Parkinson’s Law or we’re oh so busy

How you can use Parkinson’s Law to your advantage

“I’m so busy.” Who hasn’t heard someone say this comment this week? Being busy seems to make many people proud. Could it be that we’re just spending too long on each activity? Parkinson’s Law would certainly support this theory. We’re wasting our time!

Productivity and efficiency aren’t new concepts. There’s more emphasis on them though. Over the last decade, US American workers logged more hours, took only 16 days off (compared to 20 days 10 years earlier) and productivity increased by only 1%. That’s a rather disappointing outcome, if you’re asking me!

In 1955, British historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson published his article in The Economist, reviewing government bureaucracies. What became Parkinson’s Law says work expands to fill the time available for its completion. That means you’ll take as much time as you’ve available to complete the task.

You may say that Parkinson’s Law isn’t true. In school or at university, we often had assignments given to us with a submission date in 2, 3 or 4 weeks. Instead of using 2, 3 or 4 weeks to work on it, many students started 2-3 days (or nights) before its due date. Summer is coming up and when do we start our exercise or healthy eating regime, probably 4 weeks before we’re heading on our holiday trip. Check out the magazines with crash diets helping you to get that hot beach body.

So, when we know how to live according to Parkinson’s Law in these 2 examples, why don’t we apply it more often? Because very often, when we do things last minute, we’re experiencing an adrenaline rush, which some describe as positive and motivating. These last minute actions can also be stressful and some folks are on the edge. Remember Billy, in the other office, when you asked him a question and you only got this grumpy and slightly aggressive reply “Go away. I can’t talk. I’ve a deadline in 2 hours.”

Why don’t we plan better? Because we don’t like the word “plan”. I remember one of my Brazilian friends saying how she doesn’t like that word or “organising”. They’re too structured and she loves having the flexibility although it stressed her out quite often. All this last minute work…

I do believe that we can follow Parkinson’s Law to our advantage and still have flexibility.

  1. Question what work you’re doing and why. How is that project helping you achieve your goal? Whether you’re a business owner, an employee or a stay-at-home mom, this can be applied to all. Are there some activities you do, just because you’ve always done them. Yet, they don’t mean anything or bring you anything in return. Because of this, you’re dragging them out and they become even more painful.
  2. Review the time you need for each activity. Studies have shown we over-estimate how much we work. We take longer for tasks, sometimes because we want to have some ‘leg room’ or buffer to ensure it’s of the highest quality. Do you really need to spend that much time on them? I’d like to bet that you can probably complete a number, if not most, tasks quicker.
  3. Challenge yourself and start a competition. Once you know how long a task takes, work against half this time. Inner competition is extremely powerful. Even if you don’t view yourself as a competitive person, there is that inner eagerness to prove yourself you can do it. Set a timer (on your phone or on your computer) and go!
  4. Work more focused using your inner clock. You can work in a concentrated way for 25 minutes and then taking a 5-minute long break. The Pomodoro technique works with your peak and by knowing there’re only 25 minutes to finish this task, you can devote all your attention to it.
  5. Take a break, a real break. Give your brain a rest from this focused work. Get some distance from a problem you’re solving. Your eyes can also get a break by looking into the far distance. Staring at the screen strains them. Move your body during your break. Give your body a different position and use different muscles than when just sitting. If you’re constantly on the run, sit down.
  6. Restrict the amount of times you check. Turn off the instant notifications alarming you that not only you got mail but also from whom. Don’t let these disruptions interrupt your focus! You can check them every hour, if you can’t make it to 3 or even 2 times a day yet. When replying, set yourself a time (e.g. 30 minutes a day). You can even take it one step further and limit the number of sentences you write in your reply – 5 sentences! It’s a principle that Guy Kawasaki introduced over 10 years ago and yet, so many emails are far longer than that.

When did you notice how long it’s taking you to complete your daily or weekly activities? Have you noticed how you’re just drifting away? Your focus is somewhere else and the task is dragging out? Share your experience with us! I’ve love to read your comments and get the discussion started. Why are we busy and not productive?

Until next time,


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