Reverse Parkinson Law

by Admin
Updated: July 19, 2018

A Reverse Parkinson Law suggests that efficiency improves as time becomes more restricted

If work expands to fill the time available (Parkinson’s Law), it should be possible to get the work done more quickly by doing nothing more complicated than reducing the amount of available time (Parkinson’s Law in reverse). This does work, but, like with most things, there are real world complications.

Parkinson’s law is an adage created by Cyril Northcote Parkinson as part in a humorous essay first published in The Economist in 1955 and included in his books, “Parkinson’s Law [And Other Studies In Administration]” and “Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress.” It is derived from his extensive academic and military experience.

Parkinson’s Law, or The Rising Pyramid

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

It challenged the generally accepted notion that more civil servants being hired was reflective of an increase in the amount of work that needed to be done.

Types of expansion

What is really happening as the work expands? There are two main processes:

  1. Perfection principle: It’s always possible to do something to improve the quality even though the incremental changes make less & less difference. This is an example of the law of diminishing returns.
  2. Procrastination principle: The comfort of doing something else (or nothing at all) outweighs the (dis)comfort of dealing with the task at hand so put it off until the balance is tipped by increasing pressure.

Reverse

Hints at a possible reverse effect come from Parkinson himself in the second sentence of And Other Studies In Administration when he acknowledges... the proverbial phrase “It is the busiest man who has time to spare” - which I grew up with as:

“If you want something done, ask a busy man.”

and by what is attributed to Mark Horstman as Horstman’s corollary:

“Work contracts to fit in the time we give it.“

Pressure

Arguably, Parkinson’s Law is based on the Ideal Gas Law where the product of pressure & volume of a fixed amount of a perfect gas is directly proportional to its temperature and it is accepted that the gas always fills all the available space:

Pressure × Volume ∝ Temperature

This can be usefully translated as:

Psychological pressure × Available time ∝ Urgency

For a fixed level of urgency, if you bring the deadline forward, it puts you under more pressure.

For example, if you are asked to complete in 7 hours a task that normally takes 8 hours, you might agree. It ups the pressure somewhat but it might still be possible to do it with little or no impact on quality.

However, in the real world there is no such thing as a perfect gas and the equation breaks down at extremely high pressures and very small volumes.

Too much pressure, too little time

If you are asked to complete in 15 minutes a task that normally takes 8 hours, it might not be possible to even make a start.

Any partial contribution is also likely to be of poor quality and prone to error.

The stress will be too distracting.

Getting it just right

If you are asked to complete a task in half the time it normally takes, it might be an interesting challenge - especially if the deadline is not strict.

This is my preferred technique and the key is flexible &/or staged deadlines to accommodate strict quality requirements.

More info

The full text of “Parkinson’s Law [And Other Studies In Administration]” by C Northcote Parkinson at archive.org.

“If you want something done, ask a busy person” at quoteinvestigator.com.

“How To Do More Stuff By Giving Yourself Less Time” at impossiblehq.com.

“An inverse to Parkinson’s Law?” at blogs.msdn.microsoft.com.

“The Pareto principle and Parkinson’s law” at deppmannlab.com.

Internal links

Project planning Pareto distribution Diminishing returns Go to Articles
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