5 ways to STOP Parkinson’s Law in its tracks

Get back your time, your life, and your money

By Ben Liebing

You probably know what Parkinson’s Law is even if you don’t know the name.

It’s the idea that work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion, a theory first published in 1955 by British naval historian C. Northcote Parkinson in an essay he wrote for The Economist. In practice, it means you take longer than necessary to complete a task, or you procrastinate and complete the task right before the due date.

Parkinson’s whimsical book sold over 100,000 copies on release. (Photo/Cover)

By understanding how Parkinson’s Law works, and the tricks it plays on your brain, you can learn how to better harness the power of deadlines and kick procrastination to the curb.

Check out these five Parkinson’s Law tricks—and how to counter them:

1.          The deadline itself is your enemy

The problem: Imagine: You’ve got a week to complete a project that could be done in a day. Yet, inexplicably, you find yourself glued to Netflix marathons, scrolling social media, or meticulously organizing your sock drawer like you’re a recruit in basic training. Why? Welcome to Parkinson’s Law, where deadlines—even ones given for good reason—can turn the diligent into the procrastinator.

The fix: This great article in the Harvard Business Review, says research has shown that longer deadlines cause people to think the task is more difficult and commit more money than necessary. While they counter some of the Parkinson’s Law theory, the idea is the same—if you’re a manager, or setting deadlines for yourself, shorter is better, especially if money is involved. In other words, the old adage, “Don’t put off to tomorrow what you can do today,” is totally true.

This is the most common graphic representation of Parkinson’s Law. Notice the peak productivity time. Graphs like this have become favorites on time management article across platforms like LinkedIn. (Design/MSP Success)

2.          Work’s elastic waistband

The problem: Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion. In other words, you either spend 3 hours on a 30-minute project because that’s how much time you have, OR you procrastinate for 2 hours and 50 minutes and do the 30-minute project in 10. So you either wasted time and money OR you sacrificed quality because your brain wandered.

The fix: It’s a little thing from Agile methodology called “The Timeboxing Technique.” Timeboxing is a way to set a specific amount of time for any one task (the actual time it takes to complete) and completing the project in that time. What makes it work, is if you break apart the task and place the time boxes on your calendar, using an alarm system to stop you at the end of each task. This article in Forbes gives great details on how to quickly implement Timeboxing. You could also just be cool like Denzel Washington. His character in The Equalizer films notoriously sets his timer for almost every task (including kicking ass). Your phone’s timer can be your built-in accountability tool. Use it to force yourself to act.

3.          Anxiety kills brain cells

The problem: Deadline anxiety is for sure a thing. And its effects on the body are well-documented, as evidenced in this article from Psychology Today. The stress and anxiety can kill brain cells and release a whole lot of cortisol and adrenaline into your body. The principles of Parkinson’s Law (which typically adds procrastination to the mix to fill the time to the deadline) only make these effects WORSE. It’s literally destroying your body.

The fix: Get Zen, man. No, seriously, not only should take a few wellness breaks during the day and work on your nutrition but changing your mindset about deadlines will do you wonders, as will adding rewards. That’s right, according to the Psychology Today article, giving yourself small rewards for completed tasks will give your body doses of much-needed serotonin as well as move you forward in completing your task in a timely manner.

4.          Busy work destroys morale

The problem: The other risk of Parkinson’s Law is being consumed by busy work while you’re working to meet that way-too-long deadline. You fill your time with trivialities that masquerade as productivity. Hence the term “busy work.” Talk about a morale killer, Debbie Downer.

The fix: It’s unique to everyone and every company how you fix the problem of busy work. But according to this article from Business News Daily, it all starts with getting rid of the “busy” part of your work mentality. After that, it’s about breaking down your tasks, what’s important and what’s busy work (prioritization!), and figuring out how to remove those tasks from your schedule, and create shorter deadlines for projects to maximize your time.

5.          Use Parkinson’s Law negatives to give you positives

The problem: The enigma to Parkinson’s Law is that it holds a key to unleashing potential. By setting concise and realistic deadlines, we can short-circuit our brain’s faulty tendency to fill time. Those deadlines become a compass guiding our focus and prioritization, injecting a sense of urgency that nudges us toward action. In other words, get realistic about time and all of sudden, your calendar stops being your enemy.

The fix: According to this article from Life Hack, you need to start getting realistic about how much time things really take to complete. Does it honestly take an hour to write an email? Probably not. Spend a week using a timer and measuring how long tasks take you to finish, and then start applying those times to the work you’re doing—and keep using the timer! In a matter of weeks, you’ll have suddenly mastered your time and found hours you didn’t even know existed.

What are you waiting for? Use these five tips and tricks to conquer Parkinson’s Law and get back hours of your life within a few weeks time.

Got a hot tip for us? We’d love to hear from you. Email us your ideas, thoughts, and questions at [email protected].

Ben Liebing is the lead writer for MSP Success, the gold standard in the MSP space, providing timely and meaningful content that gives readers the tools they need to be the BEST in the business. Have a tip, story, or comment? Ben would love to hear from you! Prior to joining MSP Success, Ben worked as a Marketing Director for Tesla Motors, reported for The Cincinnati Enquirer, and served in the United States Air Force. He has lived, worked, and traveled in over 40 countries around the world.



Upcoming Events


Get Instant Access To Exclusive Interviews!

5 Secrets To Scaling A Recession-Proof MSP