Parkinson's Law

What is Parkinson’s Law? It Could Be Affecting Your Team’s Productivity

Want to protect your team from burnout while fostering optimal levels of performance? You need to know about Parkinson’s law or the idea that work expands to fill time. “In simple terms, if you give yourself two hours to complete a piece of work, it’ll take two hours. If you give yourself four, that’s exactly how long it will take,” says Paul Holbrook, founder of Diary Detox, a leadership development organization dedicated to eradicating accidental management and creating managers who love people.

“Parkinson’s Law is the single biggest cause of lost productivity and damaged wellbeing and we welcome it into our lives simply because of how we use our calendars.”

Since knowledge is power, the right time-management approach can help you leverage this principle instead of letting it affect your team in a negative way. Holbrook shared some wisdom below to help you nip this productivity trap in the bud and boost your team’s productivity.

How Parkinson’s law works

Let’s say a task requires 20 minutes. You give yourself the whole afternoon to do it. You may start by thinking, “I’ve got plenty of time left to finish.” Then, a new email pops up in your inbox. Oh, and you just got a LinkedIn notification too. Perhaps your colleague walks over to ask you a question. Next thing you know, it took you two hours to complete the task instead of 20 minutes.

The more time you give yourself to complete a task, the more complex and daunting it can psychologically become in order to “fill” that time. You may even spend more of that time procrastinating and stressing about the task.

How Parkinson’s law affects productivity

This productivity principle has a direct effect on your individual and team efforts. Take your calendar, for example.

“Most of us use our calendar to store meetings we have arranged with other people. The rest of our time is left blank,” according to Holbrook. “But, if we only plan for meetings and leave all other space blanks, guess what? Work expands to fill that time…Parkinson’s law.”

It can even affect work-life balance and lead to decreased work performance and even mental health issues. “Without a boundary, work expands to fill our personal time too. We get the crumbs; we get what’s leftover for ourselves and it’s not much.”

The problem is, you can always find more work to do and that’s what happens when you leave your time “open to chance,” as Holbrook puts it. “Before you realize it, you spend most of your time working and none of it relaxing with friends, family, or by yourself,” he adds.

Two crucial principles to counteract Parkinson’s law

It’s not all bad news though. Understanding the pervasive nature of Parkinson’s law can help you implement clear structures to make the best of time spent at work. Working smart, which means ruthlessly focusing on needle-moving priorities and ditching busywork, is the best possible outcome of counteracting Parkison’s law.

Holbrook says you should do two things to achieve that: First, know the true cost of what’s on your calendar. Second, simply work less (that’s right!).

“Don’t just use your calendar to store meetings with other people. Include everything else that those meetings bring with them; prep time, follow-up time, travel, etc.,” he recommends. “Once you see the true cost of what’s already in your diary, you become more ruthless with your time and procrastinate less; because you realize how little time you actually have.”

As far as working less, you want to reduce the amount of time available for work to expedite its completion, thus hacking Parkinson’s law to your advantage.

“Create a skeleton of tasks that are focused on ensuring you look after your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing and put that in your calendar before anything else,” says Holbrook. Include things like eating breaks, exercise, and perhaps a leisure activity or walk at the end of the day to signal your brain it’s time to stop – walking your dog, for example.

Sounds counterproductive? It’s supposed to. “This obviously reduces the amount of time you have for work and could lead you to believe that you’ll get less done. But you get more done, in less time. The gaps you have for work are smaller and hence you remain more focused.”

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