When you have a month to complete a project, how do you go about it? Do you spend the first 3 weeks doing nothing and spend the last few days working extra hours to meet the deadline?
I am a culprit of such behavior myself. When I have plenty of time to complete a task, I sometimes try to postpone work to the edge. When I finally am running out of time to get started, I spring into action with full gear.
Why do you and I exhibit such behavior? Life would be more peaceful if we started work little by little in advance. But we don’t, due to Parkinson’s Law.
What is Parkinson’s Law?
Yes, we have a term for procrastinating work until the deadline appears dangerously close – the Parkinson’s Law. It states that work expands to fill the time available to complete it. In other words, the meaning of Parkinson’s Law is, the more time you have, the longer you will take to complete the task.
Cyril Parkinson coined the term way back in 1955 though the habit existed since the beginning of time.
If you have ample time at your disposal, the more likely you are to relax, laze around, spend time on social media or chit chat. But when the deadline appears close, you streamline all your attention to complete the task.
Why you procrastinate until the deadline
Parkinson’s Law works in two different ways leading to wasted time.
1. Knowing you have enough time
When you have a task to complete, your brain automatically calculates the time needed to complete it. For example, let us say you have a project to submit in 6 months. Your brain knows that you can complete the whole work in 1 month if you spend a few hours each day.
So during the first few months, you tell yourself you have enough time. You end up wasting time because you know you have plenty of time to deliver. After the first couple of months, you feel a little dose of guilt but that does not prompt you to start working yet.
When the final month arrives, you pull up your socks and turn serious. But because of the overconfidence effect, you procrastinate for another 2 weeks.
Finally, during the last 15 days, you enter the panic mode. Your brain knows you are short on time and you have to put in hard work to pull this off. All the distractions like text messages, chit chat, gossip and social media vanish all of a sudden. You put in all your focus and energy to complete what you have to.
You somehow manage to complete the task by the deadline but the quality of your work turns out mediocre at best.
The deadline acts like angry bear. If you notice the bear far away, you do not bat an eyelid. But if the bear is close enough, you panic and flee for your life.
2. Believing that you need more time than you actually do
Parkinson’s law shows up in another form where you believe you need more time than necessary to complete a task. For example, as per your daily routine, you need 45 minutes in total to take a bath, dress up and get ready. Therefore, you have convinced your mind that you need those many minutes to finish all your morning chores.
But one day your alarm does not sound and you wake up 20 minutes late. But you still manage to take a bath and get ready with a 5-minute delay. Even though you had lesser time to complete your morning routine, neither do you have body odor nor do you look shabby. You push your limits and act quicker to meet the schedule.
The next day, you do not question if 45 minutes are really necessary to get ready for work and get back to the usual routine. On a normal day, you believe that you need a specific amount of time to complete a task when in reality you have the potential to complete it way faster.
You even convince yourself by giving reasons why you need that long. The most common reason is the compromise of quality. You think that if you attempt to complete the task faster, your quality will deteriorate. The truth is, in 9 out of 10 cases, it won’t.
Examples of Parkinson’s Law
1. Studying days before the exam
Students have a good 6 months to prepare for the exams at the end of the semester. But months go by where students enjoy a gala time on all the fun things in the world. When exam holidays begin, students start feeling the heat but not everyone opens the textbook yet.
For many students, the panic of flunking the subject kicks in only during the previous day of the exam. Sometimes it can kick in only on the exam morning. What follows is studying by rushing through pages, pestering friends to help, mounting pressure before the exam bell and finally, poor grades. Such last-minute action is also called the Student Syndrome.
2. Contractors taking their sweet time to finish the construction
Many of the apartments, roads, highways and other architectural buildings do not have a clear date of completion. Many a time, a project goes on forever taking a lot longer than it should have. Even when the project has an estimate, the date overshoots as no business is hampered because it is a future project. For example, the Sydney Opera House took 14 years to complete when the initial estimate was 4 years.
But when the need arises, the same team can pull off a similar project in a shorter timeline. When an existing highway caves in due to an earthquake or a landslide, the repair work completes at an astonishing pace. The reason behind that is the longer the repair work takes, the higher the business impact.
Cooking seems a little odd to show up on this list, isn’t it? But try paying close attention to how you go about cooking. You cut the vegetables, wash the meat, place the pan on the stove and start heating it. The more time you have, the more time you spend on each of these activities.
If you want to, you can cut down the time you spend on cooking by overlapping different activities. You can start heating the pan while you cut the onions, you can wash the meat while the onions are frying or you can prepare the seasoning while the meat is cooking.
If you had guests arriving in 1 hour, you would do all the above to speed up your cooking. But when you have time at your disposal, you take it easy.
4. Working on your annual goals
Most organizations will have annual goals for their employees. But most employees do not pay attention to their goals for the first 6 months or even more. When the next annual review inches closer, employees show an expected vigor to meet their goals and make the organization successful.
If people spent the entire year working towards their goals, organizations would be filled with top performers.
5. My own blog writing
For the first 4 months of my blogging, I used to write 2 articles a week. I honestly believed that I was at my productive best and if I had to write more articles each week, the quality of my articles would suffer. When I pushed my limits to generate content faster, I realized I could write 5 articles a week of the same quality and length.
