Beat Parkinson’s Law and Supercharge Your Productivity

Beating Parkinson's Law

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Even if you are not familiar with its name, I’m sure you’ve fallen prey to Parkinson’s Law countless times… what can we do to escape it?

Do You Recognize These Symptoms?

We all know the drill: when we have too much time to complete a task, we tend to slack off until the task becomes urgent. Then, when meeting the deadline gets nigh impossible, we become super-productive and miraculously pull it off — getting the job done just in time.

The quintessential example of Parkinson’s Law in action is school assignments: even with a full month to complete an assignment, most people work very unproductively (if at all) until the last few days — when they pull one or two all-nighters and manage to get it done right at the last minute.

If you are like one of those students, you know that ‘working’ on the assignment filled up the whole time available — even if only psychologically — despite the fact that you spent little time in actual, productive work. Had you invested this short amount of time right after the assignment was handed to you, you would have completed it much sooner and could have spent the remaining time much more joyfully (either truly resting or working more productively on other stuff).

Does that mean we’re doomed to work at our peak only when we’re faced with looming deadlines? How can we get rid of this unproductive behavior and beat Parkinson’s Law? It turns out there are a few things you can do. Read on.

6 Surefire Ways to Beat Parkinson’s Law

1. Break Down Your Tasks and Deadlines

Parkinson’s Law always strikes the hardest when you have enormous tasks with far-away deadlines. The best way to fix this is, of course, breaking those big, monolithic tasks into many smaller, bite-sized tasks, along with several intermediate deadlines to complete them.

In addition to showing how you are progressing, frequent, achievable deadlines create a mild sense of urgency during the whole duration of your work, keeping you naturally engaged and focused on what needs to be done.

This method works great indeed, but note that you still need to take those intermediate deadlines seriously — which is not always easy!

2. Know What ‘Done’ Means

It’s not always easy to know for sure when a task is finished. The more of a perfectionist you are, the most likely you’re a victim of Parkinson’s Law: there’s always one more little thing to add, one little refinement to be made, isn’t there?

Sure, I am all for aiming for greater quality: the hard part is knowing where to draw the line so we don’t spend a lot of time overdoing it.

If you suffer from this same problem, one thing that helps a lot is to precisely define the output of your tasks. The trick is to be as specific as you can about them — and then simply stop when you complete them.

For example, ‘write white paper draft’ allows too much room for interpretation by your inner perfectionist. ‘Write a 1000-word unedited stream-of-consciousness-style text’ works much better, doesn’t it? Being specific upfront helps keep our perfectionism in check.

3. Set Clear Boundaries

Most of the time, Parkinson’s Law kicks in when we’re doing too much stuff at the same time: our days become a jumble of tasks when hardly any ever gets completely finished. And, with the huge amount of distractions that tend to creep in, it only gets worse.

To avoid Parkinson’s Law’s effects and finish tasks sooner, we must work on them one at a time, focused and with as few distractions as possible.

The best way I know to do that is by corralling your tasks using time boxes. Get a countdown timer and set a time limit to work on them — a contiguous block without distractions to finish or at least make progress on those tasks.

Another great way of setting boundaries is by clearly separating between work and leisure. If you restrict the time available for work (and honor it, of course), you’ll learn to fit all your work into these boundaries. My favorite technique to keep work boundaries well-defined is the time budget (where you define how much time you spend on each area of your life).

4. Challenge Yourself

When you have a tight time limit or deadline, it forces your brain to figure out ways to get it done in the time available.

So, it’s time to stop adding hidden “safety buffers” when you estimate and allocate time for your tasks: if you pad your estimates, they will be wasted as a result of Parkinson’s Law kicking in.

What works here instead is to set challenging deadlines for yourself. Not too challenging — mildly challenging, I’d say. The trick here is that they must still be believable — otherwise you’ll just disregard them.

Take those time boxes you set for yourself (in item #3 above) and now shrink them! Can you do the same task 10% faster? Maybe 20%? A litttle more, perhaps? As soon as you set an expectation — an estimate for the duration of a task — the estimate becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The task will take the expected time, so take advantage of that!

The good thing about regularly challenging yourself that way is that you’ll improve your estimation skills very quickly, in addition to having fun finding creative ways to win these self-imposed challenges. If you practice (and your tasks are well-defined and small enough), it becomes increasingly easier to effectively set challenges for yourself.

