Working Productively: Parkinson’s Law


And I thought a few years ago that it was something that only happened to me… when my mother told me that “you leave everything to the last minute”.
Better that later I saw that I was not the only one and that it was a terribly widespread evil – of course “evil of many, consolation of fools” they rightly say. It turns out that over the years and when one has become interested in these issues of personal productivity, you find out what one of the fundamental laws of personal productivity is. Parkinson’s law says that “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” That is to say… that it doesn’t matter what the term you have to finish a job or a project… at the last moment you will be with your tongue out.

This law has two aspects. A personal one, the one in which your mother (well, mine at least) called your attention when you had to deliver a job or you had an exam the next day and we had left it for the last moment, for the last breath. A professional, and in many cases the work we do has no end. There is always something more to do, something more to add, something to modify… But let’s analyze each of these problems a little more.
It is time to give “to Cesar what is Cesar’s.” You’re right mom, it was my fault. I leave everything to the last minute and then the rush comes. It is true that later we have taken out that phrase that takes away our responsibility… that of… “I work better when I am under pressure”. That what he comes to say is that in the end, if we have to do it, we do it. And not only that, but we get cool and we are able to say that if we had done it before, we would have done it worse. But there are many things to analyze in that chronic procrastination that we have with certain topics. In addition, and no matter how cool we get about working under pressure… let’s admit that we get a bad drool at those times… why do they cough us up?

I’m going to confess one thing to you, a couple of weeks ago I spoke with Julián to work on these contents, that we agreed on a cure and that I proposed a reissue like the one you are reading. Something that I was already thinking of doing a long time ago. Something that while I’m doing it makes me enter a magical state, a state of flow (which we’ll read about at some point) and that’s really cool… well, I’m already late and with that feeling that Parkinson is looking at me while I type.

The second variant is related to the type of work we do today, which is surely applicable in many cases, but does not exempt us from the above responsibility. Many of our jobs and our projects are finished because the delivery date arrives, because otherwise I would always do something to improve, something to polish, something to point out, something to redesign… Therefore, the only way to finish a job is ending it. Let’s take the example of Steve Jobs’s presentations, worked until exhaustion… surely if he had had one more day to rehearse and change that powerpoint sheet… (excuse the keynote)… Possibly we have to do our that productive maxim that says “done is better than perfect” to avoid these behaviors and know how to finish a job in a moment.
These two aspects, the procrastinator and the perfectionist, can be combined in a single project that can also be caused by internal and external factors (let’s not forget that we are in a society of collaboration and teamwork). That is, things are delayed not only by our inaction but also by the partner’s; and the job does not end because our client / user / boss considers that it is not finished. What if you change this here, take this away, refocus, rethink this… and nervous states close to insanity. It seems to me that all this sounds familiar to us, right?

I am not saying that this is impossible to avoid, but I recognize that I have not been able to control it and that I have to improve on this point. I guess the best I’ve found is to play with early deadlines. I mean, if the real moment of truth is Thursday, put Monday as the deadline. But beware, when you are the one who controls these deadlines… you are going to cheat. And those who know about productivity say that these strategies are not valid because your little head already knows that this is not the real date.
When I was writing these lines, I had a Swiss boss and his way of working was what avoided this problem of being late. he was the one who set the delivery date and normally put it three days before or four or two of the key date. It could happen that I didn’t even know the real key date, but he, the boss, imposed the deadline and the last three days we were with these touch-ups of… align the figures, remove a decimal, those capital letters… and the stress level was greatly reduced. Today I am re-editing these lines when I am working directly in the Parkinson’s Department. It is difficult to check the capital letters when two minutes after delivering a presentation you are modifying the most relevant data of it. It’s been almost five years and I keep falling into the same problems…

And I am going to give you another extreme example that I had very much in mind for family reasons in the days when I was originally writing the article. Imagine that one day they tell you that to do a job, an investigation they give you 3 years… but when two have passed you see that the rate of progress… was not correct. But you can request an extension of the term. And you have one more year to deliver it. In total… 4 years to deliver it. How are you the last two weeks of work? Well, up to the top and thinking that you won’t have time and trying to remember what the hell you’ve wasted time on these last 1500 days. Once you deliver it, you breathe. All that remains is to defend it and for that you have about 3 months to make a support powerpoint. Come on, the same thing won’t happen to you. But the last click you finish a few hours before the presentation. Of course, once again, your ability to work under pressure at the last minute was brutal and there was only one thing left to say… Congratulations doctor!!!

This article was first published in “Working that is a gerund” on May 31, 2015 and has been republished for n5now on February 27, 2021.

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