Article by Paul Bonea
Have you ever had to do a task with a long timeline, but you couldn’t muster the will to complete it until 0.2 seconds before it was due?
Of course you have — at least once. You wouldn’t be human otherwise.
And even if the timeline were shorter, you still would have been able to complete the task on time, right? Why is that?
At first glance, you might say: “Procrastination, duh!” But here’s an alternative explanation that won’t make you feel as bad.
The phenomenon is called “Parkinson’s law,” which states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
The first person to observe and write about this phenomenon extensively was Cyril Parkinson, a British naval historian and public administration specialist. He noticed that the more time bureaucrats were given for a task, the longer it took them complete it. Shorten the allocated time, and things moved quickly again.
We procrastinate for a wide variety of reasons, such as fear or simple laziness. However, there’s also an evolutionary motivation behind laziness. Our ancestors lived in a world where food sources were nowhere near as plentiful as today. As such, they conserved energy for important tasks such as hunting, foraging, exploration, building, and so on. If an ancestor of ours wasted his energy on useless tasks, he wouldn’t have been able to cope with the hardships of food gathering. So, in a counterintuitive evolutionary twist, laziness has proven to be an important trait in keeping our species alive.
Which brings us back to Parkinson’s law. Our biology urges us not to spend energy on a task that isn’t (yet) important to our survival. So, we postpone, delay, avoid, create excuses, and so on.
But then, the deadline comes. It pulls you out of idleness and gives you a sense of urgency. Deep down, you know that missing the deadline is bad for your survival, because it can cost you at least your work reputation, if not your job, income, valuable assets, friendships, and relationships. This fear pushes you to do an all-nighter to finish a project.
However, there is a way to use Parkinson’s law to send yourself into a mild survival mode where you actually get stuff done without lazing about (too much).
How to Use Parkinson’s Law
1. Get Used to Setting Deadlines
Giving yourself time constraints will force you to restructure work tasks so they can fit into your schedule.
More complex projects and tasks with distant deadlines lull you into a false sense of security. The work should be done now, but not now now. In cases such as this, breaking the main task down into smaller bits and assigning a deadline for each will make the components of the project feel more immediate, thereby giving you a sense of urgency that motivates you to complete the task.
Deadlines can also help you work less — or at least spend less of your time at the office. It’s easy to treat the 5 p.m. threshold as more of a guideline than a rule, working past it in order to finish tasks you postponed throughout the day. The thing is, you almost always know when postponing the task will keep you overtime, and yet you are fine with it. That’s because you don’t feel you lose anything by staying longer at office, which brings us to the next point.
2. What Do You Lose If You Don’t Respect the Deadline?
The easiest way to make yourself respect a time limit is to give yourself something to lose if you don’t stick to it. Think about what you are missing out on by lingering at the office.
If you came home earlier, you could watch a movie with your partner, relax in the kitchen while cooking your favorite dish, or work on that side project of yours. Instead, you’re wasting all these opportunities by doing last-minute work you could have done earlier in the day.
A good way to keep yourself to a time constraint is to schedule something else right after each deadline you set. For instance, if you want to be sure you’ll finish sending a bunch of emails by 6 p.m., schedule a date at 6:30 or 7. Now, you have real skin in the game.
3. Learn How to Create Reasonable Deadlines
There are really only two reasons why you might want to use Parkinson’s law:
- Cut down on lost hours in which you could be doing something else.
- Stop feeling guilty and stressed about wasting time.
When first applying the rule, you might feel overzealous and set yourself impossibly tight deadlines in an effort to work faster. This doesn’t work. Instead, you’ll just end up giving yourself even more stress as you rush to meet the time limit. Not only that, but the quality of your work will drop, too.
According to a study by Dan Ariely, a behavioral economics professor, self-imposed deadlines are effective, but people have difficulty properly optimizing them.
Ariely’s experiment involved groups of students submitting three papers over the course of a semester. The “free choice” group could choose their own submission deadlines. The control group, however, had to hand in their papers at a time set by the professor. Compared to the control group, the “free choice” students enjoyed their task less, and their papers had more errors.
The point of the deadline isn’t to enter a competition with the clock, but to cut down on stress and wasted time. If a task realistically requires six hours of work, don’t try to do it in five. If you can complete it in seven hours, that’s awesome. That extra hour isn’t wasted time, but a buffer period for unexpected events such as an urgent phone call, a loss of concentration, or even just a short period of relaxation.
Parkinson’s law can help you cut down on some of the wasted time and stress of your life — as long as you keep the following in mind whenever applying the law:
- Always have a deadline.
- What do you lose if you can’t keep the deadline?
- Is the deadline realistic?
And one other thing: Be gentle with yourself. See the time limit as a tool to help you out, not a race to be won.
A version of this article originally appeared on SUCCESS.com.