All I had to do was tell my brain I had to do more faster and my mind more than doubled my output. If I stuck to my belief that writing 2 articles a week was the best I could do, I would have fewer articles on my blog today. Maybe I would have written this article a few months later and you would not even be reading this today.
6. Long Meetings
If you check the calendars of employees in organizations, you will notice most meetings set for 1 hour or 30 minutes. Many meetings take much shorter than that but no one tries to set a 10 or 15 minute meeting.
A common occurrence is also where a meeting which can wrap up in 30 minutes is scheduled for 1 hour. Since everyone comes knowing that 60 minutes are available, participants consume all the time to reach a conclusion even if the same decision needed fewer minutes.
What happens when there are no deadlines
The worst impact of Parkinson’s Law is not that you rush as the deadline approaches.
For you to rush and take action, you must first enter the panic phase. You panic only when missing the deadline has dire consequences like putting your career at risk, facing humiliation or losing money/respect.
So the sneakiest trick the law plays on you is when a goal has no deadlines. Due to a lack of a deadline, you feel you have all the time in the world. The time keeps expanding while you keep postponing. The cycle repeats forever and you do nothing for eternity.
The most common example of such behavior is the dream goal that you have. You might want to start your own business and you decide to begin your venture “in the future”. A year goes by and you have not even taken the first step, so you decide, “I will start soon.”
That “soon” takes another couple of years during which other commitments battle for your attention, time and money. You experience regret and guilt because you have done nothing about your dream. But you do not panic because you have another job which keeps you sailing.
Since you do not panic, you keep procrastinating your long term dream further and further away, while you experience Monday blues and frustration often.
Tim Urban explains the concept of deadlines and panic in his TED Talk, Inside the Mind Of A Master Procrastinator.
How to overcome Parkinson’s Law
Unfortunately, you have no way to escape such behavior completely. You will extend the time taken to complete a task without your knowledge when you have time available. You can try a few of the tactics below to cut down the time wasted.
1. Have an end time for the day
You must set a time that marks the end of the day for your work. For example, at 8 PM I stop working and spend time with family. When I have an end time, I am forced to complete my work within the stipulated number of hours. If not, I feel that I can work more hours and complete the pending work.
If you tell yourself you can work late in the night, you will work at a slow pace because you know you can cover up for your distracted work by adding more work hours. Cutting down your work hours is the best thing you can do to increase your focus and productivity.
2. Set self-imposed deadlines
Try to put a deadline for a project or task yourself. Having a deadline adds some pressure on your mind to work faster even if it was set by yourself. Your ego hates the fact that you couldn’t keep up with your promise and you work hard to meet the schedule.
A word of caution: Some people feel no regret when they do not meet the timeline. If you are one among them, setting deadlines will have worse effects because you convince your mind that overshooting deadlines is acceptable. This seeps into your other behavior too and impacts your punctuality.
Do not try to set unrealistic timelines either. A common mistake people make when they hear about Parkinson’s Law is to set a timeline that is too tight to achieve. Such ridiculous deadlines only lead to disappointment, frustration, and further procrastination. So do not bite more than you can chew.
3. Reward yourself for completing a project
Charles Duhigg explains in his best-selling book, The Power of Habit, how the habit loop causes us to do things on autopilot without thinking enough. Human beings are reward oriented creatures where any bounty for completion helps us stay focused.
The reward does not always have to be materialistic. You can reward yourself in little ways to make yourself chase the goal as per the deadline. For example, you can set milestones for a 3-month project and reward yourself with an ice-cream for every milestone you meet.
Again, for such a tactic to work, you must have the discipline to reward yourself only if you meet the deadline.
4. Challenge yourself to do it faster
All living things like to expend as little energy as possible. Though the evolutionary reasons behind such behavior are not clear yet, you will, by nature, tend to complete a task by putting in the least possible effort.
For example, if you are reading a book, your pace of reading will remain slow unless you challenge yourself to flip through pages quicker. The faster pace seems uncomfortable at first but your brain soon adapts to the new speed. In no time, the faster pace becomes the norm.
If you put a deliberate effort into working faster, you will reduce the impact of Parkinson’s Law to a great extent.
5. Work in time slots
When you have 10 tasks to complete, working in time slots help you make progress towards all of them. If you work on one task, wait for it to finish and then move on to the next, you can get caught up on some task which takes longer than expected to finish.
You spend more time to complete one task which results in all other pending tasks taking a backseat.
Instead, set a time slot for each task. For example, you allocate 15 min for the first ask, 30 minutes for the second, 20 min for third and so on. If you overshoot the timeline, you leave the task pending and move on to the next one. If time permits at the end of all tasks, you can come back to what you left behind.
Such an approach is easy to state in theory but difficult to apply on a day to day basis. But, try to have a rough mental estimate on what is the maximum time you should spend on the task.
You can also allot a specific amount of time for a project you procrastinate regularly. For example, if you wish to become an entrepreneur, you can assign 1 hour a day to work towards your long term goal. By doing so, you make slow but steady progress compared to “I will start my business in the future”.
Parkinson’s Law interferes with your productivity every day but is still the least spoken area of time management. Sometimes you realize it, sometimes you don’t. But now that you know about the behavior, you can no longer blame your inherent limits for not completing the tasks.
Such limits exist in your mind more than your body. To get more done without wasting time, you must tame your mind first.
What I am not:
What I am:
Continuously improving self-learner
Productivity/Time Management Obsessed