How long does it take to pack your suitcase? All the time you have. No more no less. If you have little time you will do it in a few minutes, if you have a lot of time, it can even take you an hour or more. It depends on the “Parkinson’s Law” applied to time management.
Many people, submerged to the marrow in the culture of productivity, or hyperactivity, do not find pleasure in having nothing to do, “fun” and “interesting” is always having much to do, so that time is never enough.
Then comes into play the “Parkinson’s Law”, which is based on three ideas:
– The work is extended until it occupies all the available time
– Expenses increase until all profits are covered
– The time devoted to each daily task is inversely proportional to its importance
Does it sound familiar to you?
How did the Parkinson’s Law come about?
Cyril Northcote Parkinson was a British naval historian and astute observer of the public administration and management system. Parkinson realized that as the overseas empire of Great Britain was declining and had fewer colonies to administer, the number of personnel increased. Each year between 5-7% more employees were incorporated, although the objective bureaucratic work diminished.
It was a contradiction. So Parkinson wondered what was happening. Then he understood that work expands to occupy all the time and resources available, regardless of the actual hours that are necessary and the objective importance of the tasks. And he showed it with mathematical formulas and statistical data.
Of course, his theory is not limited to public administrations, it also applies to our daily lives. We can become real experts in applying the Law of Parkinson’s in our day to day.
Prolonging tasks not only consumes your time, but also your energy
According to Parkinson’s Law, if you give yourself one week to complete a job that requires only one day, the task will increase its complexity to fill all the time. And what is even worse: that task will not become a black hole where only your time is absorbed, but also your energy. The task will generate stress and anxiety, becoming exhausting.
Of course, the task itself doesn’t get complicated, it is our way of assuming and managing it. The problem is that the more time we have at our disposal, the longer we will delay because we will procrastinate more. We will do a small part today and we’ll leave another small part for tomorrow.
When we are immersed in that situation, we do not realize that what most drains us are not the tasks we’re carrying out, but rather the unfinished ones, the constant memory of what we have pending. Carrying that mental agenda is psychologically exhausting.
At the base of that trap that we tend to ourselves is the belief that we must “work hard.” We’ve been instilled the terrible idea that the longer we take to do something, the more valuable it will be. Obviously, it is not always like that. But they did not teach us to “work intelligently and efficiently”.
The Law of Parkinson’s and the Decision Paralysis in everyday life
– What do you want to do?
– I do not know, what do you want to do?
– What if we go to the cinema?
– Hey, I was thinking we could go to X, Y, Z…?
– As you prefer.
– No, as you prefer.
And so the conversation it extends for a half hour, or the time we have at our disposal to choose the site. This is what in Psychology is known as “Decision Paralysis” and it occurs when we have so many options that we are victims of the “decisional fatigue”.
A very interesting study conducted at Columbia University analyzed what happens when we go to a store and have a choice between 6 or 24 gourmet jams. The results were surprising: not only do we take a lot more to choose when we have so many options, but we are paralyzed, literally. In the experiment, 30% of the customers ended up buying one of the six jams, but only 3% of the people who could decide between 24 jars of jam bought one. Having to decide between so many things mentally depletes us, makes the decision more difficult and ends up paralyzing us.
This phenomenon is deeply linked to the Law of Parkinson’s, being one of the main causes why we do not finish the tasks but extend them as much as we can. In the case of the suitcase, we know we have to fill it, but it is difficult to choose what to wear among so many things. That leads us to procrastinate.
Time Management: How to evade the Parkinson’s Law?
Psychologists at the American Institutes for Research in Washington put the Parkinson’s Law to the test. They recruited a group of people to analyze how the time limit would affect their choice.
In the first three tests, the participants were given twice the time they needed to complete a task, while another group of people was given the right time. In another experiment, they asked some to work fast and others to “work as quickly as possible.” What happened?
These psychologists found that when we have a lot of time to finish a task, we use it completely, even though we can finish it faster. But they also appreciated that the level of effectiveness will depend on the goals we set. The people who were asked to work as quickly as possible ended earlier, and made no more mistakes than those who were simply asked to work fast.
– Set realistic goals. This experiment shows us that the main antidote to Parkinson’s Law is to set realistic goals. A good time management happens to be able to objectively estimate what is the shortest time we need to perform a task, and work based on it.
– Prioritize the most important tasks. Every day we have dozens of tasks ahead. We must learn to detect the least important tasks of our agenda, since they are the ones that tend to expand to occupy our time. Therefore, we must be very clear about our daily priorities, to dedicate them more time.
– Look for incentives to finish earlier. We are not robots, so establishing a time limit and knowing what our priorities are does not guarantee 100% that we will be saved from procrastination. An additional help is to reward ourselves with small prizes if we finish earlier. That will help you stay focused and motivated.
– Simply, act. To avoid the decision paralysis you have to reduce the options. If you want to go somewhere, start by limiting the options by geographic area or level of traffic, for example. Once you have chosen, simply get down to work.
Bryan, J. F. & Locke, E. A. (1967) Parkinson’s Law as a goal-setting phenomenon. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance; 2(3): 258-275. Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper (2000) When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 79: 995-1006.