Use Parkinsons Law to your advantage

Use Parkinsons Law to your advantage

10 January 2021

You may have heard of Parkinson’s Law before. If you haven’t, today’s your lucky day. Let me introduce it to you with a quick personal story of mine.

The first time I came across this law was back when I was at university and had a report to write. My lecturer had given our class a month to write this. Procrastination was always an issue for me, I often found myself putting things off to the last minute and could never fully relax whenever I had a deadline. Initially, it would start with a feeling of “I have bags of time to do this, 1 month is plenty”. I’d lull myself into a false sense of security by saying to myself that I would do a little bit each day and work towards it gradually, at my own pace. That wouldn’t happen, and instead, I’d push writing it constantly, until eventually, the feeling of the deadline looming started to make me really uncomfortable, to the point where I would push myself to action because of my worry that I didn’t have enough time left to complete it properly. This was usually a few days before the actual deadline.

So, with only a few days left, I started writing my report with a tunnel vision focus. Finishing it became my priority and everything else became noise. I didn’t think about checking social media, procrastinating on videos, or anything else for that matter. That focus paid off and I completed my report with moments to spare, to quite a good standard I might add. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you put your mind to it!

I also found it interesting when the feeling of dread would hit me, and I did notice that this feeling would vary depending on the task. This report was about 10 pages, and that feeling would hit me a few days before, but for something smaller, like a 1-page essay, it would hit me a little closer to the deadline the night before. But I did start to ask myself – there must be something wrong with this way of working, putting things off until the final possible movement to begin. My subconscious knew I could get away with it, so more than likely the next time I had a deadline like that, a similar thing would happen again. I knew from speaking to my friends that they had a similar issue, so I started to research a little. 

That’s when I came across Parkinson’s Law, which is

“Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”

This might sound a little confusing but let me explain what it means. If someone gives you one week to clean your room, it will take you a whole week to do it. If they give you one month, it will take you one month, and so on.

In essence, the more time you have to complete something, the longer it will take you to finish it. But the opposite is the case as well, the less time you have to complete your task, the more likely it is that you’ll complete it in on time. But, if it doesn’t have a specific deadline set, it will most likely never get done. Whenever we have something we want to complete, whether it’s a report or assignment, or tidying our room, we tend to make the mistake of thinking that the more time we give ourselves to do it, the better the end product.

However, more often than not, the majority of time is spent procrastinating with only a small proportion of it spent dedicated to the actual thing we want to achieve. If somebody gave you one week to clean your room, it would probably take you 6 days before you even began, simply because you know it could be completed in less than a day. You know it’s not an immediate priority yet, you find that you spend the rest of the time procrastinating, with the feeling of you needing to do it in the back of your mind taking up mental energy, serving no purpose other than making you feel bad before you eventually are ready to get started.

The same thing happened with my university report. Most of the month was spent doing other things, with the feeling of having to do it looming over me, and only a small portion of the time was spent on writing it up. If I had half the time instead, or even a quarter, I would have likely finished it on time too.

Think of a deadline like a fuse on a stick of dynamite that’s beside you. If it’s not lit, there’s nothing to worry about. Now let’s say we have a long deadline – a long fuse. When the task starts and your deadline’s set, the fuse is lit, but far away from you. It doesn’t threaten your immediate safety yet. You’ve got a little time to do something else; twiddle your thumbs, procrastinate a little on facebook, even call a friend and chat about how life is going.

However, as the deadline – the fuse – gets closer and closer, that risk to your safety increases. There comes a point where if you do nothing any longer, the consequences could be tragic. At this point, you obviously don’t have a choice but to extinguish it as fast as possible. So that becomes your main priority. Facebook or calling a friend doesn’t even enter the equation! 

Parkinson’s Law is important to be conscious about, from the time management perspective. If you know something can be completed in a day, don’t give yourself two days or more to finish it. You might think that giving yourself extra time will get you better results. However, most of the time is wasted on unimportant things. A deadline that’s sooner actually can be more helpful, as that helps remove any noise that could get in the way of you reaching your goal and allows you to focus much earlier. However, you should be reasonable with the time frame of the deadlines. If you know something will take a week to complete, don’t set the deadline for tomorrow, otherwise, this will negate any benefits of this newfound realisation and end up discouraging you from using Parkinson’s Law and benefiting from it in the future. 

You can still try to push the limits of what is possible, and maybe you’ll find some shortcuts along the way. The worst thing that could happen is that you get some work done, but you need to clean it up a little. Now, whether your deadline is too short or too far away, it’s still better than no deadline at all.

By setting deadlines that are realistic, but not generous, you can allocate a fixed concrete time to work towards them. This will help manage your time better too as if you want to do other things like setting aside time for exercise, meet friends, or even work on other tasks – you can compartmentalise a fixed period to work towards this and still create opportunities to do everything else you want to do too without having a feeling of guilt looming over you. You can’t afford to procrastinate or get lost in unimportant details like most people tend to do. Instead, you’re fully focused on that fuse.

Remember, no deadline means no concrete incentive to push towards your goal, and it will delay you from reaching it. So, if you don’t have a fuse that’s lit, make sure you create one.

Thanks for reading! I’m Pete and Let’s Reach itt.

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