In 1955, Cyril Parkinson created Parkinson's law. The concept centers around the idea that work is like gas; it expands to fill whatever container it is placed in. For project management, this means that if you give a task five hours, it will take five hours to complete. But if you give that same task five days, it will take five days to complete. Understanding this basic principle is key to improving productivity for both yourself and your team. 

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what Parkinson's law is and how it can be used to boost productivity (or hinder it). Keep reading to explore examples of Parkinson's law, plus some tips on how and when to use it in Agile project management.

What is Parkinson's law?

Parkinson's law is the theory that work will expand to fill the allotted time. So whether you think a task will take one week or one month, if you schedule it accordingly, that's how long it will take. Much of this has to do with the way our brains are wired. 

In general, even the most put-together of us wait until the last minute to fulfill a commitment. In fact, it actually feels good for some people and gives them an adrenaline rush. That's because the farther out a deadline is, the lower it is on our priority list. And with good reason. If we prioritize all of our project-related tasks at the same level, we can almost guarantee a decrease in productivity. This is especially true if employees attempt to multitask

But if you follow Parkinson’s law, you’ll be able to boost the productivity of your onsite and work from home teams simply by limiting their allotted time. 

What does allotted time mean?

Allotted time means the time assigned to a task in project management. Often, this is determined by the project manager when they are creating the timeline and schedule. Some project managers prefer to use historical data to calculate mini-deadlines for individual tasks. Others gather input from subject matter experts and talent to estimate how much effort each task requires.  

These guidelines may also be determined by the needs of the project itself. So whether or not you believe a task requires more effort if there is a short deadline, Parkinson's law dictates that the task can be achieved within that given time frame. 

Of course, this isn't true in every case. Some tasks really do require additional time for creation, revision, and approval. That's why this law works for the opposite issue, too — providing too much time for a task can lead to the task being done with more effort than what is required, making it more complex than it was to begin with. 

When we talk about Parkinson's law and productivity, we have to strike a balance between allotting the time necessary to complete a task and not overdoing it so that the extra time makes the task harder to complete. Trimming the fat is a good analogy for this. When you trim the fat off of your project schedule, you make it easier for team members to get to the meat of the assignment. 

Examples of Parkinson's law

A great example of Parkinson's law in action that most people can relate to is student syndrome. Student syndrome is when a person waits to complete a task until the night before it's due. In some cases, that could mean the hour before a meeting for even a day or two later if they can sense the deadline won't be enforced.  If we can assume that most professionals still succumb to student syndrome from time to time, then we can apply Parkinson's law to help them deliver work as needed.

Here are some examples:

  • Asking someone to return a signatory form within 24 hours of receipt rather than leaving it open-ended.
  • Assigning a task that normally takes a week and giving it a three-day window instead. 
  • Condensing a client project timeline from six months to three months.

Is it possible to overcome Parkinson's law?

Yes, it is possible to overcome Parkinson's law. Aside from knowing that the work itself can become more complex the more time you give it, understanding the psychology behind procrastination is also a key factor in using this idea to your advantage. 

Procrastination is not a modern concept. In fact, even the ancient Greeks and Romans warned against it. So we know this has more to do with the way our brains function than modern vices such as social media and cell phones. 

Procrastination plagues all of us at some point. However, there are some telltale signs of whether or not someone is likely to put things off until the last minute. The biggest of which has to do with mental health. People who are prone to procrastination tend to have higher levels of stress and anxiety. This translates to their personal lives (missing appointments, putting off large yet necessary purchases, etc.) and their professional lives (delaying follow-ups, sending work in late, etc.). 

If a project manager is able to identify some of these symptoms among their team, they can strategically apply Parkinson's law in a way that helps these individuals prioritize.

Project managers can take this a step further and ensure that the work environment they’re curating allows employees to feel relaxed. That is because procrastination isn't simply a mental obstacle — it's also an emotional one.  If project deadlines are unrealistic and tasks are mounting, a strategic product manager would be wise to consider the emotional state of their team before using Parkinson's law to boost productivity.

How can you boost productivity using Parkinson's law?

The concept of Parkinson’s Law is that by setting deadlines that are significantly shorter than they were previously, you can become extremely productive and avoid getting bogged down by deadlines that are too long. It helps you find shortcuts, avoid procrastination, and focus on actions that matter.

But how do you actually use it to boost productivity? Cut your estimated project timelines and task allotments in half. 

This will allow you to complete your tasks or projects in half the time it normally would take. If you or your teammates still can’t make a new deadline, it means that everyone is too busy and you need to loosen up the deadline for the next time. When you give someone half the amount of time they are used to completing a task, they will likely still turn it in as requested, thanks to creative solutions they wouldn’t have thought of before. 

Aside from focusing on your daily tasks, applying Parkinson's Law can also help you reach bigger goals and projects. If you decide to cut the deadline for a project or goal in half, it may seem impossible at first, but it can be done. For example, instead of giving yourself a deadline of one year, try to reach your goal in six months instead. This strategy will help you save time and make you more productive. Remember, the more time you give yourself, the more time you waste doing non-essentials.

Another great way to apply Parkinson's law is using your project management solution. With visual timelines, your team will be able to see how much work is left. They will also be able to see the difference between how much effort one task takes compared to another.

You can even set micro deadlines within individual tasks. In Wrike, users can add due dates to individual tasks within a project. Productivity coach Alyssa Coleman has suggested in her goal-getting workshops that you can go a step further and add reminders at the halfway point of your goal. If that task or phase hasn’t started by that date, it will kickstart your team into remembering that they now only have half as much time as they did before. 

This can help overcome the psychological barriers of procrastination. Wrike users also have the ability to automate reminders within their project planning to save you time on following up at the beginning, middle, and end of every major task. 

Using Parkinson's law in project management

Remember, it’s never too late to improve productivity, so give your team a helping hand by using Parkinson’s law the right way. Here are some practical ways to use Parkinson’s law in project management. Apply these tips to active and ongoing projects now or in the future:

  • Cut deadlines by 50% for every project and related task. Use historical data, team input, and task timers to find out how long each step normally takes, then cut it in half. 
  • Add buffer room for each task without putting it on the schedule. For example, if you absolutely need a deliverable by Friday, ask your team to deliver it by Wednesday or Thursday. That way, even if they are behind, you’ll still be on track. 
  • Encourage employees to work smart, not harder. If the point is to get the test done, make that clear. If the task needs to be done with an extra amount of detail or complexity, make that clear too. 
  • Remember to read the room. Imposing tight deadlines on an already overwhelmed team and further procrastination rather than support productivity.
  • Encourage employees to keep a productivity journal. This offers holistic benefits for their life as a whole and keeps them in the right headspace for work. 

Start a free two-week trial of Wrike and use the Parkinson’s law productivity tips we provided to overcome procrastination and reliably deliver products by working smarter, not harder.