should do if you find yourself in this situation.
So don’t be afraid of deadlines. Embrace them. Use them to your advantage. And if all else fails, see if thinking of them as semi-allergenic rainbows might make them a little less terrifying?