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A British historian famously wrote that work expands to fill available time – but what was he actually saying about inefficiency?

BBC

The ‘law’ that explains why you can't get anything done

The ‘law’ that explains why you can't get anything done

bbc.com

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It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” British naval historian and author Cyril Northcote Parkinson wrote that opening line for an essay in The

Parkinson’s Law’ took on a life of its own, forming the basis of several more essays and a book by Parkinson, leading to public lectures around the world. But what fewer people know is that Parkinson’s original intent was not to take aim at old lady letter-writers, but at a different kind of ine...

In his original essay he pointed out that although the number of navy ships decreased by two thirds, and personnel by a third, between 1914 and 1928, the number of bureaucrats had still ballooned by almost 6% a year. There were fewer people and less work to manage...

One scholar who has taken a serious look at Parkinson’s Law is Stefan Thurner, a professor in Science of Complex Systems at the Medical University of Vienna. Thurner says he became interested in the concept when the faculty of medicine at the Universi...

Thurner happened to read Parkinson’s book around the same time and was inspired to turn it into a mathematical model that could be manipulated and tested, along with co-authors Peter Klimek and Rudolf Hanel. “Parkinson argued that if you have 6% growth rate of any administrative body, the...

Parkinson pointed to two critical elements that lead to bureaucratization – what he called the law of multiplication of subordinates, the tendency of managers to hire two or more subordinates to report to them so that neither is in direct competition with the manager themself; an...

Thurner says that companies typically start with a flat hierarchy, perhaps two engineers. As the company grows, they hire assistants, who then get promoted and hire their own subordinates. “A pyramid starts to grow. One might add artificial layers that serve no purpose other than introduc...

Thurner also looked at inefficiencies in Parkinson’s original context: governments. In another study, he and his colleagues examined cabinet sizes of nearly 200 countries. They found that cabinet size was negatively correlated with government ...

To test how the size of a group affects its ability to make decisions, they created a model based on information flow networks and found that a significant change occurred when groups hit 20. “We found a realistic linking pattern of people and gave artificial committees random in...

So if the wider points Parkinson was making about bureaucracies still stand up today, what of his enduring first line? Today, while some researchers might chuckle at the mention of the ‘law’ that has come to mean so much more than its original intent, there’s also no doubt they know what it is re...

Studies in the decades since Parkinson wrote his essay have shown it has some merit. In the 1960s, researchers showed that when subjects were “accidentally” given extra time to complete a task, the task took longer t...

So, should we be imposing tougher time constraints to improve our productivity?

Humans have a limited capacity for memory, attention and fatigue – or mental bandwidth, according to Eldar Shafir, a professor at Princeton and co-author of Scarcity, a book th...

In Scarcity, Shafir and co-author Sendhil Mullainathan talk about focusing deeply on a project at the cost of other things. “When you have a deadline it’s like a storm ahead of you or having a truck around the corner. It’s menacing and it’s approaching, so you focus heavily on th...

People like to say if it wasn’t for the last minute, nothing would get done. But research shows people’s productivity is not linear,” says Elizabeth Tenney, an assistant professor at the University of Utah’s Eccles School of Business who has

So what about Parkinson’s hypothetical little old lady writing letters? If she had given herself a tighter deadline, she would’ve probably finished more quickly. But with nothing else to do all day, she finished just in time.

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