How to Use Parkinson’s Law to Unlock Your Focus

What is Parkinson's Law?

Have you ever noticed how you never seem to have enough time to do everything you need to get done, and how your to-do list never seems to get any shorter? There’s a solution to this problem, and it doesn’t involve figuring out how to squeeze another hour or two into your work day. The reason this problem exists in the first place has to do with something called Parkinson's Law.

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Once you understand what Parkinson's Law is, you can structure your days so you get more done, in less time, and still have time for rest, family and recreation.

As I’ve discussed in another post, conventional wisdom says that, in order to get more work done, you just need to spend more hours working. That idea seems logical, right? But have you ever heard the phrase “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”?

This saying has come to be known as Parkinson's Law, because it was first coined by British historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson. He first wrote about the idea in a 1955 article published in The Economist, and later in his book, Parkinson's Law, and Other Studies in Administration.

I’m sure you can relate to the feeling of having more work to do than time available to do it in. Even if you don’t feel that way all the time, you probably experience that feeling more often than not. Your to-do list never gets any shorter. In fact, even if you could waive a magic wand and double the amount of time you have every week, you would still not have enough time to do everything you want to do. That’s the irony of Parkinson's Law.

....but that's not all

To make matters worse, American culture overvalues the amount of time we spend working every week. We celebrate the martyr mentality, where we “suffer" long work hours every week because it shows how valuable, dedicated and hard-working we are, or because we think it’s somehow more honorable. On the flip side, taking time to rest or simply be alone with your thoughts is considered non-productive, a waste of time or even selfish.

When you have plenty of time to work on something, you subconsciously (and sometimes even consciously) give it less than your full effort and concentration. While you may not admit it to your boss, you know this is true. If you have a project that you know usually requires about 30 hours of effort, but you have 40 hours to do it in, what do you do? You tell your boss you have a little extra capacity, so she can give you a little more work, right? No, if you’re being honest with yourself, you’ll admit that what you actually do is “coast”.

You check your email more frequently. You get up and stretch or walk around more often. You take “just a minute” to read an interesting article you find online. You check sports scores or stock prices once or twice, and generally work at a slower pace. You do all kinds of things that, from a distance, may look productive, but in reality are just filling those additional 10 hours.

While not directly on the topic of Parkinson's Law, this short video is pretty funny and illustrates the way we tend to behave when we have too much time to do something.

The two faces of Parkinson's Law

Whether you consciously rationalize it or it just “happens”, you allow yourself to behave this way because you know you have enough “cushion” or “fat” in your schedule to still get the work done by the deadline, so you don’t push very hard. This is a natural response, because your brain is wired to conserve energy wherever and whenever possible. So, any time you don’t absolutely have to do something, you exert the minimum amount of energy required.

As a side note, for people with ADHD, Parkinson's Law is even more pronounced. Their brain chemistry is such that they can’t adequately focus on something unless they find the work enthralling or they have so little time left that they can’t not focus on it.

On the other hand, when you have barely enough (or maybe even not enough) time to get the work done, what happens? You usually laser focus and figure out a way to get it done, right? Sometimes that means you have to chain yourself to your desk, turn off the internet, put up a do-not-disturb sign and listen to white noise with headphones to drown out nearby conversations, but it works.

Thankfully, you don’t have to go to these extremes. But when given no alternatives other than to do the work now or risk consequences, you figure out a way to stop doing all of the little things that eat away at your productivity every day.

The trick is to learn how to harness that focus, without burning out. It’s a delicate balance, because shorter durations can cause you to sacrifice quality in the name of finishing. However, there’s usually quite a bit of wiggle room where you can cut your typical time down by 30 or 40% and still do good work.

That can't be true!

That’s the basic premise of an experiment conducted by author Chris Bailey. He spent an entire year doing dozens of different productivity experiments on himself to find out what works and what doesn’t, and blogging about it along the way. He went on to write the book The Productivity Project to share everything he learned during that experience.

Parkinson's Law says that work expands to fill the time available for its completion

During his year of research, he conducted experiments on everything from wake-up times, to meditation, to productivity systems like Getting Things Done, to the effect of internet access and phone usage.

In one experiment, he tested the validity of Parkinson's Law, to see whether there is an ideal number of work hours per week (for him, at least). To do this, he spent four weeks alternating between 90-hour and 20-hour work schedules, while still maintaining the same overall workload.

Each day, he not only recorded what he got done, but he also quantified and recorded his energy and focus levels, how easily he got distracted, how productive he felt, and whether he accomplished what he planned to for the day. Keeping track of this information gave him much more valuable insight into each work strategy, allowing hime to determine how effective they were.

Based on the “logic” of

more hours worked = more work accomplished

he should have quadrupled the amount of work he got done in the 90-hour weeks vs. his 20-hour weeks. But the crazy thing is that he only got slightly more work done. This is Parkinson's Law in action

....but here's where it gets tricky

One other subtle but very important takeaway from his experiment was that, even though he accomplished virtually the same amount of work on either schedule, he felt more productive during the 90-hour weeks. As the saying goes, “perception is reality”. So, because you feel more productive when you work longer hours, your natural response to an ever-growing to-do list is to just add new tasks to the pile and hunker down. Most people don’t look at their work from the perspective of Parkinson's Law; they simply try to figure out how to do more in the same amount of time.

But as I discussed in my previous post, your effectiveness gradually wanes as you work longer hours. It’s a paradox because you feel more effective while you’re actually getting less effective. Unfortunately, you don’t notice the decline. That's because our brains are wired to notice things that change quickly or significantly, but they aren’t very good at picking up subtle or gradual changes.

So why do we do keep banging our heads against this wall? It’s a lack-of-information bias. Since you can’t measure something that hasn't happened, you don’t know how much you would have gotten done or how productive you would be if you gave yourself less time and/or eliminated time-wasters and distractions.

