Parkinson’s Law: Why Do We Waste So Much Time?

February 18, 2017 in Curiosities 4 Shared
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Cyril Northcote Parkinson was a historian that worked for many years in the British civil service. The experience he accumulated led him to publish a book in 1957 titled “Parkinson’s Law and Other Studies in Administration”. In this work, he formulated his famous law, which, in reality, in not a single law but actually several laws.

Parkinson carefully observed the way that work was carried out in government offices. Based on his daily experience, he managed to find patterns that allowed him to postulate his basic principles. Parkinson’s law can be summarized into three fundamental postulates:

  • “Work expands until it fills the time available for its realization.” 
  • “Expenses will increase until they cover all of the income.”
  • “The time dedicated to any topic on the agenda is inversely proportional to its importance.”

Since its creation, experts on the topic have verified once and time again the validity of Parkinson’s law. Also, it has served as a guide in order to propose new methods of work and time management, for the sake of efficiency.

Parkinson’s law and time management

The main application of Parkinson’s law has been in the administration of time. Its first postulate indicates: “Work expands until it fills the time available for its realization.” This means that if you have an hour to perform a task, you are going to take an hour to perform it. But if you have a month, you will take a month to do it.

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The truth is that every day we are witnesses to the validity of this law. For example, when students have two or three months to turn in a project, and they end up doing it 24 hours before it is due. Or when you have to complete a work task in the afternoon. You procrastinate up until a couple of hours before the established time. And during these few hours, you do everything that you hadn’t done before.

This principle is related to another postulate that Parkinson called “The Law of Dilation”. He establishes that when you have time, you will always tend to postpone everything you need to do. But, why does this happen? Simply because time is a highly subjective concept. It depends more on our inner perception than the actual passage of hours.

Parkinson also noticed that the more time we dedicate to completing a task, the more complicated it becomes and the more difficult it becomes to complete it. If you have the perception that you have plenty of time at your disposal, you focus more on the details and tend to branch out. You try to cover even the most minimal aspects of the task. Instead, if you are in a hurry, “let’s get to the point”, without beating around the bush.

A bureaucratic evil that we all copy

Parkinson also noticed that the least important issues were the ones that ended up occupying the biggest amount of time. Hence his third great postulate, “The time dedicated to any topic on the agenda is inversely proportional to its importance.” 

It seems that relevant issues demand a serious attitude and require precise approaches. That’s why they need to be dispatched more efficiently. On the contrary, trivial matters make everyone want to participate and say anything that comes to mind. Therefore, more time is dedicated to them.

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Although Parkinson’s law was postulated after observing bureaucracy, the truth is it can be applied to practically everyone. And it not only applies to time management. Instead, it also extends to other aspects of life, such as expenses or the organization of physical spaces.

Parkinson indicates that “Expenses will increase until they cover all of the income.” This means that it doesn’t matter how much you earn, you will always find a way to “barely make ends meet” or even find yourself in debt. A person can live with a determined income with no problem. If their income increases, this doesn’t translate to them having a surplus from here on out. Instead, they will reorganize their finances in a way that nothing will be left over.

The result of all of these behavioral patterns is a great level of inefficiency. Time and money never last enough. However, if we look at it closely, this is due to the mistaken way that we administrate them. In fact, this article that you are reading was written following Parkinson’s recommendation: divide the work into sub-tasks and establishing a time limit to complete them. The result: finishing the task twice as quickly. What do you think? Do you want to try it?

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