“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” – British historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson in 1957. We call this Parkinson’s Law even though it’s an observation of human behavior, not a principle of physics.
- Human beings adjust work style to deadlines. Roughly the same value contribution will be delivered with delivery dates of 2 days, 2 weeks, and 1 month.
- Not much gets delivered apart from deadlines (set by others, or ourselves).
Recommendations for leadership:
Set deadlines, especially for the important work no one else will see (directly). High-value work is often fruit from the soil of zero-dollar-per-hour work.
Set tighter-than-comfortable deadlines. If you’re not sure how much, try 20% shorter than your first impulse.
Constrain meeting times. Instead of an hour, schedule 30 min. Chances are very good you’ll accomplish as much.
Be firm with others; be very tough on yourself. A leader who expects much of others but readily justifies and rationalizes deadline misses for himself/herself is not going to be given more leadership opportunities.
Create time to execute important work sooner (tighter deadline). Eliminate non-essential tasks, delegating where useful to develop others, and use automation/simplification everywhere.
Once you have some practice with constraining the time availability, then push yourself even harder. This drives you to focus on the most critical work and discard the trivial. Three examples:
- Instead of allowing yourself 30 minutes in the morning to review and respond to email, get it done in 15 minutes.
- Combine errands into one trip, and stay focused. Go into the store, buy what you need, and get out.
- If your default response to a request sounds like, “I’ll have something by the end of the week,” then commit to “by noon tomorrow” instead. Faster turnaround pays dividends in the future.
Being aware of Parkinson’s Law is helpful; exploiting it to your advantage is even better.