Parkinson’s Law or why we procrastinate while we can…

Management Consultants as a species are always busy. Client meetings, presentations to prepare, reports to finish, networks to be maintained, we are running all over the place. But to be fair, our level of activity varies over the year. When working on three or four client engagements at the same time our agenda’s are back-to-back from dusk till dawn. Although we might complain about this to colleagues, this is actually the best situation since we can reach a productivity level we would not thought possible beforehand.

By consequence you would expect us to have a lot of spare time in weeks with only one assignment. or in between two projects However, experience tells us this is not the case. This phenomenon has been first described by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in a now famous article in the Economist in 1955. Based on his experience with the British Civil Service he suggested that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. Half a century later this remark is known as Parkinson’s Law and has proven to be applicable in many situations.

Although I appreciate a good observation, as a Physicist (by training) I would not put Parkinson’s Law up there with the Law’s of Newton, Kepler and Einstein. Unlike these natural laws, Parkinson’s can be cheated or at least be used to your advantage. My first attempt to do so was to start timeboxing but I couldn’t cheat my own brain that easy. Knowing there was more time available, increased the time and effort put into any given task anyway.
That’s when I started planning additional activities in the same timeslots to reach for a higher productivity level during slow weeks. As “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” it proved insufficient to just put some additional actions on my to do list. For me the trick was about creating external commitments for activities and deliverables. So when my agenda shows indication of slowing down, I go out there and commit myself to do other things. Being busy with several projects at the same time is way more fun than letting work expand to the time available.

Parkinson’s observation is correct but only if you let it happen.