In 1955, Cyril Northcote Parkinson described one of the most famous hurdles to productivity and fulfilling a person’s or an organization’s potential. Let’s be clear – Parkinson didn’t invent this difficulty, but has noted it and described it very well. The fact of the matter is – this problem has probably existed as long as humans have. Somehow, we haven’t managed to get rid of it completely. We are, of course talking about Parkinson’s law in time management. So, let’s explore this serious issue many individuals and organizations alike are facing.
Defining Parkinson’s Law (and Examples)
The first definition of Parkinson’s law you’ll stumble upon sounds something like this:
“work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”
In layman’s terms, this means that most people will use the deadline they’re given to its full extent, even if the task at hand takes much less time.
Parkinson’s law can be described as one of efficient time management’s biggest enemies. The original article describing this occurrence has been written with bureaucracy in mind. That is to say, Parkinson’s law in time management isn’t necessarily intentional.
Rule and Organization-based Issues
As the original article described, the rules and procedures related to a specific task can impact the speed at which it is done. We have all been in the situation of needing just one more paper signed to finish a harrowing bureaucratic task just to be informed we have to wait for an (in our eyes) unreasonable amount of time.
This can happen in other fields as well. Simply put, many tasks and projects rely on multiple people. If a single person in the line is absent or has a lot of other tasks on their plate, the entire project will suffer. even if the person’s task is to simply sign a paper.
Whether it’s on the individual or team level, procrastination is a common source of many problems, including Parkinson’s law in time management. Procrastination is the habit of putting off tasks until the last possible moment, which most often impacts the quality of the work being done.
Once again, this isn’t a newly discovered, or exclusively work-related problem. A lot of people find themselves procrastinating on everyday activities. Some even put off the things they enjoy. That is to say, procrastination is a part of human existence. That is why you will need to be tactful when handling it.
Over-complicating the Process
We finish with the original meaning of the Parkinson’s law. Parkinson has described an inherent occurrence of tasks getting more complicated the more time you have to finish them. Namely, you can make even the most straightforward task more complicated if you have enough time to overthink it. And having more time than needed will make you overthink it.
For example, let’s say you have five days to write a 2000-word article. You can do this in much less time, but the amount of time you have on your hands will allow you to overthink the task. Everything can become a problem in this case – the wording, the grammar, the amount of research you’ve done, etc. That is to say, there will always be something to fix and improve. As a result, the article will really take all five days and it is possible you won’t be satisfied with the result either.
Is There a Solution?
The short answer is Yes. However, the road to the solution won’t be easy. Additionally, you will have to manage your expectations about defeating Parkinson’s law in time management.
Firstly, you will have to define your goals. Simply defeating Parkinson’s law won’t cut it as a reasonable objective. Especially so if you aren’t sure how it starts occurring. You will need to define the specific problems that cause Parkinson’s law in time management in your company to be able to find viable and sustainable solutions.
Defining the Issues
Observing the way your team works is the first step to overcoming Parkinson’s law. In other words, you need to understand what leads to the occurrence of the law in the first place
Here are the most common issues that lead to Parkinson’s law:
- The 40-hour workweek
- Confusion regarding the team’s goals
- Emphasizing trivial issues
- Reducing the sense of individual responsibility
The 40-Hour Workweek
The vast majority of businesses (in the Western hemisphere at least) are set in a regular schedule of 40 working hours a week. The problem is, that not all jobs, projects, and tasks take the same amount of time to complete.
The assumption that all weekly tasks will be done in this time frame can skew an employee’s perspective of time and push them into procrastination or drawing out their tasks to fit the 40 hours even though they objectively need less time.
Not having clear goals can lead to an incorrect understanding of the time and scope of the tasks ahead of an individual. More importantly, the importance of different tasks gets lost. Simply put – if you are working on an isolated objective with no understanding of its place in the workflow and only a goal set in front of you, you will probably take longer to complete it.
That is to say, not understanding the importance of your work will make most people unmotivated to finish their portion of the work quickly. This is when Parkinson’s law in time management strikes the most, as a person is detached from their work and assumes the deadline they’re given is mandatory. In that case, all time management techniques fly out the window, and employees work much slower than they otherwise would.
Peripheral administrative tasks often get an undue amount of attention in many organizations. This is especially prominent in teams and group settings. Bureaucracy leads to more bureaucracy, and when given enough importance on a team level, it can eat up more time than the tasks themselves.
This, naturally, leads to less available time for the actual work and helps Parkinson’s law in time management obstruct the successful achievement of goals.
Individual VS Group Work
Interestingly enough, groups are more prone to succumbing to Parkinson’s law than individuals. This is caused by the reduced sense of responsibility that occurs in group settings. To put it simply – you won’t be at your highest productivity when working on a task because there is always “someone else” also working on it.
Being in a group at work can be a great motivator and help you reach your potential. Yet, if you aren’t informed about the goals and importance of the tasks at hand it is the most obvious surrounding to reduce the importance of your work (in your eyes).
How to Battle Parkinson’s Law in Time Management?
So, now you understand why Parkinson’s law occurs and its consequences regarding your work. you are aware that your team could achieve more with less stress if they’d organize and manage their time more efficiently. But, how do you help your team do that? Let’s explore the options.