5. Create Incentives to Finish Early

One reason Parkinson’s Law is so prevalent — especially in corporations — is that people rarely have the right incentives to finish early:

  • —”Finished already? Here’s more work for you.”
  • —”You’re fast! Guess we can bring the deadline forward next time!”

Even without pointy-haired bosses around, sticking to the current task as long as possible is often desirable, as it can act as a security blanket: maybe you’re avoiding your next task because it is too daunting, for example.

So if you finish early, give yourself mini-rewards: take a quick break, browse the web, go for a walk — do whatever takes your fancy — and enjoy the feeling of having deserved it. The key here is to associate rewards with results, not with time spent — so don’t fool yourself.

Of course, incentives for finishing early only work if the task is well-defined (i.e., you know exactly what ‘done’ means), otherwise most of us will just cheat (by doing a sloppy or incomplete job) in order to get the reward sooner.

6. Know What’s Next

Lastly, something that happens too often is hanging on too long to a task solely because we don’t know exactly what to do next.

Most of the time, the cognitive effort in planning tasks is much higher than that required to actually carry them out. That means that if we don’t have anything ready to be acted on, we may not have the required energy to stop, plan on-the-fly, and then get back to work. The easy way out is to stick to the current task for as long as we safely can.

One thing that I always strive to do is separate planning from doing, and make sure to always have a few next actions in the pipeline so you can keep the momentum going and avoid having to stop to reassess what you should be doing.

Over to You

Are you a victim of Parkinson’s Law? What works best for you in beating it? Share in the comments!

…and, while we’re still at it, writing this article reminded me of an oldie (but goodie) short video I enjoy. It’s not exactly about Parkinson’s Law, but it’s somewhat related and always makes me chuckle… :)

(If you can’t see the video, watch it on Youtube)

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28 Responses to “Beat Parkinson’s Law and Supercharge Your Productivity”

  • Luciano,

    This is a pretty interesting take on productivity. I’ve been fortunate in that I rarely procrastinated in school, but I would never go back and clean up my work. I could never write a paper the night before, perhaps because I never tried. As I move towards coming up with product ideas, and ebooks and other things for my blog over the next several months, productivity tools are going to be really essential, and you seem to be providing lots of them lately :) . So I’m very grateful for the work you are doing here.

  • Hey Luciano,

    I like the thought about incentivizing finishing work early. One of my biggest weaknesses (and you and I have both discussed this a bit) is how I am a bit of a perfectionist – so I never know when it is “done” unless I have a deadline, and it always takes me right up until the deadline to finish!

    I really like the idea of self rewarding and self punishing – I try to do it, but it is sometimes difficult for me to be both the judge handing out rewards and punishments, as well as the person receiving them ;)

    • Sid,

      I think a reward and punishment system is definitely an interesting way to keep things on track. Blogging is so much about being self-motivated and that definitely is a way to keep yourself going.

    • Hi Sid, great to have you here, man!

      Yes, and I’m sure we’re not the only ones facing that problem: it’s really hard to play two competing roles at times (such as ‘punisher’ and ‘punished’)!
      Achieving that level of isolation between roles is a very interesting problem to be explored — I wonder if anyone has written about that somewhere else (either in a book or blog post). That would be something I’d be very willing to read…

      Another idea you can try is joining some sort of Mastermind group and let your buddies do the punishing for you… ;)

  • Hi,

    You basically describe agile software development, the most common variant is called scrum – both also used in other industries. It’s also a description of a war winning and the entrepreneurial pattern. Success patterns.


    • Hi Vic,

      I am a big fan of agile software development concepts indeed!
      I do think its concepts are truly universal and can help everyone’s lives.

      The resemblance with agile was not deliberate here, but I guess the thinking is somewhat ingrained in me, so I just can’t help it. :)

      I do plan to write specifically about agile concepts here — on how to apply each concept on one’s life.


  • simple illustration, concise and poise info.

  • Hi,

    Well, this happens to all my activities,
    even with e-mail reading and answering, I keep till my inbox is full to start answering, and with my studies too.

    thank you for the solution provided I’ll try it.

  • Great tips! I have to admit I was a great procrastinator all throughout my high school and college career. I am currently finishing up my last semester – but I will definitely apply these ideas to future work environments!