For example, you can’t intuitively quantify how productive you would be be if you didn’t look at your phone a thousand times a day, because 1) most people would rather give up oxygen than do that and 2) humans are terrible at making these kinds of predictions.

Does this really apply to me?

What you can do is test it, by methodically trying different approaches for a defined amount of time, collecting data like Chris Bailey did, and seeing what kind of results you get. Or, if you don’t feel like going through that process, you can trust the results of other people who have already done it. It’s worth noting, by the way, that Chris Bailey isn’t the only person to test Parkinson's Law. Other people have done so and obtained similar results.

If you’re skeptical of their results and don’t think you would have the same experience, you can test it for yourself. Having a healthy dose of skepticism is a good thing, and is a vital part of the scientific method. What is not helpful is just assuming these results don’t apply to you because you’re “different”. If this phenomenon holds true for other human beings, there’s a very good chance it applies to you as well.

When you understand Parkinson's Law, you can use it to minimize the time you waste every day, so you have more time for the things that matter. But just as important, you can leverage it to focus on getting the really important things done in the time you do have.

You need to get rid of the mindset that you are ever going to “finish” your to-do list. If you are like most other people, that idea is a fantasy. It’s like trying to reach the horizon; it always stay tantalizingly out of reach.

So what can I do about it?

So how do you put this knowledge to use in your life? For some people, it’s as simple as setting aggressive deadlines for yourself when you plan your work. Unfortunately, for many people (myself included), this approach doesn’t work very well. That’s because the part of your brain that decides to set the tight deadline lives with the part of your brain that wants to take it easy, so it knows when a deadline is artificially contrived. Consequently, it doesn’t feel a true sense of urgency when it knows there won’t be any consequences if you don’t finish on time.

If you struggle with motivation to stick with artificial deadlines because they don’t create enough urgency, there are several things you can do.

  • You could build competition into your work. If you have a particular activity that takes too long, but you can never seem to get it done any faster, find another person who does the same kind of task. Then, you could compete to see who can get it done faster each day. You could apply this concept to anything from studying to house cleaning to writing.
  • If your vice is the internet, you can utilize technology to block access to sites and programs that you usually struggle to resist. There are dozens of apps and browser plugins that provide this service. Some are free and others are not, and different ones offer different features and capabilities. I’m not going to go into reviews of those apps here, because that’s not the topic of this post, but they can augment your self control if you’re addicted to the continuous stream of information that is the internet.
  • You can also use rewards to provide an additional sense of urgency. If you have a task that normally takes you four hours to complete, give yourself three hours and tell yourself that, if you finish by that time, you can do something you really enjoy doing (like reading or playing a game) for that fourth hour. This is a great approach because not only are you getting your work done in the same amount of time it normally takes, but you are compounding the benefits by recharging. If you strategically choose your recharging activity, you can compound the effect of your self control even more by doing something you find really interesting.
  • You could commit to something publicly, especially if it will require you to publicly report on your progress, like a race or weight-loss challenge with regular and/or a final, public weigh-in. I've discussed this concept of using public accountability to your advantage in another one of my posts. Just to clarify, in the internet age, the term “public” doesn’t have to mean in person. It simply means that your progress will be shared with your friends, or even the world.
  • You could get an accountability partner. Ideally you want someone who is comfortable giving you “tough love” when you aren’t putting forth the level of effort that you commit to, but just knowing that you have to report on your progress to someone will enhance your motivation and the likelihood that you will stay focused. This is the reason that people who have diet or fitness goals like to have a “partner” or “buddy” to go on the journey with them. This tactic is well suited to ongoing commitments, like working out every day. However, you could apply it to Parkinson’s Law by having someone to discuss your work plan with each day, and then having a couple of accountability check-ins to keep you on track.
  • You could use a service like the website Stickk. This site uses the idea of an anti-goal, which puts some amount of your money in escrow. Then, if you don’t achieve your goal or stick to your behavior change, the money is donated to an organization whose values or mission you disagree with. You can either monitor and report on your own progress, or appoint a “referee” to grade you. This tactic is also best for ongoing commitments, but you could use it to make sure you complete a project by a certain date, so that it doesn’t drag on indefinitely. For example, if you had a goal of writing a book, you could use Stickk to make sure you work diligently on it every day. By the way, even if you don’t plan on using this service, it’s worth checking out, just to see all of the different things that people commit to via their service. The goals themselves are all publicly viewable, even though you can conceal your identity.

I want to share an interesting side note on this topic of Parkinson's Law. As I was researching and laying out the rough draft of this post, I had gotten ahead of my normal writing schedule, so I had some “extra” time to finish it. So, what do you think I did? Rather than finishing it up early so I could move onto other important tasks, I found myself adding and expanding on different thoughts than I would normally do.

I did all this in the name of producing a better, more informative post. In reality, what happened was that I just ended up filling up the “extra” time that I had available and finished in the same time I normally give myself to complete my posts. So, what started out as a typical, 800-1000 word post became more than three times as long, at approximately 2,700 words.

Rich O'BenThe Motivation Mindset

Parkinson's Law is subtle, because your mind will come up with all kinds of very-rational-sounding reasons for why you use the extra time. Sometimes you won’t even notice it happening. But even when you notice it while it's happening, you don’t always do anything about it, because you make a very compelling argument to yourself why it’s ok “this time”.

I encourage you to play around with the idea of Parkinson's Law to stretch yourself and see what’s possible. What do you have to lose? If you give yourself four hours to do something that usually takes you eight, and you get it done in six, with an hour or two of play thrown in, you still win!

Let me know what you think about this idea by leaving a comment below. If you liked this post, please share it with your friends.

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