How to Apply Parkinson’s Law

Categories of priorities

Parkinson’s Law states: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. We have discussed it before in the context of simplifying a day.

Everyone has observed how we have postponed a task nearer to its deadline, regardless of when the deadline was. If a task at school or office is due for completion in a week, that’s exactly what it takes. However, if the same task has a month long deadline, then we tend to finish it by the end of month.

Here, the harm done is wastage of time through procrastination.

On the other hand, a person using the time productively can complete the same task with a much better finishing quality in one month as compared to a week. Whether that kind of quality was required or not is an open question.

Here, the harm done is – again – wastage of time but through seeking perfection and opportunity cost of missing more important ventures.

So the question is: For an individual setting a deadline for himself/herself, how much time should be allocated to a particular task such that Parkinson’s Law works in their advantage?

A quick solution could be to allocate the minimum time possible for that task and get it done. However, the drawback is that the quality of work gets affected which is not always desirable.

My solution is to apply 80/20 rule here as well:

  • Start with allocating a reasonably short amount of time.
  • Break the task down into little parts.
  • Categorize these new subtasks according to their impact on the excellence of the result. For example,
    1. Absolutely essential
    2. Good to have
    3. OK whether done or not
    4. Unnecessary
  • Choose all of category 1 above and some/many/most from category 2 (depending on the exact situation). This is the effective 20 of that 80/20 rule.
  • Finish these and move on.

In this way, nothing will take longer than necessary without comprising on quality. If this procedure is applied in a series of pursuits, it is easy to recognize that what one will be doing is nothing but only the most significant activities in life. Working on these highest priority actions is the basis of the above method.

Intuitively, I have always felt that Parkinson’s Law has a special relationship with priorities and that is how I was able to decode it.

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