What does the Parkinson’s Law – a proverb about inefficient bureaucracy – have to do with your productivity?
The answer will shock you.
It’s about working smarter, not harder.
We all have 24 hours in a day. It’s how you use those hours that define your work.
You can’t store time, borrow it, or save it for later use. You can only decide to spend your time better, on activities of higher rather than low value.
But what if I told you you can shrink the time you spend at work by only changing one variable?
This is possible using the power of Parkinson’s law.
Want to focus on things that matter, get more done and boost your productivity?
Apply the 4-step system inspired by Parkinson’s law to create more in less time.
What is Parkinson’s Law?
The Parkinson’s Law is a concept coined in 1955 used to reflect a simple truth:
“work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”
The time you spend on a project is not directly related to the output. Instead, the most important factor in time to completion is the deadline.
You receive an email from your boss asking for a report due 2 weeks from now. To complete the report, you need to:
- Research the topic
- Write the report
- Make the Presentation
Knowing how much work each step takes, you create a plan: use the first week for research and the second to make both the report and the presentation.
Everything goes according to the plan and you delivered the report to great praise of your boss.
But what would have happened if the report was actually due by the end of the week? Or two days from now?
Chances are you could still manage to complete the report on time. It wouldn’t be easy, but you could get it done in time.
By cutting out the unnecessary work. The shorter deadline forces you to focus on the 20% of tasks that bring 80% of the results.
When you have more time, you spend it.
You might read 20 articles when you only needed 5. You might search for 10 different ways to solve a problem when the first 3 were all you needed. Or worse yet, you might create a spreadsheet to track how “productive” you are.
That’s the Parkinson’s law at play.
How to use Parkinson’s Law to your advantage?
“I don’t need time, I need a deadline.” — Duke Ellington
Being productive all the time is hard.
And without the end of the project in mind, it is easy to procrastinate and do unproductive work.
But when I first read about Parkinson’s Law, something clicked. I started looking at deadlines not as enemies, but as an essential tool for productivity.
I started using smaller, shorter deadlines to challenge myself.
Why does it work?
The time constraint will make you focus on what really matters. It forces you to analyze your schedule and drop what does not move the needle.
I now run a tight schedule when I record my videos and I often record several at once. But in the beginning, I struggled to record a single video. I kept recording the same lines over and over, even when they were already good enough.
Did the extra effort pay-off?
No, of course not. Each video took twice as long to make, and the results were hardly better.
I solved this problem by applying Parkinson’s Law. I started using strict deadlines to force me to move on. The extra time pressure makes me more aware of time-wasters.
As a result, I can publish videos every week while creating cool products and managing this blog.
That’s the power of Parkinson’s Law.
But be aware:
Don’t use Parkinson’s Law as an excuse to set unachievable deadlines.
You need time to develop your ideas and execute them.
Setting unrealistic goals will only demotivate you and lead to worse results.
To get all the benefits of the shorter deadlines without the drawbacks, follow this simple 4-step guide.
Step 1: Time Log Your Days
One of the most important parts of planning your work is determining how much time a task will take.
More likely than not, this is the main reason why you set deadlines too far in the future. You allocate too much time because you don’t know how much time each part really takes.
You “know” that you can implement a new feature in 1 week. But how much time do you really spending on coding? And how much time do you spend testing?
This is crucial information to create better deadlines. You might need only 20 hours of uninterrupted focus, which you could manage in only 3 days.
You need to start by creating a time log of your days.
A time log is a document where you write how much time do you spend on each task.
There are two main ways to do it:
- Using a time tracking app. There are lots of apps to choose from. Test a few and see which works best for you
- Doing it manually. Set hourly timers on your computer and write down what you did during the last hour every time it goes off
This exercise will make you understand how much time you need for specific tasks.
And with better information about your work, the better will become your deadlines.
As a bonus, you will be less inclined to procrastinate when you are tracking your time.
But knowing how much time you need is one thing. To shrink your work, you need to know exactly what to do.
Step 2: Outline Project Goals
The lack of a clear vision for a project is a killer.
Without a vision, you either end up doing nothing, or you will take too long to finish the project.
