Why is time never enough for you? It's the fault of "Parkinson's Law"

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Robert Maurer


Author and references

How long do you need to pack? All the time you have. Neither more nor less. If you are short on time you will do it in a few minutes, if you have more time an hour or more. The fault lies with the "Parkinson's Law", applied to time management.

Many people, steeped to the core in the culture of productivity or hyperactivity, take no pleasure in being inactive, it is "fun" and "interesting" for them to always have a lot to do, so they never have free time.

Here the "Parkinson's Law" comes into play, which is based on three ideas:

- The work extends to occupy all the available time

- Expenses increase until all profits are covered

- The time devoted to each daily activity is inversely proportional to the importance of the same

Sound familiar to you?

How was Parkinson's Law born?

Cyril Northcote Parkinson was a British naval historian and astute observer of public administration and the management system. Parkinson realized that as the British overseas empire was in decline and had fewer colonies to administer, the number of personnel increased. Every year between 5 and 7% more employees were incorporated, even if the paperwork objectively decreased.

It was a contradiction. So Parkinson wondered what was going on. He understood then that the work expands by occupying all the time and resources available, regardless of the actual hours needed and the objective importance of the activities. And he proved it with mathematical formulas and statistical data.

Of course, his theory is not limited only to the functioning of public administrations, but also applies to our daily life. We can come to be true experts in the application of Parkinson's Law in our daily life.

Extending activities consumes not only your time, but also your energy

According to Parkinson's Law, if you give yourself a week to complete a job that only takes a day, the task will increase in complexity to fill the free time. And what's even worse: that activity will turn into a black hole that absorbs not only your time, but your energy as well. The activity will generate stress and anxiety, becoming exhausting.

Of course, it's not the business itself that gets complicated, but the way we approach and manage it. The problem is that the more time we have, the longer we will postpone. Today we will do a small part of it and we will leave another small part for tomorrow.

When we find ourselves in this situation, we do not realize that what stresses us most is not simply carrying out the activities, but rather the unfinished activities, the constant reminder of what we have pending. Constantly reflecting on that mental agenda is psychologically exhausting.

At the root of this trap that we tend to ourselves is the belief that we have to "work hard". We got the terrible idea that the longer we spend doing something, the more value this will have. Of course, that's not always the case. But they didn't teach us to "work smart and efficiently".

Parkinson's Law and decision paralysis in everyday life

- What do you want to do?

- I don't know, what do you want to do?

- What if we went to the cinema?

- Hey, I was just thinking we could go to X, Y, Z…?

- As you prefer.

- No, as you like.

And so the talk goes on for more than half an hour, or the time we have at our disposal to choose the seat. This is what is known in psychology as "decision paralysis" and occurs when we have so many options at our disposal that we fall victim to "decision fatigue".

A very interesting study conducted at Columbia University analyzed what happens when in a grocery store we can choose between 6 or 24 different jams. The results were surprising: not only do we take much longer to choose when we have so many possibilities, but we are also literally paralyzed. In the experiment, 30% of customers ended up buying one of the six jams, but only 3% of people who could choose from 24 different types of jam bought one. Being able to choose between so many possibilities consumes us mentally, makes the decision more difficult and ends up paralyzing us.

This phenomenon is deeply linked to Parkinson's Law, being one of the main reasons why we don't finish the activities but lengthen them as much as possible. In the case of the suitcase, we know we have to fill it, but it is difficult to choose what to wear among so many things. This leads us to procrastinate.

Time Management: How to Avoid Parkinson's Law?

Psychologists at the American Institute for Research in Washington put Parkinson's Law to the test. They recruited a group of people to analyze how the time limit would affect their effectiveness.

In the first three tests, participants had double the time needed to complete a task, while another group of people only had the right time. In another experiment, they asked some to work fast and others to "work as fast as possible". What happened?

These psychologists found that when we have a lot of time to finish a task, we use it all, even though we may finish earlier. But they also saw that the level of effectiveness will depend on the goals we have set ourselves. People who were asked to work as quickly as possible finished first and made no more mistakes than those who were told to work fast.

- Set realistic goals. This experiment shows us that the main antidote to Parkinson's Law is to set realistic goals. Good time management seems to be able to objectively estimate what time we need to perform a task, and work based on it.

- Prioritize the most important activities. We have dozens of activities to do every day. We must learn to identify the less important tasks on our agenda because they are the ones that tend to expand and take up all of our time. Therefore, we need to be very clear about our daily priorities, to devote more time to it.

- Look for incentives to finish first. We are not robots, so setting a time limit and knowing what our priorities are does not guarantee 100% that we will be free from procrastination. Another help is to give us small rewards if we finish early. This will help us stay focused and motivated.

- Just act. To avoid decision paralysis, the best thing to do is to reduce your options. If you want to go on a trip, for example, start by limiting your options by geographic area or traffic level. Once you've chosen, go.


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