A snake chases an item to illustrate parkinson's law
5-second summary

  • Parkinson’s Law is the adage that work will expand to fill the time allotted for its completion.
  • Deadlines can cause procrastination or even prompt people to fill their time with trivial matters.
  • Putting projects into the context of larger goals and creating timelines in days rather than weeks are two strategies to help overcome Parkinson’s Law.

  • Apple pushed off the launch of their HomePod because they needed “a little more time” to refine it. Windows continuously delayed an anticipated feature for Windows 10, before quietly axing it altogether. Even construction of the Sydney Opera House was only supposed to take four years. It ended up taking 14.

    But why does this happen? Why does team productivity (and as a result, your schedule) run off the rails? Parkinson’s Law has a lot to do with it.

    What is Parkinson’s Law?

    Parkinson’s Law is the old adage that work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion. The term was first coined by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in a humorous essay he wrote for “The Economist” in 1955. He shares the story of a woman whose only task in a day is to send a postcard – a task which would take a busy person approximately three minutes. But the woman spends an hour finding the card, another half hour looking for her glasses, 90 minutes writing the card, 20 minutes deciding whether or not to take an umbrella along on her walk to the mailbox … and on and on until her day is filled. Read his original article here.

    Let’s look at an updated example. You and your team have two weeks to complete a relatively simple bug fix. Realistically, it should only take a few hours.

    But because you know you have more than enough time at your disposal, the project grows in scope. While you’re looking into that bug, you decide to check into a few related issues, as well. That prompts questions about what’s causing those issues in the first place. While those diversions may ultimately prove to be useful, they don’t get you any closer to achieving your object of handling the bug fix. 

    Ultimately, the thing that should’ve really been a simple undertaking becomes something that actually requires the two weeks to complete. That’s Parkinson’s Law in action.

    Why work expands to fill the time available

    Aside from the work itself becoming increasingly complex, procrastination is another key player in Parkinson’s Law. Knowing that we have a set amount of time to do something often inspires us to leave work to the very last minute – and our delays in getting started mean the time required for that task expands.

    Aumarie Benipayo, a program manager at Atlassian, saw this happen firsthand in a previous position, where she worked with development teams that organized work into four-week sprints. “All of the work that was required for that sprint was coming in at the very end,” she says. “Nothing was being completed in the duration of the four weeks.”

    Why? Well, one educated guess is that looming deadlines are motivating. The Yerkes-Dodson Law says that there’s an optimal level of arousal that improves our task performance. So, that fast-approaching end date gives us a much-needed kick in the pants to buckle down and focus.

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    Parkinson’s Law of Triviality

    While Parkinson’s Law is most often talked about in regard to personal productivity, it really rears its ugly head in group settings where counterproductive tendencies are ever-present. For example, Parkinson’s Law of Triviality states that people within organizations often give undue time and attention to trivial matters.

    There’s also social loafing, which is the tendency of people working in groups to put forth less effort than they would on solo projects.

    “You know there are a lot of other people responsible, which sort of lessens your own agency and those feelings of social responsibility get distributed out among the whole group,” explains Nick Wignall, a clinical psychologist and author.

    How do you overcome Parkinson’s Law?

    Understanding Parkinson’s Law is only half the battle. What you really want to know is how to prevent that eleventh-hour crunch to get work shipped.

    However, combating Parkinson’s Law isn’t something that will easily happen when you’re smack dab in the middle of a project.

    The best route is to start early by planning a successful project kickoff where you can set expectations about how your team will approach and conquer those larger projects that are prone to scope creep and procrastination. Here’s what you should cover during that meeting.

    1. Clearly outline your vision statement and drivers

    Imagine that your boss just asked you to to alphabetize a giant stack of files (no rush – whenever you can get around to it). You have no idea what the files are, if they’re important, or why they need to be alphabetized. How motivated are you to tackle those files right away?

    Not very, right? That’s because there’s no clear importance or impact associated with the task, and research shows that teams that understand how their work fits in to the bigger picture are more effective (they’re more creative and resilient, to boot).

