Work smarter. Not harder. Improving business efficiency using “Parkinson’s Law”

Cyril Northcote Parkinson was a British naval historian who wrote a satirical article in The Economist (1955), sharing his experience within the British Civil Service, and criticising the inefficient nature of bureaucracies. The first sentence he wrote in the article became the tagline for his famous law.

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”

To describe his observations, he used an example of an elderly lady, who has a lot of ‘leisure time’. She spends an entire day to send a postcard to her niece in Bognor Regis. She could spend an hour just to find the perfect postcard, another to find her glasses, another to find the address, one hour to compose and dispatch it. On the other hand, a busy man or woman would take only 3 minutes to achieve such a task, making rapid decisions and utilizing their time effectively.

Parkinson’s Law states that the amount of time that you have to perform a task is the amount of time it will take you to complete the task.

In other words:

  • If something should be done in a day, it’ll be done in 24 hours.
  • If something should be done in a week, it’ll be done in 168 hours.
  • If something should be done in a year, it’ll be done in 8760 hours.

Employees adjust their pace to the work available. If there is less work, they will work more slowly – either because they don’t have the pressure to perform, or because they are putting too much emphasis on the details in the initial phase of performing a task.
 
If your daily schedule is from 9 to 5, and you have this time to complete your work-related tasks, it will take you 8 hours to complete them. It is common to postpone tasks to the very last minute when you have such a long time. Sounds familiar?

Example

Let us consider that you have a report to write. You’ve finished your surveys and site visits and now have to write up your results, assessment and recommendations. Your client, you assume, is not in a hurry and so you add bits to the report over the course of a couple of weeks. Tweak the formatting. Write up the easy bits first (usually recommendations) and then work back from there. After all, that’s the only page they will read, right? At 2pm on a Friday you receive a phone call from the client asking where their report is as a colleague ‘promised’ you would get this out to her by 5pm end of play today! Panic sets in and you work methodically away at the report for the next two hours, straight! You know what needs to be done and you knock it out of the park. Bang! You even have an hour spare, so you get a colleague to QA the report for you. Off it goes. The client thanks you for a job well done. You feel great.

So why did you wait until you were chased? Obviously, putting less physical and mental effort and working at a slower rate is easier. It’s time to work smarter, not harder!

Work Smarter. Not harder.

A solution could be to reduce the time available to complete a task. When you have less time to complete the same task, pressure increases. Last minute report writing, or tight deadlines seem to increase efficiency and creativity. As your deadline looms closer you prioritise speed and there is less emphasis on ‘fine-tuning’.

So how do you utilise Parkinson’s Law to increase efficiency? First, you need to recognise the symptoms of under-productivity. For example, when you have too much time given to complete a task, you tend to procrastinate, or even put off responsibilities until the deadline is pressing, and it becomes an urgent matter.

People are so used to spending lots of time at work, doing trivial tasks and ‘pretending’ to be productive – “working for the sake of working”. But a long time spent at doing something is not really productive. People often will tell you to commit more time to working but do they ever tell you to work less?

Solution

The solution to under productivity may be to work smarter, not harder. There are of course a plethora of books to assist you in Time Management. Such as:

However, here are a couple of processes of how you can efficiently manage tasks using Parkinson’s Law:

Break down your tasks. You might have an enormous to-do list, with many items and clear deadlines. Start the productive process off by identifying what are your most important tasks. Methods such as the Eisenhower Matrix can help you set priorities as to what is urgent, or what is really important to yourself or your team at the time.

The idea is to retain punctuality, whilst increasing the scope of work with attainable and relatively simple tasks

Break down your deadlines. Once you know your most important small and achievable tasks, take a hard look at your deadlines. Shift your currently conservative deadlines and shorten the time to complete each task. A time-box practice can help you separate activities with their own deliverable’s and deadlines. Use the Pomodoro Technique to time box your work. This practice uses a timer that builds up a slight pressure on performance, helping you to focus and deal with distractions.

The idea is to keep the same scope of work, whilst reducing deadlines.

Cautionary note

A bad interpretation of the law can have negative consequences for both the individual and the business as a whole.

Some managers are all too familiar with Parkinson’s Law: so much so, that they take it to the extreme and try to cram more work into a given time than can be really performed. They will begin to schedule an overload of tasks, purely to keep everybody busy scheduled and pushing to tight deadlines, without ever having time to procrastinate or worry too much about finer details. Result? Poor quality of services and stressed out-staff.

Putting mental and physical stress on your daily routine will have good results over the short term. But put under too much pressure over a prolonged or even an undetermined amount of time, and it can lead employees to chronic stress issues, or what is colloquially referred to as a burnout. You may also lose clients who primarily came to you because of the quality of your work.

Takeaway message? Work Smarter. Not Harder.


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