Study Hacks Blog

Revisiting Parkinson’s Law

September 1st, 2021 · 18 comments

I first came across Parkinson’s Law in Tim Ferriss’s 2007 book, The 4 Hour Workweek. Ferriss summarized it as follows:

“Parkinson’s Law dictates that a task will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for its completion. It is the magic of the imminent deadline. If I give you 24 hours to complete a project, the time pressure forces you to focus on execution, and you have no choice but to do only the bare essentials.”

Ferriss suggests that you should therefore schedule work with “very short and clear deadlines,” arguing that this will greatly reduce the time required to make progress on important tasks.

This advice is sound. After reading Ferriss’s book, I began to work backwards from a constrained schedule — forcing  my professional efforts to fit within these tight confines. As predicted by Parkinson’s Law, these restrictions don’t seem to decrease the quantity of projects on which I make progress. If anything, I seem to get more done than many  who work more hours.

This is all prelude to me noting that I have fond feelings for Parkinson’s Law. Which is why I was so surprised when recently, as part of the research for my latest New Yorker essay, I revisited the original 1955 Economist article that introduced the concept and found a whole other layer of meaning that I had previously missed.

Parkinson opens his essay with the pronouncement highlighted by Ferriss: “It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

Parkinson then provides statistical evidence for this phenomenon, showing that the British naval bureaucracy grew even as the navy it served shrunk after WWI.  He details an explanation for this counterproductive behavior that culminates in (satirically) precise mathematical formulas, e.g.,:

The details of his explanation are less important than its general implication: in the absence of strict direction, work systems can self-regulate in unusual ways. The British bureaucracies Parkinson studied grew according to internal dynamics that had little to do with the work they were meant to execute. They became their own beings with their own objectives.

Ferriss popularized the personal version of Parkinson’s Law, which correctly notes that our work expands to fill the time we give it. The original Economist essay on the topic also embeds an organizational version of the law, which I read to say that if you leave a group, or a team, or a company to operate without sufficient structure, they may converge toward unexpected and unproductive behaviors. Indeed, the hyperactive hive mind I popularized in A World Without Email can be seen as a 21st century instantiation of  the organizational variant of Parkinson’s Law.

The mark of a good polemic is the ability for its readers to extract multiple layers of productive meaning. By this measure, we must admit, Parkinson wrote one hell of an essay.

18 thoughts on “Revisiting Parkinson’s Law

  1. Fonz says:

    I am currently working on a long-term project: tackling a software engineering curriculum. I recognize the value of this principle, however whenever I try to set deadlines, I only end up frustrated. The difficulty of the modules and projects vary so sometimes I would hit my target, sometimes not. I settled to just putting in a minimum of 8 hours a day. But I notice I do lots of reading just to make myself feel like I’m doing something (and this is where I try to expand my effort just to fill in the time I’ve set for myself).

    How would you tackle a practical project like this? Is Parkinson’s Law reconcilable with this kind of project?

    Even though I have a plan, I feel like I’m making slow progress..

    1. Rosberg says:

      I think this principle works better when used for really short term periods, like: I must complete X in the next two hours, with X being something you think requires slightly more than two hours, so that you have a bit of positive pressure. But talking about big projects, errors in planning are often exponentially bigger.

      One way to reduce frustration and anxiety could be, when possible, avoiding self-imposed deadlines and just setting a daily goal of deep work hours in your time blocking, in which you do your very best. When I work this way, I often end up doing much more than I thought possible, without feelinig overwhelmed in the morning by “all the things I have to do”. But I see myself that this method has its problems too, it can be useful only when deadline-related-anxiety causes procrastination. I’m sure Cal has a better answer 🙂

  2. Maciej says:

    “Ferriss popularized the personal version of Parkinson’s Law, which correctly notes that our work expands to fill the time we give it.”
    I think that here lies the problem. The original paper does not discuss “personal” version of Parkison’s Law. It only starts with observation that work expands to fill available time for its completion – but that’s not a Parkinson’s Law.
    It looks to me that something went terrible wrong with explanation of PL. It looks that people only read first paragraph of the paper and conclude that’s the PL.
    If fact Time Ferris quote is a total misinformation as he doesn’t even call it personal version of PL, just PL, which is clearly wrong for anyone that would actually spend 10 minutes to read the paper.
    Turns out popularised version of PL is another “truth” that has very little to do with original intention of its creator, not to mention that the actual conclusion of the paper is totally forgotten/ignored.

