I recently stumbled across something called Parkinson’s Law. Originally expressed in a humorous essay published in the mid-1950s, this law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” The author, Cyril Northcote Parkinson, based this observation on his experience in the British Civil Service, and he intended this “law” to be interpreted as satire, poking fun at the highly bureaucratic manner in which his government coworkers functioned.
This law became popularized in recent years by Tim Ferriss, a self-described “human guinea pig” who rose to prominence with his best-selling book, The 4-Hour Work Week. In that book, Tim embellished Parkinson’s original language a bit, stating that “Parkinson’s Law dictates that a task will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for completion.”
But Tim wasn’t being satirical. A notorious “life-hacker” who is always looking for ways to do things faster, better, and easier, Tim is a big advocate of minimizing the time he allots to specific tasks. He emphasized Parkinson’s Law in his book, because he feels that when it’s accepted passively, it’s a mindset that works against us, making us far less efficient.
NOTE: Before I go any further, this article is *not* an endorsement of Tim Ferriss and his ongoing “life experiments.” I find him a very intelligent and intriguing person, but I also find some of his opinions and ideas to be… well, I guess “batshit crazy” is an apt term. But he’s definitely a thought-provoking guy, and I think the world is richer for having such an articulate and outspoken presence within the Zeitgeist. And I do think Tim makes some powerful points, some of which I’ll share in this post.
Parkinson’s Law and heavy drinking
I’ve definitely witnessed both the good and the bad sides of Parkinson’s Law. I have an old friend I’ll call Dave, an extremely talented guitarist who built an elaborate recording studio in his home. A very creative guy, Dave would spend countless hours working on original songs, some of which I played drums on. But I noticed he would get so caught up in making small tweaks to the parts he’d recorded, that he hardly ever actually finished a song.
The most extreme example of this was when I saw him after about a five-year hiatus during which our paths had not crossed. After exchanging some enthusiastic greetings, Dave said, “Keith, you gotta hear the latest version of that song you played on the last time you came over to my house. I just added some really cool parts to it, and it’s really coming along nicely!”
In nearly five years, my friend hadn’t yet finished a three-minute song that I’d frankly forgotten about. This was definitely a case of a task expanding to fill the time allotted to it – which in this case was all the time in the world. [Read more…]