How to Hack Parkinson’s Law to Boost Productivity

Have you ever been part of a week-long project that becomes increasingly complex, forcing you to work through to the final hours before the deadline?

Why in the world does this happen?

Parkinson's Law

It’s a thing called Parkinson’s Law. This phenomenon is a huge roadblock in the way of productivity for individuals and teams around the world. (Don’t worry, you’re not alone.)

Let’s look at what it is in more detail and find out how you can leverage it to hack your efficiency (and get more done.)

What is Parkinson’s Law?

In 1955 Cyril Parkinson, a British naval historian, published a satirical piece in The Economist. It opened with the following (satire-free) statement: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

He repeated this concept in two other books he published in the following years, and the idea started taking off. It was such a brilliant insight into one of the primary barriers to efficient time management that it resonated with audiences around the world.

And so, Parkinson’s Law was born.

What’s a modern translation of this concept? Here’s one example: If you give yourself three days to do a project, it’ll take a full three days.

We see this happen all the time. Say you’re assigned a task at work and given three weeks to complete it. You take your time and turn the finished product in on day 21, as requested.

But what if you were only given a week to do the same assignment? Would you be able to rise to the challenge? Most likely. You’d be highly focused and efficient, find helpful shortcuts, and maybe even bring in some relevant partners to get the job done.

The thing about Parkinson’s Law is this: The more time that’s allocated to a task, the more thorough we are and the more complicated the task becomes. As a result, things take longer and your progress overall slows down (which may even lead you to procrastinate – yikes).

The good news is that when you know about this phenomenon, you can work around it and be more mindful of your productivity. Let’s explore that a bit more.

Can you hack Parkinson’s Law to boost productivity?

Improve Productivity with Parkinson's Law

The answer is yes. Research shows you can actually use it to boost your productivity and become more efficient at work. Here are a few examples of this for more context.

Shorter shifts, more productivity

One study funded by the Swedish government found that nurses who switched from a traditional eight-hour day down to six-hour days had a reduction in stress, sick days, and an increase in total productivity when compared to the eight-hour days.

Smaller project windows, more incentive for efficiency

Another study found that members of logging crews showed a significantly higher rate of output when limited to mill deliveries on one or two days per week than when no such buying limitations were in place. Since all parties were paid on a piece-rate basis, there was an incentive to maximize production early when restrictions have to be followed.

So what do these two studies tell us?

Most of the time, you can shorten a deadline on a project and still meet your requirements. In fact, it might force you to work more efficiently–which is a simple way to hack Parkinson’s Law.

Tactics for Overcoming Parkinson’s Law

Maybe you’re wondering, “Okay, but what can I actually do to get past Parkinson’s Law and keep myself highly productive?” Here are a few ideas to consider:

Institute tighter timelines.

Do a trial run of a shorter-than-usual timeline to see if you can get the task done with less of a runway. You might be surprised–what used to take three hours might be doable in one.

Race the clock, reap rewards.

If you think you’re allocating too much time to a task, use a timer and try to complete the task within a set amount of time, like 30 minutes or an hour. If you’re able to do it, reward yourself at the end with a small prize like a special snack or time outdoors. A small motivator can go a long way.

Create a consequence

By doing something like working without a laptop charger, you’ll force yourself to get work done before the device runs out of power. The consequence can help motivate you to stay focused.

Hack Parkinson's Law

Hack Parkinson’s Law, be the most efficient project partner

Now that you know what Parkinson’s Law is (and how to beat it), you can enjoy more free time and flexibility in your schedule. It just requires a bit of deliberate focus and mindfulness that tasks often expand to fill the timeline allotted.

The secret to maximum productivity might just be tighter deadlines. So simple, isn’t it?