You’re at work on a Wednesday afternoon, you’re hustling because you only have two hours until the big presentation. You work down to the wire, but right before the meeting starts, you’re ready, you’ve done it! It might not be perfect, you wish you had more time, you always do, but at least you won’t get fired.
What if the presentation had been on Tuesday rather Wednesday? Would you have canceled and demanded an extra day because that was just not enough time? Absolutely not, you would have made it work, and guess what, the presentation would have likely been of similar quality (assuming you didn’t get additional inputs on Wednesday).
This phenomenon has actually been studied and identified, it’s called Parkinson’s Law.
Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion
I know this all too well, as a financial analyst for a Fortune 50 company. We are often asked to run slightly different analysis on the same data, or to do countless WIFs (What if scenarios) for every conceivable possibility. The funny thing is, rarely does all this additional work actually change the recommendation, but it’s always “nice to have.”
So why spend all the time doing this work if it doesn’t change the outcome? Well, the answer is simple, companies have hoards of employees sitting in cubicles who need work to do. If employees weren’t held to the standard Monday through Friday 8:00-5:00 working schedule, but rather had the directive to “work as long as it takes to do your job” there is no way the average job would require 40 hours a week and no need for as many employees.
How is it possible that the standard working week for professionals is 40 hours a week? Do all jobs just happen to magically require the exact same amount of time, a “golden triangle” of sorts? No! Work will always fill up the time we give it!
There have been times that I have spent weeks working on a presentation (of course not consistently, but it’s always there nagging me in the background). However, as soon as someone actually asks me for the presentation, I manage to complete it that same day, crazy right?
As a big fan of Tim Ferriss’ The 4 Hour Work Week, I am not at all shocked that one of his major recommendations is to negotiate a work from home agreement with your employer. If you work out of sight, then you would be incentivized to do your job in the least amount of time possible.
This all got me thinking, does Parkinson’s Law have any other applications? And the answer is yes. To convey this, I will give you another definition of Parkinson’s Law-
The demand upon a resource tends to expand to match the supply of the resource
We constantly hear that wages are stagnating, people can’t get ahead, too many people are living paycheck to paycheck. And of course, this makes perfect sense, since everyone makes the exact same amount of money, lives in similarly priced areas, and has identical family dynamics… wait, now I’m confused?
The problem is easy to detect, people are good at finding a way to spend all the money they make, and soon enough, that spending seems to be so essential that there’s no way to cut it. That’s how someone making $33,000 a year, and another person making $150,000 a year can be barely “scraping by.” So you can understand why I find it humorous when I hear someone say, “I can’t afford to save any more than $X a month.” There are some people living off $7,000 a year (see Early Retirement Extreme) and people like Johnny Depp who spend $2M a month.
Don’t be another unknowing victim to Parkinson’s Law.
If you had to do that project in half the time, could you? If you could pull that off, is there something more worthwhile you could do with the remaining time, rather than doing whatever we do to eat up 40 hours a week at work?
If you had to live off 50% of your take-home pay, how would you do it?
Don’t be a sheep, and don’t be a victim, take control your time and your resources. As you work to consciously get ahead of Parkinson’s Law, you will be able to live a more deliberate and meaningful life.