I recently read Cal Newport’s article on Parkinson’s Law here. Like Newport, I too had come across Parkinson’s Law in Tim Ferriss’ The Four Hour Workweek, but I hadn’t paid too much attention to it. Parkinson’s law states that work expands to fill the time available for completion. In simpler (but slightly less accurate) words, if you give me a week to complete a task, I will complete it in a week. If you give me just one day to complete a task, I will complete it in a day. Reading this article reminded me about the application of the Parkinson’s law to my life – The Write Challenge.
From the time I posted my first os.me article in November 2020. I had posted all of 9 articles till May 2021. I had several article ideas, but without the presence of a deadline, I wanted to make each article a masterpiece, and I kept the article in limbo. Then the Write Challenge was announced – and with the presence of a deadline, I was able to churn out 38 articles in a span of 5 days. Then, Parkinson’s law struck again. From May 2021 till mid-September 2021, I had written all of 6 articles. When this edition of the Write Challenge was announced, I was excited – I knew I will be forced to complete several articles that I hadn’t finished, and they would see daylight at last.
The obvious takeaway from Parkinson’s law is the importance of deadlines. Without a deadline, the psychology will be to keep working on the item in question, to try and make it better, or more commonly simply procrastinate upon it for no reason. Tim Urban makes this point in the conclusion of his famous TED Talk on Procrastination: When there is a tangible deadline, people may procrastinate, but will pull up their socks at the very last minute, and get the task done. If there is no deadline, if the task is open ended, people keep procrastinating forever. The deadline, therefore, is of paramount importance, for all tasks that are in our to-do basket.
If I may reference another of Tim Ferriss’ books, in Tools of Titans, in his interview with venture capitalist Peter Thiel, Ferriss notes that Thiel asks the following question to a lot of entrepreneurs he speaks to: “Why can’t you accomplish your 10-year plan in the next six months?” While this question intrigued me when I first read it, this seems to be an application of Parkinson’s law – the plan that is estimated to complete in ten years might well be possible to complete in six months – given the luxury of ten years, the plan will expand to fit this ten-year time frame.
I should note a couple of caveats. First, the deadline must be realistic in that it must be in accordance with the laws of physics, so to speak. A ten-year plan may be achievable in six months, but it is almost certain that it cannot be achieved in six weeks. The setting of a good deadline is more of an art than a science, because it involves pushing things to the limit, as well as being reasonably realistic. Second, the skill to perform the task in question must be reasonably present. In some domains, the skill may be learned on the task. In a lot of domains, however, there are prerequisites required to perform a task, and those prerequisites must be met. For example, if I don’t know algebra, regardless of how you apply Parkinson’s Law and what deadline you set, I am unlikely to complete a Calculus problem set.
There are times when an author unapologetically flogs a dead horse – this is one such occasion – allow me, dear reader, to conclude by emphasizing the importance of setting any deadline over not setting one, and as a second step, push the limits of the deadline – you may surprise yourself as to how much you’re able to accomplish in a shorter time span than you may have thought possible.
Image Credit: Markus Winkler on Unsplash