    At the start of your group project, it should be made obvious to your team:

    • What this project’s value is (this is the vision)
    • Why this project makes sense for your team and your organization (these are the drivers)

    Ensuring alignment around those pieces empowers team members to see the impact of their work, which will ignite their motivation and sense of ownership over their assigned tasks and milestones.

    2. Clarify roles and responsibilities

    For any project, but especially ones with a lot of different players and teams in the mix, it’s crucial that you clearly outline where everybody fits.

    Use the DACI framework to establish clear roles related to group work and decision-making. “DACI” stands for:

    • D = Driver. The one person responsible for corralling stakeholders, collating all necessary information, and getting a decision made by the agreed date. This may or may not be the project’s full-time owner, depending on the decision.
    • A = Approver. The one person who makes the decision.
    • C = Contributors. They have knowledge or expertise that may influence the decision (i.e., they have a voice, but no vote).
    • I = Informed. They are informed of the final decision.

    Using this sort of framework to show team members how their role fits in helps to prevent buck-passing and social loafing, as they’re forced to take more accountability for their assigned responsibilities and contributions.

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    This also helps to streamline expectations around communication and feedback, which can be major sticking points in group projects.

    This framework establishes who has the final say on decisions and projects, which eliminates a lot of the back and forth about (oftentimes conflicting) revisions and suggestions that cause projects to expand and drag on.

    3. Understand what’s in and out of scope

    Remember, Parkinson’s Law is more than a fancy term for procrastination – it means that work expands to fill the allotted time. That’s the very definition of scope creep.

    During your project kickoff, you and your team should agree upfront about what is in and out of scope for the project.

    By establishing these guidelines from the outset, your whole team is better equipped to nip Parkinson’s Law in the bud. When a new feature request or another suggestion comes up during the course of the project, you can point back to your project kickoff and remind the team that you all agreed that sort of thing was out of scope.

    Think of this step as building a box for your project. You define parameters that the project needs to fit within, which is a surefire way to catch work expansion as it’s happening, rather than after it’s already sabotaged your timeline.

    4. Identify your trade-offs

    Despite your best intentions in hosting an effective project kickoff, things still happen. Unexpected surprises crop up and threaten to throw your whole project out of scope and off schedule.

    In those moments, you’ll be glad that you identified your trade-offs early on. Your trade-offs allow you to see where you have the most wiggle room available in a project, should you need to make last-minute adjustments.

    Timing, scope, and budget are the most common vectors to play with here, and these should be prioritized during your kickoff.

    For example, if your team is working to get a new product created ahead of an upcoming user conference, then timing is your most important metric. The product absolutely needs to be done by then, which might mean you’ll need to make some tradeoffs in terms of scope (reducing features) and/or budget (investing more).

    This might seem disheartening to do at the start of a project, but it’s undeniably helpful when you reach those critical moments when decisions need to be made. Benipayo explains that understanding trade-offs was a huge benefit during the recent redesign of this very blog you are reading right now!

    “Once we realized that the work was not going to be completed in time as it was scoped, the team was able to go back and re-prioritize what was most important for launch.” says Benipayo.

    It’s almost the exact opposite of Parkinson’s Law — rather than work expanding to fit allotted time, you might actually need to reduce the work or other expectations to fit the time window.

    5. Set your timeline

    It’s interesting that the timeline is the last step of the project kickoff, isn’t it? That almost never happens in real life. But it’s a smart way to approach projects.

    Think about building a house. You wouldn’t approach a builder and say, “I need a house that’s this size and looks exactly like this example, and I need it by this date.” No, you and the builder would talk through your expectations and the work required, and then set a completion date with that information in mind.

    In an ideal world, group projects would work the same way. The timeline would come last, after you and team members have agreed on the scope.

    While outlining your timeline, you should identify milestones and deadlines that occur within the project. “You need to be really deliberate about breaking down group projects or goals into subgroups,” explains Wignall.

    This makes the larger project more manageable, and instills a greater sense of urgency to get the work started – even if the end date for the whole project isn’t fast-approaching, the deadline for that first task certainly is. Plus, this allows the team to feel like they’re gaining meaningful momentum on the project, which is highly motivating (something referred to as the progress principle).

    What is Parkinson’s Law and why is it sabotaging your productivity?