Do you remember the times when you had the choice of doing the right, or rather productive, thing? However you had these couple of other things to do that were, well, really convenient…and then you decided to just go for those “alternatives” just so you could feel you were being productive?
Don’t get me wrong, though. I’m not talking about the productive stuff only. Even though apparently this topic has been written about to death, this law doesn’t cover productivity only.
Parkinson’s Law could be the only thing that’s destroying your life right now. Because everything can be Parkinsoned. Including the “downtimes” that well complement your “uptimes.” (I’ll talk about this later.)
Parkinson’s Law: A Review
Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
I guess you’ve heard that a million times. There are a couple of good arguments about it…especially that, apparently, Parkinson’s Law is being misunderstood (or so they say) by a lot of people.
For example, we could say there totally isn’t a correlation between the million things you have to do, and the time to get them all done. A huge problem often overlooked is the anxiety that comes about when you’re being presented with (or commissioned to accomplish) those million things.
This has been observed and ridiculed in the working environment…especially when office politics is involved. And perhaps it isn’t just the anxiety. It’s the laziness, too. Whichever comes first can be a good case of Catch 22.
You can read the original article by C. Northcote Parkinson here. To sum it up, though, as short as I can, Parkinson’s Law goes something like this:
- Mr. Rightful Official thinks he’s probably going to need someone to help him in accomplishing his oh-so-dreadful tasks.
- Mr. Official also realizes he could just resign…or share his work with a colleague—one will do half of the job, the other one the other half.
- Mr. Official decides that’s all baloney and instead goes ahead to hire two subordinates, Mr. Smarty Whynot and Mr. Hardworking Ever, because who the heck is he kidding?
There’s been a report about the “validity” of Parkinson’s Law, and indeed it was proven that the number of staff or “subordinates” do increase, sometimes at an unreasonable rate—even without an increase in actual work.
Now, imagine you’re Mr. (or Ms.) Rightful Official…because as sappy as it sounds, you are the official of your life. Anyway, you’re being presented with a lot of options to deal with things. Plus the anxiety and laziness.
You’re given an assignment you should be finishing in four weeks and what happens? You imagine all the hassles, the gut-wrenching and complicated ideas too intimidating…and the meals you have to make on the late nights…
You then go looking for the “easier” and “faster” little tasks because you’ll end up doing the inevitable anyway.
You need to finish a report but, man, you’ve done it a million times and of course you don’t want to elicit all those anxiety and fears as if it were your first time…and then off you go with the same patterns: you sit in the lazy boy and watch your favorite melodrama in your attempt to rather “relax.”
Or heck, just think of something that’s not even work-related you need or want to be doing right now. Say, paying your old grandparents, or parents, a visit. Or going swimming with your kids (which you promised a few times already). Or catching up with old friends. How are you feeling about it? How has it been going? Are there “deadlines” for that kind of stuff?
Is Parkinson’s Law Part of Human Nature?
Before I go ahead with a resounding, “You betcha!” well, what isn’t part of human nature anyway? What could possibly be a very remote possibility about our human tendencies we haven’t discovered yet? What should we do to find the “untapped” potentials of the human spirit?
Yeah, yeah, I know. What the hell, Ethan?
That might have sounded vague, but that was what I was talking about earlier—that there’s always an easier way, there’s always an alternative that will give us dopamine bursts. There’s always that other thing we could be doing.
But to be doing nothing—to be damn lazy like a rock waiting for the rain to wash away dirt that’s been covering it for months—is part of human nature. And what a surprise, isn’t that the main reason why Mr. Rightful Official decided to get subordinates to “help” him instead? Has everything been exhausted already to justify his need to be helped? It always gets tricky—there isn’t really a way to prove he needs more sidekicks, and there isn’t a way to prove all he’s being anxious about.
Anxiety and Sloth: Do They Exist for Each Other?
All that said, think about some wild or weird parallelisms with these two, anxiety and laziness.
Take traffic without the traffic enforcer. Traffic flows like water. Vehicles go where there’s an opening. Why give a shit about other motorists when you’re running late already? Who cares how you drive as long as nobody’s getting hurt, right? And why don’t others go this way already so we can all keep moving, eh? The weird parallelism in this case is that you’re being too anxious about getting stuck in traffic, and being too lazy to cultivate patience.
Or take a freakin’ chair. Especially if you’re living with housemates. Notice how a beautiful but unused chair becomes a mini-shelf when placed in a room? Everybody would start thinking this goddamned chair should be something, of any use. Someone then gets first dibs and “temporarily” uses it for anything…but sitting.
Everything can be Parkinsoned.
My definition of Parkinson’s Law is therefore the following:
Vacant space—whether physically or financially or timely or anything in between—will be filled with anything except the one(s) intended, if left unguarded.
Following this logic, that vacant space, which should be filled with the right things, becomes wasted.
