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The single law that determines how long anything takes to do
In November 1955 a strange article appeared in The Economist by an unknown writer named C. Northcote Parkinson. It began innocently enough with the following paragraph:
“It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Thus, an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and dispatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half-an-hour in a search for the ad dress, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the pillar-box in the next street. The total effort which would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil.”
Today, we simply know this as “Parkinson’s Law,” as summed up in the first sentence: “It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
Haven’t we heard advice like this before? “The ultimate inspiration is the deadline,” for instance. “If you leave it till the last minute, it takes only a minute to do.” Or how about: “The contents of your purse will expand to fill all available space.”
Think back to bringing homework home from school on the weekends. There was nothing better than a weekend! But the dull pain of having to do a page of math problems and write a book summary loomed like a faint black cloud over Friday night, all day Saturday, and Sunday morning.
I remember I would always work on homework Sunday night. But once in awhile, if we were going away for the weekend, if I had busy plans on both days, I would actually get my homework done on Friday night. The deadline had artificially become sooner in my mind. And what happened? It felt great. It felt like I had more time all weekend. A fake early deadline created more space.
How do you cut all meeting time in half?
As part of a job I had a few years ago I suddenly took ownership over the company’s weekly meeting for all employees. It was a rambly Friday-morning affair without a clear agenda, presentation guidelines, or timelines, all in front of a thousand people.
The CEO would speak for as long as he wanted about whatever he wanted and then pass the mic to the next executive sitting at a table, who would speak as long as he wanted about whatever he wanted, before passing the mic to the next person. It was unpredictable—and starting at 9:00 a.m., it rolled into 10:00 a.m., sometimes 10:30 a.m., and occasionally 11:00 a.m. People would go on tangents. Nobody was concise. And everyone would leave two hours later in a daze, trying to remember all the mixed priorities they heard at the beginning of the meeting.
So I worked with the CEO to redesign the meeting.
We created five segments of five minutes each and set up an agenda and schedule of presenters in advance. “The Numbers,” “Outside Our Walls,” “The Basics 101,” “Sell! Sell! Sell!” and “Mailbag,” where the CEO opened letters and answered questions from the audience.
The new meeting was twenty-five minutes long! And it never went over time once. How come?
Because I downloaded a “dong” sound effect that we played over the speakers with one minute left, a “ticking clock” sound effect that played with fifteen seconds left, and then the A/V guys actually cut off a person’s microphone when time hit zero. If you hit zero, you would be talking onstage but nobody could hear you. You just had to walk off.
At first everybody complained. “I need seven minutes to present,” “I need ten minutes,” “I need much, much longer because I have something very, very important to say.”
We said no and shared this quote from a Harvard Business Review interview with former GE CEO Jack Welch:
“For a large organization to be effective, it must be simple. For a large organization to be simple, its people must have self-confidence and intellectual self-assurance. Insecure managers create complexity. Frightened, nervous managers use thick, convoluted planning books and busy slides filled with everything they’ve known since childhood. Real leaders don’t need clutter. People must have the self-confidence to be clear, precise, to be sure that every person in their organization—highest to lowest—understands what the business is trying to achieve. But it’s not easy. You can’t believe how hard it is for people to be simple, how much they fear being simple. They worry that if they’re simple, people will think they’re simple-minded. In reality, of course, it’s just the reverse. Clear, tough- minded people are the most simple.”
Then what happened?
Well, with a clear time limit, presenters practiced! They timed themselves. They prioritized their most important messages and scrapped everything else. They used bullet points and summary slides. We introduced the concept by saying “If you can’t say it concisely in five minutes, you can’t say it. By then people doze off or start checking their email.” Have you ever tried listening to someone talk for twenty straight minutes? Unless they are extremely clear, concise, and captivating, it’s a nightmare.
Everybody got a bit scared of their mic cutting off, so the meetings were always twenty-five minutes.
What happened to productivity?
Well, a thousand people saved an hour every week. That’s 2.5% of total company time saved with just one small change.
