In 1955, Cyril Northcote Parkinson, a British naval historian, published an essay in The Economist entitled “Parkinson’s Law.” The article was about the British Royal Commission on Civil Service. It opens up with a now famous sentence: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
Although this phrase was meant as a “common observation” and not as the definition of the Parkinson’s law itself, it is this idea of time management which was remembered, and which remained attached to the author’s name and theory.
From Law of Growth to Law of Time Management
As the author of the article “Debunking Parkinson’s Law” points out, the naval historian main concern in his 1955 article was not exactly procrastination or time organization, but the growing number of civil servants in Great Britain. More specifically, Parkinson tried to understand why the number of bureaucrats increased in the British Colonial Offices even though the Empire was quickly shrinking. Since there was clearly less work to do, why was the department hiring more employees, not less?
Eventually, what Parkinson showed is that growth in bureaucracy is not based on the amount of work which needs to be done, but on other factors. In the case he studied, Parkinson concluded that it was mainly the result of 1) overworked officials hiring subordinates (instead of rivals) to help them; and 2) the ability of these same officials to create additional tasks to keep these subalterns busy.
Of course, both ideas – growth in bureaucracy and time management – are closely linked. As Parkinson demonstrated, having more employees doesn’t necessarily translate into more time available for an initial set of tasks. It can mean more time, but it can also mean less need to rush or more tasks being added to the agenda.
Parkinson’s Law and Project Management
Despite its initial meaning as model of growth, Parkinson’s Law nowadays is associated first and foremost with time management issues. Although it may be a narrow interpretation of this law, it has sustained the test of time.
Today, one of the fields of knowledge using Parkinson’s Law in the sense of the inevitable expansion of time to complete a task (up to the maximum time allowed for it) is project management. Referred to as a “behavioural phenomenon,” (Chen and Hall 2020) Parkinson’s Law challenges managers to find creative solutions so that their employees or contractors don’t delay tasks longer than necessary. It is all about avoiding chain reactions leading to more and more delays down the lines.
Incentives and strategies
Literature on project management provides various advices on how to keep projects from falling into the 56% which do not meet deadlines (Izmailov et al. 2016). These solutions come mostly as financial incentives. For example, Chen and Hall (2020) propose to offer performance incentives. The “tasks with more successors” would be rewarded more significantly when being completed on time, since other tasks depend on it.
In another study, Izmailov et al. (2016) propose instead to focus “on the only important date – the project completion date,” eliminating “rigid tasks sequence.” That way, buffers of time can be saved for the end of the project instead of the end of each task. For PhD students, this could mean that instead of waiting weeks for their supervisors’ comments to continue their writing, diving in the next chapter before waiting for feedback might be a better strategy.
Parkinson’s Law and Student Syndrome
Parkinson illustrated his model using the example of an old lady with much time on her hands taking all day to send a postcard to a relative. He describes her dilemmas (which color should she choose? Where should she buy the card? etc.) and concludes: “The total effort which would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil.”
This is especially true if this person is perfectionist, anxious, undecisive and, to top it off, have a few years available down the line. Unfortunately, this definition corresponds point by point to most PhD students I know, although there are exceptions.
Motivations to adopt delaying behaviour have been identified as: 1) “a desire to appear busy, in order not to be allocated additional tasks”; 2) “a desire to avoid having resources withdrawn, which can occur as a result of overperformance”; and 3) “a natural tendency toward laziness or procrastination” (Karkowski 1974).
Interestingly, the last category is sometimes referred to as the “student syndrome” (Klastorine 2012). Chen and Hall (2016) use an example to explain it: “a task operator delays the start of a task until the latest time at which, if later tasks match their expected durations, the project will complete without delay. However, where the expected duration of the task is exceeded, the project is delayed.” And since life often happens, tasks are often delayed.
Laziness or Procrastination?
Perhaps the name “Student Syndrome” is deserved. For students, indeed, this third motivation seems frequent, since few of us suffer from having resources withdrawn from their pockets. However, it could happen to some students, for example if they benefit from important scholarships or governmental grants.
But for most of us, the natural tendency to procrastinate is likely to happen. Here though, an important distinction is needed. Procrastination doesn’t mean laziness. They are not synonyms. In fact, it can be quite the contrary. Procrastination can take the form of workaholism, where many peripheral projects are undertaken in order to avoid what causes stress, i.e. the thesis. For more on that topic, I suggest you read the excellent book Procrastination. Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now by psychologists Jane B. Burka and Lenora M. Yuen (1983; 2008).
