You may not be familiar with Parkinson’s Law by name, but chances are you’re well acquainted with the concept. Cyril Parkinson was a British naval historian and author turned public administration and management scholar. His most popular book, Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress, was published in 1958. The fundamental ideas that shaped his theories still apply today, and can help guide us as we aim to manage our time more effectively, and conduct better meetings.
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The “law” is really more of an adage, it goes like this: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
Before thinking about modern implications or applications of this concept, another of Parkinson’s ideas is worth a mention. Parkinson’s law of triviality which argues that organizations tend to give disproportionate weight to trivial issues.
So, two things feel true here. First, we tend to spend as much time on a task as we allow for it. If you set aside an hour to work on a letter, you’ll spend an hour working on that letter. But, if you’d set 15 minutes aside, could you have finished it in that amount of time? Second, organizations tend to focus too much on issues that aren’t of huge import — and we can assume they devote too much time to these trivial issues as well.
There is so much discussion these days about meetings, and rightfully so. Meetings seem to be a real productivity and morale killer, and a lot of people are thinking about how we can do better. Also, there is an equal or greater amount of clamoring about time management. With so many of us feeling overworked, overstressed, and like there isn’t nearly enough time in the day to complete everything that needs to get done — a lot of people are thinking about new strategies to maximize their efficiency. Here are a few ideas that might help us make meaning, and use, of Parkinson’s ideas.
1. Plan your time carefully.
Think about how much time each of your tasks is really worth. Should you spend 25 percent of your day composing that memo? Are the objectives it’s addressing worth that amount of time? Determine how long a task should take based upon its importance, not the nature of the task itself. Then, schedule that task accordingly. So, what you’re doing isn’t writing a memo — it’s addressing an issue, and you’re doing that through writing a memo. Think about setting aside an amount of time that is in proportion to the importance of the goal itself. The task will take you as long as the time you set aside to complete it. So, try thinking about how long a project or task will/should take a little differently.
2. Also, schedule other people’s time with these ideas in mind.
Let’s say you’re going to host a meeting. Consider how long each agenda item should take, and resolve to keep the meeting limited to that length of time. Remember, if you make the meeting longer, the same amount of work will get done, you’ll just spend more time on it. Now, think about the other people in this future meeting. Are these tasks worth that amount of time to them? Keep in mind that if 10 people are spending five minutes on something, 50 minutes of time is actually being used. One of the biggest frustrations around meetings stems from the fact that they’re seen as a waste of time. Try to limit that as much as possible.
3. Apply these concepts to other aspects of office life.
These factors will vary by industry, so think about what’s right for you. One idea that could apply to many folks relates to space. Maybe, work expands to cover the space provided, too. Think about your workspace: your desk, office, or cubicle. You might think that if you had a bigger desk, or more shelving, that you’d be better organized. The truth is, you’d probably just have more piles, because you’d have more places to put them.
Use what you have efficiently — time, space, etc. That is the essence of Parkinson’s wisdom. Managing our time, and organizing our meetings, with mindfulness toward the importance of goals rather than the completion of tasks could make a huge difference in overall productivity and morale.
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