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How long does a job take?

  • Published at 05:03 pm December 5th, 2019
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How your organization can use time more efficiently

In 1955, a British historian and author Cyril Northcote Parkinson made an interesting statement. He was working as professor of history at the new University of Malaya in Singapore. As he was writing for The Economist magazine in November 1955, he satirized government bureaucracies with examples of short studies. Later on it became a book, and was an instant best-seller in the United States and then in Britain.

The book Parkinson’s Law tried to explain the inevitability of bureaucratic expansion, arguing that "work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”

To Parkinson, the law boils down to is the essence of what takes a man of leisure an entire day to write and dispatch a postcard while taking a busy man three minutes.

The total effort of the task is identical, but the time spent on finding a postcard, writing it, searching for the address, etc is the difference between a person who has time and another who doesn’t.

The idea is highly relatable to the second law of thermodynamics, where in a container of gas molecules, if all the molecules are in one corner occupying a small space, the state would be of low entropy (highly organized), whereas as the particles move out and fill up the rest of the container, then the entropy (disorder) increases.

On an organizational level, Parkinson found that the number of employees and the quantity of work completed has no direct correlation. He stated the law as a critique on the efficiency of public administration. If the time allotted for completing a task is two days, it will be done in two days, whereas, if the time allotted to do the same task is two weeks, it will always be finished in two weeks.

Parkinson argued that in government offices, we hire more people to give everyone more time to get more work done, but with Parkinson’s law at play, the work will eventually expand to fill every employee’s available time.

This law quickly explains why many top performers get so much done in a short amount of time while others lag behind.

We plan based on how much time we have in hand, and when the deadline approaches, we start to make choices and tradeoffs to do what must be done to complete the task at hand.

Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA, once said: “If you split your day into ten-minute increments, and you try to waste as few of those ten minute increments as possible, you’ll be amazed at what you can get done.”

If you’re constantly seeking ways to improve your productivity, Parkinson’s law should not be strange to you.

But are there any areas of your life that are open-ended, without any limitation or deadlines? How can you use Parkinson’s law to set a productive artificial limitation to increase your efficiency? How can we implement Parkinson’s law in improving our daily life?

The first step is figuring out and focusing on important tasks. First, we need to write down somewhere every single task we have at hand. Writing down also puts the brain at cognitive ease, as we don’t have to remember them anymore

Then, we need to separate the list of tasks based on their importance and focus solely on them. Important tasks are not necessarily urgent, so never mistake an urgent task for an important one. Urgent tasks can be checking emails or having a meeting with the colleagues, but it is not necessarily an important one compared to other priorities that match with your goals and objectives.

Therefore, instead of evaluating items based on their deadlines, go through your tasks based on the value they create once completed. At the same time, make sure these values are aligned with your current identities, vision, and goals.

Secondly, time for each important task must be distinctly allocated. Now, we should think and write an amount of time beside the task that we think need to complete. 

Thirdly, the attitude should be re-directed to the goal of cutting the time in half. This is where the whole dimension of your thinking changes. Challenge yourself to cut the allocated time in half.

If you set an hour to run a feedback meeting, try cutting it in half. If you usually took an hour to run through your emails, challenge yourself to finish it in half an hour.

If you take two weeks to draft a proposal for your client, try doing it in a week.

Cutting the deadline into half introduces you to a new way of completing your tasks, as they are going to create an urgency. It also forces you to focus on the project until it’s completed.

The final step is to start executing. Do whatever is necessary to finish the task at hand within the deadline.

After finishing it, it is time to review your efficiency and smart thinking on the completion of the task. Ask yourself: “How I could have done better?” 

It’s hard for us to get started and stay focused, when our mind is not clear about when it will end. Just like the paradox of choice, Pareto principle, and decision minimalism, Parkinson’s law shows that most of the time, in life, less is more.


Touhid Kamal uses anthropology to learn more on micro-cultures and human behaviour, and is a UX researcher and team culture builder. He can be reached at [email protected].

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