At the end, it is essential to acknowledge why we avoid doing certain tasks if one wants to address the problem. But the fact remains: Parkinson’s Law – no matter the reason behind it – is a common tendency. To avoid it, incentives may help.
How to Elude Parkinson’s Law
So, what can be done about it? In the article “Your Dissertation: Combating Parkinson’s Law” (2015), adjunct faculty Ted Cross recommends the following simple but efficient strategies:
- Focus on one task at the time. One project or one section or even one paragraph. Put everything else in a mental Tupperware, as my friend Estelle would say;
- Turn off all notifications. You know which ones. Phone, inbox, Facebook, and any other beeping device. Close your door. Tell people around you that you are in a meeting (even if it is only with yourself!);
- Use a timer and give yourself set amounts of time to complete a specific task. You can use a free online pomodoro timer;
- Set mini goals. Use a pomodoro planner to write down your goals. You can download one for free using the link below.
I have to say: these strategies work well. I get daily positive comments from students using them. Still, I would add a few more ideas to this list. First, join an online writing retreat. We apply all the above strategies in the writing retreats I host for the McGill Writing Centre (for McGill graduate students) or during my informal retreats (sign up for our newsletter for more info on these).
Second, you can also work on your planning, working backward. Here’s how it works. Start with the deadline. When is x due? How much time does that leave you in weeks? Now, how many tasks are left (x words or pages to write, y articles to read, comments from z evaluators to integrate, etc.). Lastly, how many hours a week can you devote to your writing? Once you have all this information, you will be able to determine how much time you must save for each task.
It’s not realistic? Then you need to make more time available, remove some tasks (perhaps instead of reading these 30 articles you could read only 10?) or push the deadline further. It’s simple mathematics. Either way, if you can estimate the time needed to complete a project, you’ll be more in control and it will be easier to meet your deadline. And if you don’t meet it, you will have learned something from it and you will be less tempted, I hope, to blame yourself for it (no, you’re not lazy), because you will have a more factual approach to evaluate the situation.
The Funnier Strategies
While some of these ideas come from my experiences or my readings, others – the funniest ones – come from a brainstorming I did with grad students last week in one of our online writing retreats. We had a lot of fun telling each other these experiences, and I thank everyone for sharing their best tips or anecdotes with me.
Commit to meet your deadline or pay. Entrust a friend with a $100 or $50 (or $20 or $10, but it has to hurt a little). Let them know that you have a paper to finish by (- insert the date here -). If you meet your deadline, they’ll give you back your money. But if you don’t, they can spend it. Hopefully it will be on a nice diner with you. One variant could be to offer to pay diner for your friend if you don’t meet your deadline. Perhaps it is a safer investment.
Encourage a charity or… Same idea here, but with a crooked twist. Again, entrust your friend with a predetermined amount of money. This time, if you meet your deadline, you can choose the charity to which your money will be donated. However, if you don’t succeed at meeting your deadline, your friend will donate your cheque to a political organization you highly dislike. That should do the trick if the previous strategy had failed. Please note: avoid this strategy if you are a fan of Fifty Shades of Grey (as this might not be an incentive to finish on time).
Treat Yourself. Here, we go from a punitive incentive to a rewarding one. Perhaps a better idea. The chosen reward should be an extra treat, on top of what you do usually, because we all know that it cannot always be all about our thesis. In this scenario, you set a goal for a writing session, a day, a week, a month or anything length of time you wish. You want your goal to be bound to a deadline, not just a task. “Finish Chapter 4” won’t do it because, because, let’s face it, a chapter is never really done. But “Finish Chapter 4 by July 31st (2020),” now, that’s something specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timebound. In other words, a SMART goal. Decide ahead of time what will be your special reward: a weekend away, diner in a fancy restaurant, an entire day reading in a hammock or bathing in the sun, etc.). And honor it, while feeling great to know that you’ve just outsmarted Parkinson’s Law.
You have another idea which is not include here? Please share it below in the comments section!
Izmailov, Azar, Diana Korneva and Artem Kozhemiakin. “Project management using buffers of time and resources,” Procedia. Social and Behavioural Sciences, 2016, http://dspace.kpfu.ru/xmlui/handle/net/104569.
Chen, Bo and Nicholas G. Hall. “Incentive schemes for resolving Parkinson’s Law in project management,” European Journal of Operational Research, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejor.2020.06.006.
Parkinson, Cyril Northcote. “Parkinson’s Law,” The Economist, 1955, https://www.economist.com/news/1955/11/19/parkinsons-law.
Mariève is a sessional lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre and a PhD student planning on finishing her thesis by the fall 2020.