Parkinson's Law and Our Available Time


The amount of time we have to do something usually dictates how long it will take to do. Learn how to take control of your calendar.

Here’s the ‘law’ attributed to Northcote Parkinson way back in 1957:

Work expands to fill the available time.

Nobody wants to admit this, and it’s not in the Bible. But I believe it’s mostly true.

If I have a ‘thing’ that must be done within a certain timeframe, I usually find a way to get it done. If I have no deadline, it takes longer. I have a retired friend who makes one “thing to do” a day’s endeavor. A third of the day making a plan and getting ready, a third of the day doing whatever it is, and a third of the day getting over whatever there was to do. Parkinson’s law.

There are exceptions. That’s why I wouldn’t have called it a law. Creative work can’t be rushed. By definition it’s going to take as long as it takes. Relationship work, building trust, or just getting to know someone can’t be programmed or done on a schedule.

But generally, if we have 2 hours to get something done, it’ll take more time to do the same task than if we only have 1 hour. We’ll work more slowly and carefully. It’s easier to interrupt us. When we’re ‘heads down’ on a deadline, people figure out this isn’t the time for social conversation or to ask non-urgent questions. When we ‘have more time’, we signal more openness. Availability. Interruptability, if that’s a word.

The other side of Parkinson’s Law is what we deal with more often. It’s ‘how to squeeze 10 pounds of sugar into a 5 pound bag’? (that was a metaphor) How do I get 12 hours of work into a 10 hour day?

Let’s hit ‘the work’ first.

Pick it.

Pick work you love to do. Work you’re good at. Work that’s important to you, the organization, and to others. Turn ‘Parkinson’s Law’ around backwards. Say to yourself “This task deserves my very best. I’m going to be grandiose in allocating time to it.” Then do. Put less important projects on hold. If you finish early, go back over what you did to see what you can improve on it. Get input. Ask someone else to review it and see if they can make it better. To allow yourself more time to work this way, you’ll have to delegate or neglect things that don’t add as much value. I realize this is impossible in a lot of situations, but hang on. Let me finish and I’ll come back to reality in a minute.

On the ‘available time’ question, deadlines are the deal. Isn’t that the case with everything? If we knew exactly when Jesus was coming back, we’d know exactly when to make that big, sacrificial, selfless gift, right?

Most of our stress comes from deadlines. Yeah, some people stress us out…people who are pig-headed and hard to work with. But most stress is self induced and comes from time pressure. Try to negotiate longer lead times for your work. If you’re setting them yourself, cut yourself some slack. If you work for someone, set expectations that give you more time.

Yes, there are jobs where none of this seems to apply. And there are times in every job where all you can do is ‘hunker down’ and get it done.

Parkinson’s Law represents a tension that exists wherever there’s work to be done. Every task will grow to take up the ‘available time’. So decide to feed time to what matters and starve everything else to death.

Question: How can knowing ‘Parkinson’s Law’ help you?

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