In November 1955, a strange article appeared in the Economist by an unknown writer named C. Northcote Parkinson. Readers who started skimming the article, titled “Parkinson’s Law,” were met with sarcastic, biting paragraphs poking sharp holes in government bureaucracy and mocking ever-expanding corporate structures. It began innocently enough with the following paragraph:
“It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Thus, an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and dispatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half-an-hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the pillar-box in the next street. The total effort which would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil.”
The thesis of the piece was in the first sentence: “It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
Haven’t we heard advice like this before? “The ultimate inspiration is the deadline,” for instance. “If you leave it till the last minute, it takes only a minute to do.” Or how about: “The contents of your purse will expand to fill all available space.”
Think back to bringing homework home from school on the weekends. There was nothing better than a weekend. But the dull pain of having to do a page of math problems and write a book summary loomed like a faint black cloud over Friday night, all day Saturday and Sunday morning. I remember I would always work on homework Sunday night. But once in a while, if we were going away for the weekend, if I had busy plans on both days, I would actually get my homework done on Friday night. The deadline had artificially become sooner in my mind. And what happened? It felt great. It felt like I had more time all weekend. A fake early deadline created more space.
Sam Raina is a leader in the technology industry. He oversees the design and development of a large website with millions of hits a day. He has more than 60 people working for him. It’s a big team. There are many moving parts, from designers to coders to copy editors. How does he motivate his team to design and launch entirely new pages for the website from scratch?
He follows Parkinson’s Law and cuts down time.
He books his entire team for secret one-day meetings and then issues them a challenge in the morning that he says they’re going to get done by the end of the day. There is only one day to make an entire website. From designing to layout to testing — everything. Everyone freaks out about the deadline. And then, everyone starts working together.
“The less time we have to do it, the more focused and organized we are. We all work together. We have to. There is no way we’d hit the deadline otherwise. And we always manage to pull it off,” Raina says.
By spending a day on a project that would otherwise take months, he frees up everyone’s thinking time, transactional time and work time. Nobody will be thinking about the website in the bed, bath, or bus again. They can think about other things. There will be no emails about the website, no out-of-office messages, no meetings set up to discuss it, no confusion about who said what. Everyone talks in person. At the same time. Until it’s done.
What’s the counterintuitive secret to having more time?
Chop the amount of time you have to do it.
The less time available, the more effort you put in. There is no choice. The deadline is right here. Think of how focused you are in an exam. Two hours to do it? You do it in two hours. That deadline creates an urgency that allows the mind to prioritize and focus.
What does C. Northcote Parkinson say about waiting to get it done? “Delay is the deadliest form of denial,” he says. Have you ever finished a project on time and then the teacher announces to the class that the deadline has been extended? What a bummer. Now, even though you finished at the original deadline, you get the pain and torture of mentally revisiting your project over and over again until you hand it in. Could it be better? How can we improve it?
Remember: Work expands to fill the time available for its completion. In most projects, what invisible liability do you find? Time. Too much of it. And work expanding to fill it as a result.
What’s the solution? Create last-minute panic. Move deadlines up, revise them for yourself and remember you are creating space after the project has been delivered.
Do only nerds do their homework Friday night? Maybe.
But they’re the ones with the whole weekend to party.
This post originally appeared on thestar.com, the digital home of The Toronto Star.