The 3 Elements You Need to Zero In to Defy Parkinson’s Law
By and large, there are only three things you need to stop this appalling law from doing its thing. Arguably every “productivity hack” only evolved from these three elements.
Intention is what makes you answer these questions:
- What are you supposed to be doing? What are you doing right now?
- Have you 100% accomplished it already? If not, how much of it is left?
- Why are you doing it?
You’ll notice that intention is what motivates you to be very specific. You must be very specific. Sure it could all be overwhelming. But there’s the manageable kind of overwhelming. Just think about the clusterfart you would have to go through if you’re not being specific.
Intention is identifying exactly what your goal is…and by following that goal, the sub-goals needed to achieve it. Everything forms some sort of hierarchy. You can’t be an expert in a day. You can’t finish tons of work and expect them to be of high quality when you’re still learning. But that’s not the point for now.
It’s that you must be intentional in everything you’re doing, taking it one step at a time.
Answering the why part may take some time. It can actually take a long time. But for now, you’ve got to be moving. What is an activity or sacrifice you’re willing to take right now, for a higher cause?
Part of what can give you anxiety is thinking whether the huge time investment you give for a huge project is all worth it. You might even wonder whether you’ve gotten just a bit better after that. You know about habits, but you’re not confident that habits are for you—whether those small, almost negligible efforts are somehow having a positive impact on your overall growth.
Well, that may be a different story and different way of looking at time, but remember that if you don’t do it, you will never know.
That’s why you have to develop a healthy sense of detachment when imposing deadlines upon yourself. Always keep in mind your goals—your intentions—and set serious time to work on them. This is also the perfect opportunity to not overthink things—hell, to not even think about things! Try selective ignorance. You don’t have to know everything. You just have to be clear on what needs to get done right now, and follow the timeline.
Another way to look at time is that you don’t want to be constantly bugging yourself by always worrying about this or that…which you’re also not sure about. Stop worrying! Of course it’s easier said than done especially if you have some clinical anxiety or whatnot, but it is self-care.
Set the time. Do it. Then forget about it (because you have another awesome thing to do in line).
Now this is huge.
Joel Runyon from Impossible talks about workplace popcorn strategy, in which he shows how places and environment affect one’s productivity. As I said though, Parkinson’s Law isn’t just about productivity. You could be on a (long) vacation but your mind isn’t, and you don’t know it’s already consuming you in a toxic way.
It’s just noteworthy that somehow, productivity—especially the direct one, i.e., getting things done on your desk—is mostly associated with Parkinson’s Law. It gets all the hype. Because let’s be real, productivity can be excruciating. Just think about all the time you’re “getting stuck” to do something you’re not in the mood for.
On the other hand, think about meditation for example. Where would you rather be if you really wanted the best meditation experience?
Talking about the place is very simplistic. Note that when I say place, it includes the people and things you find there. They matter a lot. For example, it’s really hard to get in the mood when you’re in a toxic environment (especially if you’ve got some anxiety like I mentioned before). Trying to quit smoking? How could you when the very nice smell of stress release always wafts wherever you go? (See? Parkinson’s Law is everywhere.)
Some Consequences You’ll Notice When You Conquer Those 3 Elements
The three elements serve as the very foundations of everything we know today as “productivity hacks.” It isn’t really that complicated. What make it unnecessarily complicated are the excuses we make, the alibis we keep telling ourselves…because we’re really only avoiding what needs to get done.
Anyway, let’s tackle some of these consequences.
Intention + Time + Place. They’re asking for your focus. Why would you go to a cafe and be rather around people who are doing things similar to what you’re doing, are not “small talking” to just about anyone, and are drinking coffee like water in a marathon?
Yup, that’s right, because you also need to finish that remote assignment, even though the deadline is still in a few days, and because you would rather be in a better mood; your apartment can get suffocating sometimes.
For whatever reason, the cafe is the best place for you to get creative…or at least be in better “work mode.” You’re only helping yourself. And you’ll be there with only one or two goals in mind, without the distractions at home you have yet to deal with.
You “Force” Yourself
There are many ways to “force” yourself into doing things…or not doing things. Think blackmail. That’s right. Sign a check and give it to your most trusted friend and tell them to cash it in if you don’t accomplish a big (or small) goal.
Or maybe make promises you would be embarrassed about. Is it self-destruction? Definitely, but hopefully not. Remember the holy triad (Intention + Time + Place). Get those three right, and you could—or rather should—be forcing yourself to do things. Amazing things even.
Say you’re feeling like your blood pressure is shooting up already because:
- you’ve been working six to seven days a week
- you’re not having exercise except the short walks you take from your car to the house and office
- you’ve been sleeping in…for work
Then finally you intend to seriously take a break, like a couple of days leave, in which you tell people you’ll be unreachable during those days, and you’ll be taking nothing with you on that sweet vacation. By this time do you think it’s easy to force yourself into a vacation? If it is, then good for you. Things work-related could still stress you out if you’re not being careful.