You need a clear outline of what you want to figure out what you should do. And, most importantly, what you should not do.
The truth is:
You tend to set longer deadlines when you are faced with uncertainty. Instead of a week, you give yourself a month to complete the project.
And you know what happens next. You do nothing for the first three weeks and do all the work on the last one. 🙂
You can solve all this by outlining the project’s goals.
To define them, identify the simplest output you (or your boss) would be happy with.
Question every assumption you have.
Ask yourself repeatedly: Do I really need to do this task to complete my project?
This question will help you weed out the unnecessary work.
Let’s say you are writing a market report. You can explore lots of topics, but what is the most important? If you only write about it, will your customers still be satisfied?
Chances are, they will. This small change in mindset will save you hours of research and writing.
Marketers call this the Minimum Viable Product or MVP. This is a product that has enough features to be usable by customers. No more, no less.
That’s what you should look for in a project outline.
Adding features to your project is tempting. But at the end of the day, you are better off focusing on the ones that move the needle.
Step 3: Prioritize Your Tasks
To shrink your work, you need to be smart with your time. Even in simple projects, you can waste a lot of time if you don’t prioritize correctly.
To write a report, you need first to do research. But what should you research first? What are the publications you must read? And for how long?
Maybe you read 10 publications only to find out that 3 were enough.
Prioritizing your research right would save you at least 2 hours in this example. If you make 20 reports per year, that’s a full workweek you save just by prioritizing one task right.
In more complex projects, the need for prioritization increases. This is because the potential to waste time also increases.
But how should pick the tasks to prioritize?
You need to prioritize the tasks that will make all the subsequent tasks easier.
The question you need to answer is:
What is the ONE thing I can do such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?
Once you reach an answer, note down the task and go to the next one. Do this until you account for all the essential tasks of the project.
You should end up with a numbered list like this:
- Read the last issue of X, Y, and Z publications
- Plan each part of the report
- Write the body of the report
- Write intro and conclusion
- Add figures
- Edit the report
- Summarize the report and key figures
- Make the presentation
Pro tip: If a task is important but it is not a good use of your time, consider delegating it. Ask for help from a team member or find a freelancer to do the job.
Step 4: Set a Timeline
The last step is to create an actionable plan – a timeline.
In this timeline you will define:
- What will be done in each task
- Who will do each task
- By when will each task be done
You already defined the first two in the previous steps. The only variable missing is the deadline.
To create great deadlines, look at the insights from your time log in step 1. Use the time estimations to set up deadlines that are hard enough to not lose focus.
A task that takes a day should have a matching deadline. Don’t add extra time just because you are free for the week. The longer the deadline, the more time you will waste on unproductive work.
Note that the longer your projects are, the more deadlines you will need.
By now you are aware of the dangers of long deadlines. If you rely on monthly deadlines, your projects will fall behind schedule.
Thus, when you have deadlines of over one week, try to break them down even further.
If you do not have a deadline right around the corner, your productivity drops.
Make sure that if the end date for the project isn’t fast-approaching, the deadline for a task is.
Start Planning Your Days
The Parkinson’s Law reveals the dangers of poorly managed time.
Make a deadline long enough and you’ll see your time being wasted right in front of your eyes. Allocate your time wisely, and you will see great results.
And when it comes to time-management habits, nothing beats planning your days in advance.
When you are at work, it is easy to fill your schedule with shallow work like email and meetings. You have some free time in your schedule, you can spend a little catching up on emails, right?
The problem is you are never truly “free”. You are always giving something up.
You could spend that extra hour on your project or with your family.
And if you don’t take into account what you could be doing, you will not be able to prioritize what really matters.
That is where planning your days will help. By planning every minute of your day, you can plan exactly what you need to do.
You won’t need to find time for your tasks during the day. The most important ones are all accounted for in your plan.
This keeps you focused and stress-free, all for a simple 5-minute habit.
By accounting for personal activities beforehand, you will be more thoughtful with your time. You will start to plan your important work first instead of trying to fit it in around your routine.
You will soon see that you have more time for yourself than you thought.