Unpacking Parkinson’s Law


If you’ve ever wondered why some projects seem to drag on forever, you might find an explanation in a quirky yet insightful principle known as Parkinson’s Law. Coined by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in his 1955 article for “The Economist,” this law asserts, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” This observation has profound implications for anyone looking to boost efficiency in their personal or professional life.

What is Parkinson’s Law?

Parkinson’s Law is based on the behavior observed in bureaucracies, where work tends to swell to occupy the time allowed for it—even if it could have been completed much sooner. The principle suggests that if you give yourself a week to complete a three-hour task, the task will inflate to fill the week. It might involve added complexities, unnecessary tweaks, or simply procrastination.

Parkinson’s Law & Project Management

For project managers, Parkinson’s Law is not just a humorous observation but a critical efficiency principle. Here’s how it comes into play:

  • Task Duration: Allocating too much time for simple tasks can lead to time wastage. Setting more realistic or challenging deadlines might encourage more focused work outputs.
  • Resource Allocation: Similarly, overstaffing a project can reduce individual accountability and efficiency. Leaner teams can be more agile and effective.
  • Deadline Setting: Tight deadlines can help maintain a high level of urgency and motivation, reducing the likelihood of task bloating.
  • Ongoing Adjustments: Active management and readiness to adapt plans can help keep the work from expanding unnecessarily.

Boosting Productivity with Parkinson’s Law

Understanding Parkinson’s Law can lead to powerful strategies for boosting productivity:

  • Clear Goals: Setting explicit objectives and milestones can prevent scope creep and keep efforts aligned with project goals.
  • Timeboxing: Techniques like the Pomodoro Technique, where work is broken into intervals with short breaks, can maximize focus and efficiency.
  • Accountability Measures: Keeping regular checks on progress helps teams remain on course and discourages time wasting.
  • Efficiency Culture: Cultivating an environment that values effective work over busy work can enhance overall productivity.

Revisiting the Critique

Despite its usefulness, Parkinson’s Law has its detractors. Critics argue that it may oversimplify complex tasks that genuinely require more time and that too tight deadlines could lead to subpar work and team burnout.

Wrapping Up

Parkinson’s Law offers a lens through which to view and refine project management and personal productivity practices. By recognizing the tendency of work to expand to fill the time available, managers and teams can implement effective strategies to combat inefficiency. Balancing efficiency drives with realistic planning is key to harnessing this principle effectively, paving the way for greater productivity and project success.

In this exploration, we see that Parkinson’s Law isn’t just about managing time; it’s about optimizing our approach to work in a way that respects our natural tendencies while pushing us towards greater achievements.

Further Reading

  • “The Economist” by Cyril Northcote Parkinson (1955)
  • “The Toyota Way” by Jeffrey K. Liker (2004)
  • “Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time” by Jeff Sutherland (2014)
  • “Making Things Happen: Mastering Project Management” by Scott Berkun (2008)
  • “The 4 Disciplines of Execution” by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling (2012)


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