    Thanks again and great blog!

  • You do a great job covering Time Management, Luciano. Your posts on the subject are always so valuable to read! Thanks.

  • I’ve been using Parkinson’s Law to keep my stress levels down as I complete a postgraduate degree. Probably not the most optimal approach but using Parkinson’s Law I know that I’ll somehow get my work done before the deadline so don’t stress about it.

    However I think I stress and don’t notice that I’m stressing until later when it catches up with me. So thanks for this I’ll give your suggestions a try.


    • Hi Stephen,

      Many times, Parkinson’s Law kicks in for a particular task, yet we don’t get stressed or anxious. However, during the task we still feel like “we’re constantly doing” it (during the whole time before the deadline). That is bad in itself, because it prevents us from tackling others tasks (or truly relaxing!) in this meantime.

      This has happened many times with me: “I want to do task X! Oh, wait, I can’t: I’m already doing task Y.” No, I’m not doing task Y. I’m slacking off, knowing I should be doing task Y (doing it with focused attention, that is).

      Just something to keep in mind.

  • Procrastination comes in a way, for me when I have to do task that is complicated, I am forced to do it, or I do not see value in it, or I am overwhelm. For example, doing a will, I have been putting it off, because it is so uncomfortable but yet it must be done. Thanks for good tips.

    • My experience is that breaking down tasks and deadlines alone (point #1 in the article) takes care of the vast majority of our Parkinson’s Law problems.

      It works particularly well for the specific cases you mention: 1) for complicated task and 2) when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

  • Awesome piece of article, but when I look back at my college days, I don’t think I would have pushed myself to complete the month long assignment quicker than that. Reason simply being that there is no incentive in a school-assignment environment.

    So,a better way was to acknowledge that Parkinson’s law exists and so refrain from taking up the assignment until all your other friends have, do other things that you want to, and then get super productive and finish it off.. ;)

    • Do you want a better incentive than guilt-free slacking? :)

      Now, seriously, your comment made me think how interesting to would be if schools adopted a reward system with progressive delivery dates. Instead of just setting a fixed deadline for assignments, they would set a continuous scale in which the incentive gets progressively smaller as each day goes by.
      I would be curious to see how students would behave under that system…

      Thanks for the thought, Anand!

      • Your idea incentives for earlier submissions is not only interesting, but makes a lot of sense.

        As for a majority of students who slack in their assignments, a major incentive in starting late is that you don’t have to do it from scratch. The bottle-necks in the assignment (eg: what books to refer, one particular problem that stumps everyone) has already been worked out by some early-birds and you only have to ask for help!

  • Great article Luciano. Procrastination seems to be a part of each persons life at some point. I can so relate to this. :) I love the video too. You’ve given such great tips here that will certainly soothe the stress and anxiety on faces when a project(s) arises that one puts off.

  • Luciano,

    I wanted to come back and add something that I thought would be pretty valuable to everybody here. Brian Tracy in his goals program says if you keep asking yourself the question “Am I working on the highest value task at this moment” then you will become more and more efficient.

  • Oh my, reminded me of college writing that 35 page paper on Michel Foucault’s philosophical thoughts lol.

    Nice practical tips. Some of those I’ve been applying back in college as I tried to improve my work-efficiency.

  • Nice title :)

    I’ve got to say – I’m quite a perfectionist, but who hasn’t got those tendencies these days? :p Therefore – knowing when it’s done is my hardest challenge.

    (I’ve summarised and added your post to the cloud)

    • Thanks Craig,

      You’re doing a wonderful job summarizing the articles on Enlightr.

      Everyone that’s interested in super-concise summaries of Litemind articles should take a look. While there, make sure you browse around because there are great summaries from many other blogs as well.

  • Thank’s Luciano I will read it and tell you more about it. I procrastinate because I think cant do it… Let see if I give myself deadline it will work. Thanks Antonino

  • I’ve been working relentlessly on the launch of a new blog, writing guest posts galore, and accomplishing quite a bit and I definitely will say the tips you’ve provided here have been invaluable.

    Regarding, the time budgets, when I was in business school I found that if I put a limit on meetings we would have for groups, we were one thousand times more productive. When we said we had to meet and we reserved a block for 4 hours, we got much less done. Given my ADHD, it drove me nuts to sit in long meetings.

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