You Become More Free
It’s a paradox that although those three elements restrict you in perhaps many ways, they free you from a lot of the noise and distractions that are keeping you from moving forward in the first place.
Think for a moment about an activity you loved when you were younger. I’ll use song-writing, for example. Just think about yours because somehow it works the same way no matter what it is.
Say you really loved writing songs back then that with just a guitar and pen and paper, you were able to do it—even though you were busy with your new job or you had other obligations with a starting career. You just wanted to write songs, so you set the time and place you couldn’t be disturbed, even when the moment was quick.
If you think about things like this, isn’t it amazing how you’ve managed to produce or create stuff out of nowhere, and amidst the noise? I know I find it amazing. With all the technological distractions in this age, I realize having fewer options in the days of yore was actually a big deal because nothing was really stopping you from doing what you wanted to.
Back here in the present, nothing’s actually changed that much. Because that we’re in a much more distracted world isn’t the point. It’s inevitable. Freedom relies, paradoxically, on how we restrict ourselves—it’s the truth of this wisdom that has not changed.
Now Let’s Talk about the “Not Productivity” Stuff
A huge part, or counterpart, of productivity is all the other things you do on a daily basis. My argument is that even these little comfortable experiences must also be guarded against the evil Parkinson’s Law.
I personally relate to these things.
Come to think of it, there’s an extension to the law called the Law of Triviality. In short, this law states that the most important aspects of a project (or meeting), which are usually the most difficult to tackle as well, tend to be avoided for the, well, trivial stuff. Like what kind of coffee everybody should be drinking.
When you find yourself in busywork, you might be under this kind of spell. You see how awesome an undertaking is going to be but subconsciously you’re avoiding the very aspects that make it awesome. You may be overthinking things at this point. So try not to think about everything and focus on the work.
Part of the reason one’s overthinking is that they don’t set boundaries on when and where to think. (Sound familiar?) They don’t at least try to get real busy on work that matters and allow such thoughts that slow them down.
Make some time to think about something particular, but make sure to end it on this day, and then modify your schedule to have another time for reflection.
Like the chair-turned-mini-shelf, minimalism can also be Parkinsoned. It’s not that you should be stressing yourself out with minimalism. (Oh, the irony!) It’s just that minimalism is very prone to this law. Just imagine being one of those minimalists (if you aren’t already) with nothing in their house except the few things they only really need. Of course nothing is the space Parkinson’s Law so loves to fill.
Now I don’t identify as a hardcore minimalist, but I love its philosophy—that it isn’t only physical clutter you’re getting rid of, but also mental and emotional and spiritual clutter. Minimalism gets rid of distractions, thus leaving you sufficiently bare—to do what you have to do.
Perhaps Parkinson’s Law is the antithesis of minimalism after all, but it’s still something to watch out for. Practical questions you could use are: What’s in your bedroom? What’s in the living room? Did you use everything you have in the last one or two years? Are you happy keeping all of them?
If not because of my sleep problems, I might have not started my regular workout schedule. Yeah that might be a lame reason to exercise, but it’s working for me. I’m (unfortunately) a night owl, and it’s easy to just sleep in and wreak havoc on the following days.
Be wary of comfort. Maybe you’re having too much of it. Especially if you have the privilege of having it. Parkinson’s Law will take place and important things will get (further) delayed.
An Idle Mind
If you don’t have goals, deadlines, and a compelling why, the idle mind can be easily summoned. And if, like me, you get random compulsive thoughts, a lot of things can go in there. This is an avenue in which people couldn’t finish what they’ve started—they don’t set a time frame for everything and as a result a lot of daydreaming and wishful thinking and whatnot happen. Of course, to no avail.
The Only Way to Master Intention, Time, and Place
Anything you do, whether you have to do it or not, is most probably out of habit, even if you don’t realize it.
Habits will be the only thing that can fight the ever-oppressive Parkinson’s Law. (Yeah, it’s those small, almost negligible habits. They do have an impact.) Of course they must be based on a set of honorable values you believe in. Otherwise they’ll be based on Parkinson’s Law itself.
Think about it for a while: Work or productivity or anything along those lines is, really, only a part of your daily routine. What do you honestly do when you’re resting? When you’re (over)thinking? When you’re supposed to be having fun? When with friends?
Sometimes you’ll feel that building habits is being tyrannical with yourself, especially if you’re one who’s got a long history of building terrible ones. But to let go of undesirable things, you have to somehow restrict yourself. It’s not that you’re torturing yourself—it’s just that you haven’t gotten used to it yet—to a life of self-discipline.
And besides, not everything in life is about being productive, even if you’re trying to live out those eight to 12 working hours a day. You’ll need balance, and what better way to defy Parkinson’s Law than to build better habits—the system that exists exactly for it?