How do you complete a three-month project in one day?
Sam Raina is a leader in the technology industry. He oversees the design and development of a large website with millions of hits a day. He has more than sixty people working for him. It’s a big team. There are many moving parts. From designers to coders to copy editors. How does he motivate his team to design and launch entirely new pages for the website from scratch?
He follows Parkinson’s Law and cuts down time.
He books his entire team for secret one-day meetings and then issues them a challenge in the morning that he says they’re going to get done by the end of the day. There is only one day to make an entire website! From designing to layout to testing—everything. Everyone freaks out about the deadline. And then everyone starts working together.
“The less time we have to do it, the more focused and organized we are. We all work together. We have to! There is no way we’d hit the deadline otherwise. And we always manage to pull it off,” Sam says.
By spending a day on a project that would otherwise take months, he frees up everyone’s thinking time, transactional time, and work time.
Nobody will be thinking about the website in the bed, bath, or bus again. They can think about other things! There will be no emails about the website, no out-of-office messages, no meetings set up to discuss it, no confusion about who said what. Everyone talks in person. At the same time. Until it’s done!
Objections to Time Constraints
I know what you’re thinking. Is Sam’s plan foolproof? How do you stay committed to the time constraint? Fantastic point. You have to outsource it.
One leader I worked with actually had the building maintenance turn off the lights at 8pm every night. The maintenance team left long before that so there was no way to change the timing. She was able to do great sprints with her team but everyone knew there was a deadline at the end. The system ensured the commitment.
And what about sustainability? Won’t you burn out if you plan a big sprint over the weekend… every weekend? Of course!
Remember: The goal isn’t to maximize productivity repeatedly. The point is to create bursts of output that make the rest of your life carry less stress because you just eliminated a project with all kinds of loose ends from hanging over your head every day.
Lastly, what about quality? Won’t going fast mean that quality is sacrificed in the name of the almighty clock? Actually, no.
There’s a counterintuitive argument I’ve seen first hand. By focusing on quantity within a time constraint (as opposed to quality above all) you actually learn faster and continuously improve your work faster which ultimately leads to greater quality gains.
There’s a great story which Derek Sivers shared from the book Art and Fear which perfectly illustrates this point:
“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups.
All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.
His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: 50 pounds of pots rated an “A”, 40 pounds a “B”, and so on.
Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”.
Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity.
It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work-and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”
So what’s the counterintuitive secret to having more time?
Chop the amount of time you have to do it.
Look at the left of the graph. The less time available, the more effort you put in. There is no choice. The deadline is right here. Think of how focused you are in an exam. Two hours to do it? You do it in two hours! That deadline creates an urgency that allows the mind to prioritize and focus.
Now look at the right of the graph. The more time available, the less effort we put in overall. A little thought today. Start the project tomorrow. Revisit it next week. We procrastinate. Why? Because we’re allowed to. There is no penalty. Nothing kills productivity faster than a late deadline.
What does C. Northcote Parkinson say about waiting to get it done? “Delay is the deadliest form of denial,” he says.
Have you ever finished a project on time and then the teacher announces to the class that the deadline has been extended? What a bummer. Now, even though you finished at the original deadline, you get the pain and torture of mentally revisiting your project over and over again until you hand it in. Could it be better? How can we improve it?
Calvin says it best:
Remember: Work expands to fill the time available for its completion. In the thousand person company meeting and in a normal website-development cycle, what invisible liability do you find? Time. Too much of it. And work expanding to fill it as a result.
What’s the solution? Create last-minute panic! Move deadlines up, revise them for yourself, and remember you are creating space after the project has been delivered. Remember: A late deadline is painful. Nothing gets done.
Do only nerds do their homework Friday night?
But they’re the ones with the whole weekend to party.
Head of Growth and Marketing at Intelligent Change. I have my hands in all things from emails to product creation. Passionate about improving mental health education, fitness, and nutrition. Sucker for donuts. You can find me in sweet home Chicago.
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