Engineering, Product management, Leadership

Parkinson's Law

Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.

Also called: Parkinson's Principle and Parkinson's Maxim

See also: Agile Manifesto, Product Delivery, Conway's Law, RACI Matrix, DACI Decision-Making Framework, Hackman's Law

Relevant metrics: Time to completion of tasks, Cost of completion of tasks, Quality of output, Productivity of team, and Team morale

In this article

What is Parkinson’s Law?

Parkinson’s Law is a principle that states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. This concept is often applied to the context of product development, as it suggests that the amount of time and resources allocated to a project will determine the scope of the project.

In other words, if a project is given a large amount of time and resources, it will become larger and more complex than if it were given a smaller amount of time and resources. This concept is important to consider when planning a project, as it can help to ensure that the project is completed in a timely and efficient manner.

Work expands to fill the time available for its completion. – Cyril Northcote Parkinson

Parkinson’s Law is the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. It was first coined by Cyril Northcote Parkinson as part of the first sentence of an essay published in The Economist in 1955 and since republished online.

If a project is given a large amount of time and resources, it will become larger and more complex than if it were given a smaller amount of time and resources

Where did Parkinson’s Law come from?

Parkinson’s Law was first formulated by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in an essay published in The Economist in 1955, and elaborated in his 1958 book: “Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress”.

The concept became popular within the agile community as it highlighted the importance of timeboxing and setting deadlines for tasks, which are key principles in agile methodology. The law’s applicability to project management and software development was recognized by agile thought leaders, such as Kent Beck and Jeff Sutherland.

The law’s influence on agile methodology gained momentum in the early 2000s with the publication of the Agile Manifesto, which emphasizes the importance of delivering working software quickly and frequently. The law was also referenced in books on agile project management, including “Agile Estimating and Planning” by Mike Cohn.

Overall, Parkinson’s Law has had a significant impact on the agile community, and its principles continue to be applied in agile project management practices today.

Understanding the Impact of Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s Law is a concept that has been around since the 1950s, and it has been used to explain the tendency of work to expand to fill the time available for its completion. This law is based on the idea that if a task is given a short amount of time, it will be completed quickly and efficiently. Conversely, if a task is given a longer amount of time, it will take longer to complete and require more effort.

This concept has been used to explain a variety of phenomena, from the tendency of bureaucracy to expand to the tendency of people to procrastinate. It has also been used to explain why some projects take longer than expected and why some tasks are completed more quickly than expected.

Parkinson's law displayed visually as a graph.

Parkinson’s Law can be used to explain why some tasks are completed with greater efficiency than others. For example, if a task is given a week to be completed, it is likely that the task will take the full week to complete. However, if the same task is given two weeks to be completed, it is likely that the task will take less than the full two weeks to complete. This is because the task is given more time to be completed, and therefore the task is completed with greater efficiency.

One example of Parkinson’s Law in action is when a student procrastinates on an assignment. The student may have a week to complete the assignment, but instead of starting it right away, they wait until the last minute. This results in the student having to rush to finish the assignment, and the quality of the work is often lower than it would have been if they had started earlier. Another example is when a company allocates a large budget to a project, but the project takes longer than expected to complete. This is because the company has more resources available, so the project is expanded to use up the extra resources.

Other examples include:

  • Available work hours are often filled with work, regardless of the amount of work that needs to be done.
  • The number of meetings tends to expand to fill available meeting time.
  • The size of a project team grows to fill available resources.
  • The number of features in software tends to increase to fill available development time.
  • The amount of content created for a website tends to increase to fill available storage capacity.
  • The number of tasks assigned to an employee tends to increase to fill available work hours.
  • The amount of time spent on a task expands to fill the allotted deadline.
  • The amount of office space used by a company tends to grow to fill available square footage.
  • The number of tools and processes used by a team tends to increase to fill available resources.

One way to combat Parkinson’s Law is to set realistic deadlines and goals. This will help to ensure that tasks are completed on time and with the necessary quality. It is also important to be aware of how much time and resources are being allocated to a task, and to adjust accordingly. Finally, it is important to stay focused and motivated, as this will help to ensure that tasks are completed efficiently.

Parkinson’s Law of Triviality

Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, also known as the Bike-Shedding Effect, states that people tend to give disproportionate attention to trivial issues while ignoring more complex and significant ones. This concept is often seen in agile product management, where stakeholders may focus on small, easy-to-understand issues while neglecting larger, more complex ones.

