“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 Economist in 1955, but the concept known as ‘Parkinson’s Law’ still lives on today.
In his somewhat satirical essay Parkinson uses the example of an elderly lady writing a postcard to her niece. Since she has nothing else to do with her time, the otherwise simple task takes up her entire day.
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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...
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...
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...
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...
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...
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...
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 University of Vienna split into its own independent un...
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...
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.
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 ...
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, 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...
“An idea is something that won’t work unless you do.” - Thomas A. Edison
A British historian famously wrote that work expands to fill available time – but what was he actually saying about inefficiency?
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“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,” the English humorist and historian Parkinson wrote in 1955.
And it doesn’t apply only to work. It applies to everything that needs doing.
Parkinson’s second law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
Setting a micro deadline for daily tasks holds your brain accountable to the tick of the clock.
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