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.
On the flip side, in the late ’90s I entered the corporate workforce as a technical writer. After a year of working my way up in our tech writing team, I was given the opportunity to work on a very challenging project: writing the manual for a completely new piece of back office software, using technology that was unfamiliar to most of the engineers in our company. The end result was to be a book more than 100 pages in length, which was due under a very challenging deadline. I immersed myself in the project, studying up on the technology and interviewing key members of the company’s brain trust. I built an outline for the manual, and began drafting the first chapter.
Then the leader of the project announced that the deadline needed to be cut in half. I now only had a few weeks to complete the manual, and there was no negotiating this.
Obviously, I reacted like any trained professional would. I went home and drank heavily.
But then I went to work. I looked at my outline, which split the book into ten chapters. I looked at the calendar, and calculated how much time I could allot to each chapter. And then I wrote the damn book.
I delivered the manual on time, and it went on to be used for years within that company. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough. And that was a key revelation for me: good enough really IS good enough, particularly in the corporate world.
The reason I was able to pull this off is that I didn’t treat the task as impossible. Instead, I treated it as a compromise – an imperfect situation in which I could only try my best. The most important part of my approach was dividing the work equally, devoting the same amount of time to each chapter. I wasn’t allowed to devote as much time as I wanted, so I compressed the scope of what I wrote, knowing that if I’d had more time, I could have gone into greater depth. I wasn’t sure this would be considered acceptable, but to me it made more sense than devoting a lot of work to the early chapters, only to have the content taper off in depth and quality as I rushed to finish it. Instead, I delivered a book that was consistent in its quality, and apparently that quality was good enough.
The magic of the imminent deadline
Although I hadn’t yet heard of Parkinson’s Law – or Tim Ferriss – I had instinctively found a truth that has informed my approach to business writing ever since. And that’s the approach Tim Ferriss preaches: to place some limits on the amount of time you devote to a task. Here’s an excerpt from The 4-Hour Work Week, in which Ferriss touts “the magic of the imminent deadline.”
If I give you 24 hours to complete a project, the time pressure forces you to focus on execution, and you have no choice but to do only the bare essentials. If I give you a week to complete the same task, it’s six days of making a mountain out of a molehill. If I give you two months, God forbid, it becomes a mental monster. The end product of the shorter deadline is almost inevitably of equal or higher quality due to greater focus.”
I’ve found Tim’s observation to be true more often than not, particularly in the corporate world. And he’s not the only one who believes this – when doing my research for this post, I encountered many others who were eager to share some clever and practical ways they had found to apply (or “hack”) Parkinson’s Law to allow them to use their time more effectively. For example:
- In this article on lifehack.org, the author suggests, “Instead of doing the leisurely 20-30 minute morning email check, give yourself five minutes. If you’re up for a challenge, go one better and give yourself two minutes.”
- On Joel Runyons’s “Impossible” website, Runyon proposes, “Instead of trying to write 1,000 words in a day, run x miles in a day, or go to the gym, make a rule to do XYZ before 10am. Get it done early and then let yourself coast. You’ll be surprised at how much this frees up the rest of your day.” Runyon also advocates the “pomodoro technique,” which for a writer basically equates to a timed writing sprint.
What’s the rush?
So why am I going on about all this? Probably the most common complaint I hear from aspiring writers is how hard it is to find time to write. And it seems a particularly apropos topic for my November post, because as most of us are aware, this is National Novel Writing Month (or, as it’s known to fans and detractors alike, NANOWRIMO).
I’ve never participated in NANOWRIMO. I find November to be just about the least convenient month imaginable to launch a major writing project; plus, I’ve always been doubtful that I could write something of a decent level of quality within such a short time.
But I’m starting to reevaluate that thinking. As the self-publishing movement has continued to grow, there are more and more examples of very successful authors who are astonishingly prolific, publishing multiple books a year – a far cry from the rate at which traditional publishing operates. And while some of that written output may seem sloppy and lacking in nuance, some of it is damn good writing, and is selling VERY well.
As a result, a whole new wave of how-to’s has emerged, touting techniques for writing more quickly. I’m reading one right now called 5,000 Words Per Hour: Write Faster, Write Smarter, and I have to say some of the author’s advice is definitely resonating. Another good one along those lines is the wonderfully titled Take Off Your Pants, which focuses on outlining books to write them faster.
NOTE: Just as I’m not endorsing Tim Ferriss, I’m not saying we should all try to write extremely fast. But if you struggle with getting your writing done, and always feel like there’s simply not enough time to do the creative work you want to do, you might want to explore some of these concepts.
Do as I say, not as I do
All this advice sounds good (at least to me), but it’s True Confessions time: the real reason I’m writing about this topic is that although I’ve become pretty adept at writing quickly in the corporate world, I haven’t successfully transferred any of those time-management skills to writing novels. I’ve never imposed a deadline on my fiction, instead treating each book I work on as an open-ended project. So in sharing this time-saving advice, I feel like the chain-smoking doctor who keeps nagging you to quit smoking.
As a novelist, I am a painfully slow writer. Both of my published novels each took well over a year to write, and the stark truth is that it’s been several years since I’ve completed a book-length work of fiction. A big reason for this is an ongoing fear of commitment on my part. My rationale has been, “Hey, if I’m going to spend a year or two on a project, I need to really REALLY believe in it.” But this mindset has resulted in a sort of creative paralysis, and I can’t see it changing unless *I* change. At this rate, I’m realizing I’m not that different than my friend Dave, always toying with an idea without ever actually finishing it.
In retrospect, I think perhaps I’ve been imposing some kind of church-and-state separation between my corporate writing and my fiction. I’ve successfully applied time constraints to my business-oriented work, and have had no qualms about using “hacks” to help me get stuff done. But I have not done so with my artistic efforts, perhaps out of a desire to keep those efforts “pure.” Ironically, the first time I heard about Parkinson’s Law was in an artistic context, in an article geared for musicians and professional recording studio engineers, touting the value of doing the final mix of all the recorded tracks of a song very quickly (Dave, are you listening?).
Like Tim Ferriss, I’m always looking for ways to improve how I work – and how I live. So now I’m going to put some serious thought into applying some time constraints to my creative efforts. Wish me luck!
How about you?
Do you impose deadlines or other constraints on your writing? Does Parkinson’s Law resonate with you? Have you explored ways to increase your productivity? Or do you simply let the Muse dictate your workflow? Please chime in, and as always, thanks for reading!
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