The term “Bike-Shedding” comes from a story where a committee was tasked with approving the construction of a nuclear power plant and a bike shed. Despite the power plant being a more significant and complex issue, the committee spent most of their time discussing the color of the bike shed since it was the easiest issue to understand and have an opinion on.

In an agile context, Parkinson’s Law of Triviality can have significant implications. Product managers may find that stakeholders focus too much on small, easy-to-understand issues and ignore more complex and critical ones. This can lead to a lack of progress on important tasks and a delay in the overall project timeline.

To overcome the Bike-Shedding Effect, product managers should prioritize complex and critical issues and allocate sufficient time and resources to them. They can also use techniques such as timeboxing, where a fixed amount of time is allocated to a task, to ensure that stakeholders do not spend too much time on trivial issues. Additionally, product managers should encourage stakeholders to focus on the big picture and the overall project goals, rather than getting bogged down in small details.

Strategies to Overcome Parkinson’s Law

If you give yourself a week to complete a task, you will take a week to complete it, even if the task could have been completed in a shorter period.

The following strategies can help product managers make the most of their time and increase productivity:

Identify trade-offs

As a product manager, you must constantly make trade-offs between competing priorities. When you are faced with multiple tasks and not enough time, it is essential to identify trade-offs to make the most of your time. Prioritize tasks based on their urgency and importance and consider the impact of each task on the overall project goals.

Consider the following when making trade-offs:

  • Which tasks have the highest impact on the project’s success?
  • Which tasks have a deadline approaching soonest?
  • Which tasks can be delayed without impacting the project’s success?
  • Which tasks can be delegated to someone else?

By identifying trade-offs, you can make informed decisions about how to allocate your time and resources to maximize productivity.

Set a timeline

Setting a timeline is critical to overcoming Parkinson’s Law. Without a timeline, tasks can expand to fill the available time, resulting in missed deadlines and reduced productivity. When setting a timeline, consider the scope of the project, the resources available, and the time needed to complete each task.

Consider the following when setting a timeline:

  • Break the project down into smaller tasks and estimate the time required to complete each task.
  • Set deadlines for each task and allocate resources accordingly.
  • Continuously monitor progress and adjust the timeline as necessary.

Plan Your Work Strategically

Strategic planning is a great way to avoid procrastination and work more efficiently. When you have a plan, you can better manage your time, determine how long tasks will take, and prioritize them accordingly. To create a plan, include the following:

  • SMART Goals. Clearly define your goals, making them specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.
  • List of Tasks and Actions. Make a detailed list of all the tasks you need to accomplish to achieve your goals.
  • Timeline for Completion. Set deadlines for each task to keep yourself accountable.
  • Resources Required. Determine what resources you’ll need to accomplish each task, including any team members’ help.
  • Progress Check-ins. Set specific dates to check in on your progress.

By creating a broader strategic plan for your short- and long-term goals, you can also find motivation and be more productive at work.

Set Self-Imposed Deadlines

One effective way to overcome Parkinson’s Law is to set self-imposed deadlines for yourself. Instead of focusing on how much time you have, think about how much time you realistically need for each task, and set your own deadlines accordingly. To do so:

  • Understand the Project Requirements. Make a list of all the subtasks and activities required for the project.
  • Prioritize Activities and Tasks. Determine which tasks are most important and/or complex and put them at the top of your list.
  • Decide Who You Need to Involve. Assess if you need any help from your team and involve them in the project if necessary.
  • Make Your Time Estimates. Based on your workload and personal productivity level, make realistic time estimates for completion.

By treating tasks as short-term goals and completing them quickly, you’ll have more time available to use for other things.

Apply the Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique is similar to timeboxing. It involves focused work sessions with frequent short breaks, with the objective of boosting productivity while reducing mental fatigue. This technique uses 25-minute work sessions and five-minute breaks to maximize focus. Here are the steps to manage your time effectively with the Pomodoro Technique:

  1. Create a list of tasks ordered by importance.
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes.
  3. Work on a task for the duration of the timer.
  4. Take a five-minute break.
  5. After four Pomodoros, take a 15-30 minute break.