Mind Your Timing
Addressing the impact of Parkinson’s law on your team in the middle of a project. That would create unnecessary tension and possible hostility toward the management. Especially so if you haven’t mentioned the issue before.
In other words, it is crucial to create a procedure for the introduction of your projects. This procedure can be as simple or elaborate as you need it to be. The most important thing is that you set your expectations clearly.
The expectations at hand should specifically concern the way your team will approach the project. Specifically, the elements of the project that are handled by groups, are regarded as menial tasks or can trigger Parkinson’s law in time management in another way.
Be Clear About Your Goals
You can observe this step from two perspectives. The first one is connected to the technical issues you have noticed in the previous projects. These can, but don’t have to be related to Parkinson’s law in time management. Use this opportunity to constructively address other problems as well.
The second perspective concerns the structure of the work itself. The fact of the matter is, that your employees will understand their part of the work better and approach it more seriously if they understand how their part of the work impacts the project in its entirety.
Create a workflow plan that contains different milestones and give those milestones a due date. Let every member of the team understand where they are in this plan and what is expected from them during the project.
Handle Menial Tasks
The previous step is important for this one as well. That is to say, some seemingly trivial activities will be explained during the introduction of the project. This way their significance will be highlighted, and your team will understand why they need to do certain things a certain way.
On the other hand, you can also reduce the ratio of non-billable and otherwise cumbersome tasks present in your organization. This can mean restructuring your meeting schedule, reducing the paperwork needed for projects, or being more descriptive when it comes to other activities your employees consider unimportant.
Having a clear role within the complex structure of a project is definitely more motivating than being handed a workload and said to finish it by a certain date. In other words, a clear role and place in the workflow for a specific job can make or break the impact of Parkinson’s law in time management.
If a person sees their (or their team’s) impact on the big picture and knows their duties related to the project, they are more likely to focus on their personal responsibility and motivate their coworkers to follow the schedule as well.
This may be a surprising point to make. We have told you all about the connection between Parkinson’s law and deadlines. Simply put – the former would be impossible without the latter. However, if there are no deadlines, your projects are sure to crumble very quickly.
Fortunately, there is a way to help your team focus and manage time without sacrificing deadlines. The secret is in (when possible) breaking the tasks into smaller ones and giving shorter deadlines for those small tasks. You will have to adjust this method to your industry, policies, company culture, and projects themselves, but the principle will remain the same. Make the tasks more specific and smaller in scope, and then determine the time needed for each of those tasks.
Your efforts won’t be worth anything if your teams don’t follow through on them. This means that you’ll have to look into the progress of the project regularly. The issue with this type of leadership is that it feels a lot like the one thing all employees can agree on disliking – micromanagement.
That’s why you’ll have to be extremely careful and tactful with the check-ins. Depending on the size of your organization, you can either check project progress on your own or let the team leaders do it. You should be encouraging and offer help if an employee or team isn’t managing their share of the workload.
The point of the check-ins is for them to become obsolete. Keep that in mind. Your team should learn to handle their duties on their own, without succumbing to Parkinson’s law.
Don’t Get Sidetracked
There may be some new ideas concerning different aspects of your project during its completion. This is a great thing and indicates a rise in interest in the work among your staff. Yet, it may not be the best idea to listen to all suggestions.
You need to understand the difference between constructive and harmful suggestions. Let’s be clear – we’re not saying the employees making these suggestions have any bad intentions. The problem with adding more things to a person’s or team’s plate in the middle of a project is that it falls under the very definition of Parkinson’s law in time management.
So, you will have to remind your team of the guidelines and plans you’ve established in the first place to make sure everyone stays on the same page and doesn’t create a bottleneck blockade for the entire team by focusing on a step and making it more complicated.
But What if the Idea Is Really Good?
We don’t deny that employees with a newfound interest in their work can have some amazing ideas that can impact the entire workflow. If such an idea gets immediately shut down, the employee may feel under-appreciated and lose motivation.
This is why you need to be very careful in your communication. Acknowledge the quality of the idea. Then explain why it cannot be implemented (the most common reason is simple – time constraints), and see whether you’ll be able to include the idea in the following projects. If this is the case, don’t forget to give praise where it’s due to additionally motivate the employee.
Track Employee Time
As we have previously mentioned, Parkinson’s law isn’t an occurrence that happens on purpose (in most cases, at least). This means your employees are really convinced they are doing the bulk of their work in due time. Yet, they somehow end up struggling to complete their tasks. this indicates a lack of understanding of one’s own time.
The cure for this is obvious – using a time tracking solution. If you add a time audit to this activity you’ll make sure that your team truly understands where their time is going, and how much they’re procrastinating.
Besides this realization, time tracking will allow the employees to discover their most productive working hours. This will help them in – you guessed it – more successful time management.
Parkinson’s law is a normal occurrence in many offices. Whether its roots stem from procrastination, disinterest in work, or a simple misunderstanding of the way your employees are spending their time, it is common. It is up to the management and team leaders to challenge how things are done and battle against Parkinson’s law in time management.
You may not find appreciation at first – you are criticizing your team’s productivity, after all. That is why you’ll need a fool-proof plan and a great amount of understanding and support for your team. If you constructively approach the problem, you are sure to achieve great results.
We hope that we have helped you understand Parkinson’s law a bit more and create your plan of action in battling against it.