Have you ever heard the adage that work expands to fill the time? This is called Parkinson’s Law because this theory was explained in an article written by Cyril Northcote Parkinson for The Economist all the way back in 1955.
Recently, a journalist posed the following questions about Parkinson’s Law, and I shared the following answers:
Parkinson’s law is the notion that work expands to fill time. What do you think of this principle and how have you experienced it first-hand?
Humans love the thrill we get from an adrenaline surge. For some, it’s almost an addiction, which is why they’ve developed the learned behavior of working to finish something right before a deadline. We’ll work on everything else – except what we truly need to do – until the last minute. This is basically what happens under Parkinson’s Law. I see Parkinson’s Law in full effect when a desired end result is announced, but the reason behind the need for the result as well as the steps to get there are not clearly identified and defined.
What do you wish all leaders and teams knew about the effect of Parkinson’s law on productivity?
It’s important that leaders and teams understand that productivity levels decline when all of our tasks are purely tactically based instead of being painted as part of a larger picture or mission. When tasks are just another item on the never-ending to-do list, motivation and drive are lower, which reduces productivity levels. Additionally, if team members are constantly working at the last minute to finish required items, they’re giving themselves a constant push of cortisol, that hormone that kicks us into gear, that adrenaline that fires us up to burn the midnight oil to finish a big project. Cortisol is designed to occasionally help us get through tough situations; it’s not meant for long-term operational functioning. Over the long-haul, cortisol causes internal and cognitive damage, which definitely lower productivity. If overall health is not near the top of your concern list, then consider that if your team is completing actions at the last minute because they’ve filled their time with other tasks, they are most likely not delivering at the highest quality levels. All of this eventually leads to burnout.
What are some examples of Parkinson’s law in action in the workplace?
Let’s say Team XYZ is assigned to present a sales pitch to Client A on July 10. The Team Members see they have nearly two months to work on this. No problem. They throw themselves at the current project they currently have due in two days. Once that’s done, they plan to work on whatever items crop up, or they go down rabbit holes looking things up that don’t need to be looked up, but that’s OK because they have loads of time. The team members return from the July 4 holiday and look at the big note on the calendar block for July 10: SALES PITCH DUE. Holy crud! We have less than a week to churn this out! Put everything else on hold; we need to finish! Where are we? Has anyone done anything on this yet?
You can change the name of the team or department, the customer or client, and the type of project. But what doesn’t change is that the team expanded what they worked on to fill the time they had until the final deadline.
What are your top, actionable tips to help teams be more productive considering the idea that work can expand to fill time?
Teams can operate at far more productive levels if they apply best practice principles from project management:
- Define the end result, including criteria for judging quality/performance.
- Clarify the why for this project. How does this project or deliverable connect to what other teams are working on, and how does this support the overall mission of the team and company?
- Map out the scope. What are the steps that needed to be completed? Who is responsible for each step? How long is needed to complete each step? By when is each step due?
We can spend an entire day discussing the ins and outs of project management, but if teams complete at least these best practices, they will operate far more productively. They will be able to identify high priorities from low-hanging fruit and make better decisions about how they’ll use their time. They’ll operate with more focus and less fill.
Are there ways to take advantage of this principle to increase productivity?
When Parkinson’s Law is explained to teams, there’s usually some snickering. People know it happens, but they figure that’s just the way things are. But if you want your team to be different, you can invite them to participate in a Parkinson’s Law Challenge. Invite them to track their time for three days. This will cause them to realize what their time leaks are throughout the day, as well as how often they lose focus. Gather the team after the three days and ask them to tally up the total amount of time they lost to time leaks or loss of focus. This is their Parkinson’s Law time. An intangible law has now become tangible because there’s now a measurable byproduct. From here, the challenge becomes: What would you rather do with your Parkinson’s Law time? Prevent it from happening so you can leave work earlier each day or work a four-day week? Continue to work the same amount of time but at more productive levels, which will increase profit and, therefore, your salary?
Use this principle as a learning opportunity as well as a team-building exercise that will encourage your team to create a clear vision of what they want to accomplish and how they want to do it.
For details on more productive ways to fill your time, take a quick browse through The Inefficiency Assassin: Time Management Tactics for Working Smarter, Not Longer.