Outline the vision and strategic intent

Outlining the project’s vision and strategic intent is essential to motivating the team and keeping everyone aligned. When everyone on the team understands the project’s vision and strategic intent, they can work together more effectively to achieve the project’s goals - and make the micro-tradeoffs needed to complete work efficiently.

Consider the following when outlining the project’s vision and strategic intent:

  • Clearly articulate the project’s vision and strategic intent.
  • Ensure that the team understands the project’s value and how it fits into the organization’s goals.
  • Continuously communicate the project’s vision and strategic intent to keep the team motivated and aligned.

Clarifying roles and responsibilities

Clarifying roles and responsibilities is essential for overcoming Parkinson’s Law and maximizing productivity. When everyone knows their specific tasks and responsibilities, the team can work more efficiently and avoid wasting time on duplicate efforts or misunderstandings.

One helpful framework for clarifying roles and responsibilities is the DACI model, which stands for Driver, Approver, Contributor, and Informed. The Driver is the person accountable for the task’s completion, the Approver is the person who has the final say on the task, the Contributor is the person who provides input and assistance, and the Informed is the person who needs to be kept up to date on progress. A RACI matrix works as a good alternative.

By clearly defining each team member’s role in the DACI framework, you can avoid ambiguity and ensure that everyone is on the same page. This can be especially helpful in Agile contexts where teams are expected to work collaboratively and quickly.

Generally, it’s important to have open communication among team members about each other’s roles and responsibilities. This can be accomplished through regular check-ins and status updates, as well as through documentation such as project charters or RACI matrices. By keeping everyone informed and aligned, you can increase accountability and efficiency, leading to better outcomes and increased productivity.

Agree on a clear Definition of Done

In addition to setting clear expectations, it’s important to agree on a clear Definition of Done for each task or project. This means determining the specific criteria that must be met for the task to be considered complete. By doing this, team members can avoid wasting time and effort on unnecessary work that doesn’t contribute to the final outcome. The Definition of Done also helps to avoid misunderstandings and ensures that everyone is on the same page regarding the expected outcome.

Eliminate distractions

Distractions are a major contributor to the phenomenon of Parkinson’s Law. To overcome this, try eliminating as many distractions as possible. Turn off notifications on your phone and computer, avoiding multitasking, take regular breaks, and engage in activities that help to reduce stress and anxiety can help to increase focus and productivity. By eliminating distractions, you can stay focused on the task at hand and avoid wasting time and effort on unimportant or irrelevant activities.

Frequently asked questions

Is Parkinson’s Law proven?

The idea was first presented in a humorous essay by C. Northcote Parkinson in 1955, and it has since become a popular concept in time management and productivity literature. Parkinson noticed that everyone in the British Civil Service was busy all day long, but few things were actually accomplished.

Parkinson’s Law has since been proven with numerous studies.

Is Parkinson’s Law good or bad?

Parkinson’s Law can be both good and bad, depending on how it is applied. On one hand, it can help individuals and organizations focus their efforts and be more productive by setting clear goals and deadlines. This can lead to a sense of urgency and a greater ability to prioritize tasks.

However, Parkinson’s Law can also be detrimental if it leads to excessive and unnecessary work, a lack of focus on quality, and an inability to manage time effectively. It is important to balance the benefits of Parkinson’s Law with other productivity strategies and techniques to ensure that it is being used in a way that is productive and beneficial.

Relevant questions to ask
  • How will this law affect my team's productivity and morale?
    Hint Taking Parkinson's Law into account can increase productivity and morale by creating a sense of urgency and motivating team members to complete tasks in a timely manner.
  • What are the potential consequences of suffering under Parkinson's Law?
    Hint The potential consequences of Parkinson's Law are increased stress and pressure on team members, as well as potential burnout.
  • Is there a better alternative to suffering under Parkinson's Law?
    Hint Yes, there are better alternatives to suffering under Parkinson's Law, such as setting realistic goals and deadlines, providing adequate resources, and encouraging collaboration and communication.
People who talk about the topic of Parkinson's Law on Twitter
Relevant books on the topic of Parkinson's Law
  • The Pursuit of Progress by Cyril Northcote Parkinson, Parkinson's Law (1958)
  • Social Theory and Social Structure by Robert K. Merton (1949)
  • The Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith (1958)
  • Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler, Nudge (2008)
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (2011)

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