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Parkinson's Law of Productivity
What it is and why it matters for work-life balance
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If you’re anything like me, you’ve had moments where work has overtaken your life and, no matter how hard you try, it just won’t let go. Today’s article is all about how this happens and what we can do to deal with it.
Alright, let’s dive in.
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It’s a rainy Sunday evening in Seattle. I’m firmly planted in my desk chair, wine glass in hand, staring at a list of unchecked to-dos, each one nagging away at my sense of weekend productivity. These to-dos are not for the week ahead, they’re from the previous week/weekend.
It seems, no matter how hard I try, work finds a way to absorb all of my time. Any free moments are occupied by work-related emails, Slack messages, and documents. What used to be an active, segmented part of my day, is now every living moment.
Ring a bell?
A day comes, a day goes. The workday begins slightly earlier, and “ends” slightly later, slowly absorbing any time not already dedicated to working. We continue to check off tasks, and yet, our sense of productivity continues to plummet.
This drudgery seems to be stuck on a never-ending loop, aka Groundhog Day.
A recent Families and Work Institute study reports that 75% of working parents do not have enough time for their children or each other. If that doesn’t say something about the state of work, I don’t know what will.
In 2020, a large percentage of the workforce was forced to work from home. Unfamiliar with the nuances of their new environment, many started out with a slight decrease in productivity. But that wouldn’t last long. People quickly found their stride and increased productivity, optimizing their work hours to maximize output. Many thought, “Hey, maybe this ‘work from home’ thing will give me more time outside of work.”
And yet, somehow, here we sit, having flooded our task list day-in and day-out for the last 9 months without feeling more productive, balanced, or fulfilled. The work seems to be sucking the air out of our lungs, one action-item at a time.
This, my friend, may in part be due to our sinister friend, Parkinson’s Law.
What is Parkinson’s Law?
Parkinson’s Law is a term first coined by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in a fantastic essay he penned for the Economist in 1955. What has since been aptly named Parkinson’s Law refers to the maxim that work expands to fill the time allotted. In other words, the work required to complete a task automatically adjusts to fill the time we initially allocated.
For example, if I set aside 5 hours each week to write an article, I’ve practically guaranteed that the article will in fact take at least five hours. Here’s why.
Five hours each week should be enough to draft, edit, and publish an article. But, because I know that five hours is enough time, I expand the scope of my article. What starts out as a simple, straightforward point turns into a complex argument filled with unnecessary tangents and nuanced points. (See, even some sentences fall prey to Parkinson’s Law.)
Work is like a gas — it fills the vessel in which it is contained. What originally started as a project with a fixed amount of time allocated, quickly shifts to a project with a minimum of five hours and a maximum that is “to be determined”.
This is the core premise of Parkinson’s Law.
Why We’re Particularly Susceptible to Parkinson’s Law
It’s easy to assume that we’re all just losing a battle to procrastination. But it’s far more complex than that. And the complexity we experience at work is growing exponentially.
We Shape Our Tools, and Thereafter Our Tools Shape Us
— Marshall McLuhan
As humans, we often look to technology to reduce and manage complexity. Unfortunately, we’re really good at creating tools that actually create more work. The sad paradox is that the more we work to reduce work, the more work we actually create for ourselves.
For example, let’s say you need to manage a project. You could start by using one of the most common and easy to use tools for project management — a spreadsheet. Ok great, we’re all set, right? What if you want to see your tasks in a calendar view? Now it’s time to go look for a purpose-built app that has this feature already built in. With a new app selected, you start creating tasks. Now you need to communicate those to your team. Ah shoot, I guess we need to invite more people. Now they’re adding tasks and contributing. Before you know it, what started as a simple project with a simple set of tools is now an overburdened process.
To go back to our gas metaphor, the work we create for ourselves is what fills our time. We don’t need to constantly create and deliver as much as we do, but because we’ve allocated the time (and space?) we feel obliged to do so.
Really what we’re struggling with is a never-ending flood of this thing we call “work.”
This is a recent phenomenon, driven by our confluence of digital tools, remote work, and our knowledge worker ‘work environment.’ When we work from home, we welcome work into our lives in a way we’ve never done before. It’s a house guest that we hoped would be kind enough to leave once they had overstayed their welcome. But here we are, months later, and they’re still using our toothpaste and eating our snacks.
Every minute we let work stay in our lives is another moment we’ve lost to actually living.
How to Keep Parkinson’s Law at Bay
Knowledge is power. But being powerful and lazy is pretty useless. While it’s great to know about Parkinson’s Law, we still have to practice preventing it from battling back into our lives. Furthermore, we should aim to actively avoid and prevent it.
The best path to successfully fighting Parkinson’s Law is to have a ready-made toolkit and a plan. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to a complex problem, but there are a few principles:
Use the 5/25 Rule to Set (and Reset) Clear Goals
When we believe we need to fill time, it’s easy to get distracted and start adding mindless, unproductive tasks to our to-do list. That’s also the most dangerous thing we can do and what allows Parkinson’s Law to take over. To fight the urge to just keep working, I recommend using Buffett’s 5/25 Rule to increase your focus. It’s a simple 3-step rule (and tool) that I walkthrough here.
Define Your Work-Life Boundaries
Finding work-life balance is uncharacteristically difficult when we lose the natural physical distance between work and life. But boundary management is no longer optional. Employers and employees need to start developing competencies in work-life balance management to foster a better work environment for the future. Click here to learn what kind of boundary management is best for you.
Learn to Block Work and Life
Most individuals fail to protect and create space for their non-work needs. And why wouldn’t we be bad at blocking?
Prior to the last two decades, the four walls of our office created a natural blocking mechanism that automatically granted us freedom from constant work. But the world has changed a lot in the last two decades. Our work is now just one quick swipe away from our favorite past time. Our boss is literally in our homes at all times, ready and eager for a “quick sync.” If we don’t want to fall victim to Parkinson’s Law, we need to start learning to block for ourselves, our team, and our family. Here’s how to get started.
There’s a Parkinson’s Law within a Parkinson’s Law message here; it’s called scope creep. The same way work naturally fills a lot of our empty time, project tasks and to-dos fill the time we allot for them. If you’re on a team, you’ve likely experienced this. You start with a set of goals and deliverables for a project, and then somewhere along the way you end up with a list twice as long. The easiest way to combat this is to write it down, sign it, and make it un-editable.
Enter, and Exit, Flow
Flow is the ideal work situation. Distraction is the enemy of flow. And right now, our world is very distracting. The issue with Parkinson’s Law is that it forces us to continuously try to stay in-flow. You can’t hit a home run every time you’re at-bat. You need to ride the pine every now and then, so we should actively seek both entering and exiting flow states.
Like any other goal, breaking it into small increments makes it easier to achieve the desired results. The steps in my recent article on flow can be used in any order and under changing circumstances. Don’t try just one; experiment, learn, and adapt.
Work doesn’t have to fill every square inch of your life. But for the foreseeable future, our employers won’t all be the shepherds of work-life balance. It’s up to each of us to create air pockets that allow us to breathe.
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Thanks for reading, and see you next week,
— Kevin K. (@kkirkpatrick)