  3. “It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
    There’s a peak of performance that tends to really slow down as much as you expand time dedicated to the task…

  4. I’ve been writing up some of thoughts on this, building up a matrix of behaviours that includes P’s Law, bystander syndrome and bikeshedding. The kinds of IT bureaucracy I’ve seen in recent years is akin to defense contractors. Nothing ever gets solved, no engagement ever happens, but boy a lot of money gets spent!

    1. Ian Howlett says:

      I hope your work on this will give Agile its fair share of the blame.

    2. Amanda Harrison says:

      This sounds really interesting Mike – are you planning on publishing anywhere as I’d love to read.

  5. I won’t spoil the plot, but Kieth Waterhouse’s book “Office Life” turns these ideas into a funny novel.

  6. Rosberg says:

    About the “organizational” version of parkinson’s law, are you saying that top-down centralized systems work better? Experience shows quite the opposite: they can seem much more optimized, but if there is a small mistake at the top it multiplies. As some would say, they are more frigile. I’m not familiar with the original article, but is it possible that the growing “naval bureaucracy” had the purpose of fulfilling a top-down imposed task? In this case the structure itself may be the problem, and not the absence of it.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I don’t think the solution is centralized control but instead clarified direction. This is the goal of this organization. Here’s how we measure how good we’re doing. We hold people accountable if we’re not doing well.

      1. Rosberg says:

        Thanks, now I get it right! That’s true, having a clear direction and a clear metric which are necessarily set by those who lead, also because in a organization the goals of an employee rarely coincide with the goals of the company

  7. Victor says:

    Thank you Cal for this great article. I realized that they are two types of deadlines:
    1) Set by exterior factors (for ex: by an academic curriculum, your boss, etc.).
    2) Set by yourself (i.e. I’m going to finish this project by tomorrow).
    Both types of deadlines follow Parkinson’s Law. However, in my experience, it seems that we put more weight on those created by factors external to us. Indeed, we can always change the deadlines we set ourselves, but not (usually) the ones set by others.
    Do you know of a way to make the second type of deadline more effective?

  8. Brian says:

    “The British bureaucracies Parkinson studied grew according to internal dynamics that had little to do with the work they were meant to execute. They became their own beings with their own objectives.”

    … which is a good hypothesis explaining the growth of University administrative departments, and possibly the resulting increased costs of a college degree.

  9. Geoff says:

    This is a great observation.

    A related idea has come up in a lot of your other work, where you touch on it at both the individual and organizational level.

    If I remember correctly, the simple version is that as communication became far more efficient, and individual workday objectives became increasingly vague and ambiguous, individuals would default to the objectives which offered the least friction, inevitably resulting in more scattered and reactive workday’s where people resorted to eliminating the easiest, and most immediately rewarding tasks, leaving the more challenging aspects, like important projects, by the wayside. But I’m sure I remember you giving examples of this at both the individual level and the organizational level too.

    The related theme is the tendency for behaviours to gravitate towards the path of least resistence, when left to evolve autonomously.

  10. Diego says:

    “The original Economist essay on the topic also embeds an organizational version of the law, which I read to say that if you leave a group, or a team, or a company to operate without sufficient structure, they may converge toward unexpected and unproductive behaviors.“

    Couldn’t agree more. I’ve personally seen the effects of leaving a group with complete autonomy over themselves vs. adding additional structure. I’ve found that the additional structure avoids unnecessary expansion (e.g., being more productive with the current team you have as opposed to letting it balloon due to added tasks).

    This is a great reminder for team leads, managers, and CEOs: Parkinson’s Law doesn’t just apply to the time/deadlines you place on tasks, but it can also be applied to your overall company. Why hire additional personnel because you’ve added more unnecessary/unproductive tasks to your teams’ plate? Structure would have avoided this expansion on their tasks.

    Thank you for this great read, Cal!

  11. Helgi Mar Þorðarson says:

    Hi Cal, great post as always.
    Leo Babauta wrote the following post sometime ago, might help with your next book: https://zenhabits.net/slow-down-to-enjoy-life/

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