Parkinson’s law: how constraints can create freedom

Coined by Cyril Northcote Parkinson as part of an essay published in The Economist in 1955, Parkinson’s law is the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” While it was initially designed as a mathematical equation describing the rate at which bureaucracies expand over time, Parkinson’s Law can be applied to many areas, including the way you work.

In simple terms, Parkinson’s Law means that if you take a 2-hour task and allocate 4 hours to get it done, you will end up spending 4 hours working on the task. You may do more research, procrastinate, overthink your approach—the resulting work may be the same, but you will have ended up spending twice as much time as necessary on the task.

The good news? Parkinson’s Law also works the other way around. Taking a task you think will take 4 hours and only allocating 2 hours to it will likely result in completing the task under 2 hours. This is Horstman’s corollary to Parkinson’s law: “work contracts to fit in the time we give it.”

Work better and faster

You may wonder about the quality of the work. Would forcing yourself to work in a limited amount of time result in lower quality output? It turns out, constraints can actually make you more creative. A recent study looked at how thinking about scarcity or abundance influences how people use their resources.

Researchers found that when people face scarcity, they give themselves the freedom to use resources in less conventional ways—because they have to. The situation demands creativity which would otherwise remain untapped.

“The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.” — Igor Stravinsky, Composer, Pianist, and Conductor.

Parkinson's law

Using Parkinson’s Law to fuel your productivity and creativity

Following Parkinson’s Law is a simple way to achieve more and to unleash your creativity. Here are three of the ones I have seen used.

  • Time blocking. Instead of just listing tasks to work on in your to-do app, add them to your calendar with a specific deadline. It may feel arbitrary, but that’s exactly the point. Go for a work session that’s slightly shorter than what you expect it to take, so you can untap more of your creativity.
  • Stop working at a specific time. In Deep Work, Cal Newport explains how he earned his PhD. from MIT by forcing himself to finish his workday at 5 p.m. Of course, we always feel like there’s more to be done, but this will force you to tackle the most important things before the end of your work day.
  • Work without a computer charger. This one is a bit extreme, and I was surprised when I first heard about it, but it’s a sure way to apply Parkinson’s Law. You have to get all of your work done before the battery dies. Whenever this has happened to me, my productivity was through the roof. I don’t recommend doing it all the time though, it can be pretty anxiety-inducing.

The artificial constraint can feel a bit stressful at first, but once you’ve done it a few times to get work done quicker and more creatively, you won’t come back to just tackling your to-do list in order of importance and priority.

Parkinson's law

Making the most of Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s Law is sometimes misunderstood because of the many corollaries that were created by others. For example, you may have read this one: “If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.” The main problem is that it’s simply not true; the second problem is that it can be interpreted as an encouragement for procrastination. Instead, keep on applying some common sense principles.

  • Set reasonable deadlines. Create enough constraint to unlock your creativity, but be realistic. There is no point trying to work on something that should take a couple of days in a couple of hours. Trying to be more productive will not magically turn you into a superhuman.
  • Commit. Make sure you take the deadlines seriously. Announcing it to a friend or colleague is a great way to create artificial pressure so you stick to your deadline. Having another artificial constraint such as a meeting, a call, a gym session or anything else afterwards also works.
  • Review and iterate. It can take a bit of trial and error to figure out how much time you can save by using Parkinson’s Law. After you’re done with a task, take a few minutes to reflect. How did it feel? Did I manage to get it done? Could I have finished quicker? Use metacognition strategies to get better over time.

Even though it wasn’t its original intended purpose, along with basic time management technique, Parkinson’s Law can do wonders for your productivity and your creativity.

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