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Understanding Parkinson’s Law: Tips on Avoiding Task Expansion and Managing Deadlines

By applying these time and task management tips and comprehending Parkinson's law, you can avoid taking on more work than necessary, meet deadlines, and become more productive.

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The bottom line
  • In contrast to procrastination, which entails putting things off until later, Parkinson’s Law centers on the inherent tendency for work to grow in relation to the allocated time.
  • Individuals may enhance productivity when motivated by the scarcity or abundance of time, particularly in the face of tight deadlines.
  • Various time management techniques that help prioritize tasks, maintain concentration, and achieve efficient task completion, including the Pomodoro, Eisenhower matrix, and Pareto principle, can be implemented in managing Parkinson’s law.
  • An effective strategy to avoid task expansion and to provide a clear path for progress is to break down big tasks into smaller, more manageable parts.

Table of Contents

Did you know that, on average, a blog post takes just 3 hours and 51 minutes to write? It seems like a manageable timeframe, right? Yet, as you read this, consider the journey it took to completion. Despite the initial expectation of wrapping it up in half a day, the reality unfolded quite differently. With the excessive time spent researching, outlining, and writing—even thinking of the title—it took maybe half a day to find the right one. Plus, with the distractions of emails, social media checks, starting other tasks, and intermittent breaks, a week passed before the article reached its conclusion, still barely within the given timeframe.

This phenomenon, where work expands to fill the time available, was humorously named by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in 1955 in a defining piece published in The Economist. In his clever investigation, the now-famous axiom was born: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Essentially, it encapsulates the tendency to make a task last longer than necessary in order to finish it in the given time, even though there may be more efficient ways to do it. Since then, Parkinson’s Law has perfectly summed up how we do things at home, at work, or in school.

As learners, you have probably experienced the stress of trying to complete multiple assignments, tests, and projects all within strict time constraints; hence, you might benefit from comprehending this phenomenon. By the end of this post, you will have a better grasp of Parkinson’s law, its origins, and how to overcome this common obstacle.

The history of Parkinson’s law

Cyril Northcote Parkinson, a British naval historian and author, introduced Parkinson’s Law through his essay “Parkinson’s Law—Or the Rising Pyramid” in The Economist back in 1955. This essay laid out satirical observations that eventually became known as Parkinson’s Law. Originally, it playfully critiqued bureaucratic inefficiency by humorously noting the British Civil Service’s tendency to grow disproportionately complex and less efficient over time. Applied to committees and staff, the law amusingly suggests that work expands to fill available resources, regardless of the actual workload.

Parkinson illustrated this with a simple fictional example involving a woman assigned the simple task of sending a postcard. Given the entire day, she stretched each step, spending hours searching for postcards, finding her glasses, and even deciding on bringing an umbrella. While the task could have taken half an hour, Parkinson’s Law came into play as the woman extended each step unreasonably long. Thus, her “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” While the axiom specifically refers to “time,” it could also be applied to other resources at hand, such as materials or manpower.

The concept gained traction when Parkinson expanded his ideas into the book “Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress” in 1957. It transcended its bureaucratic origins, becoming a widely cited concept in discussions about time management, productivity, and task completion. Beyond bureaucratic settings, people started applying it to various life aspects, recognizing its relevance in personal, educational, and professional spheres.

a girl holding a pencil between her nose and lip and a man sleeping on the table next to her.

Parkinson's law explained

Parkinson’s Law, or the tendency for work to fit time and resources, is an observed habitual behavior, not a scientific principle. It’s humorous and exaggerated in nature, but its value doesn’t diminish as a concept that prompts reflection on time utilization and efficiency. In fact, several studies have been conducted using this principle and found significant results.

While lacking a specific foundation in psychology, Parkinson’s law potentially relates to an individual’s motivation. Psychology defines motivation as the internal or external elements that encourage people to do certain things, achieve goals, and persevere. It’s a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors that energize, direct, and sustain purposeful actions. In addition to shaping behavior, motivation also affects decision-making and the level of dedication people show in reaching their goals. And Parkinson’s law shows that people can be motivated by time and tasks.

People are motivated to do something by the amount of time available for them or the lack thereof. When time is abundant, there may be a tendency to spread efforts thinly, but with a looming deadline, people may concentrate more on the task at hand, leading to increased productivity. As deadlines approach, the perceived scarcity of time creates a sense of urgency, prompting individuals to allocate their cognitive resources more efficiently and prioritize tasks. So, some might say that people who have to meet tight deadlines really do accomplish their tasks.

In the context of time as a motivator, procrastination tendencies are closely related to Parkinson’s Law. However, it is important to understand the difference between the two. To procrastinate is to willingly put off doing something that needs doing, usually in favor of something that is less demanding or more enjoyable. However, Parkinson’s Law is not about putting things off; it is about how the work tends to grow or shrink depending on the time available.

When it comes to tasks as motivation for Parkinson’s law to take place, take a look at how a person looks at the tasks at hand. People tend to devote more time and energy to tasks that they value highly or that evoke strong emotions and less time and energy to tasks that they view as less important. Similar to the 80/20 rule or the Pareto principle, people can maximize their existing time and energy by concentrating on the activities that lead to their goal the most.

the girl with the pensive face is building a pyramid out of paper cups.

1. Set specific goals.

Organize your study goals into clear, doable steps. Aim for excellence, but be realistic about what you can expect so that you do not waste time or make the task bigger than it needs to be.

2. Set realistic deadlines.

Giving yourself clear, attainable due dates creates a sense of urgency that fights the urge to tardily complete tasks. Plan to finish a task in a reasonable amount of time instead of giving yourself all day. This will keep you focused without making you put things off.

3. Utilize other time and task management techniques.

  • Pomodoro technique
    Put the Pomodoro technique into practice. It calls for 25-minute bursts of concentrated study time separated by 5-minute breaks. Establishing firm time constraints aids focus and dispels the illusion of an endless study session.
  • Eisenhower matrix
    Sort your to-do list by due date and significance using the Eisenhower matrix. Prioritizing and completing high-priority tasks first guarantees the efficient completion of essential work.
  • Pareto principle or 80/20 rule
    Prioritize your work using the 80/20 rule or Pareto Principle by figuring out what you need to do to get the most done. Pay close attention to the most important ideas or assignments that will ensure the successful completion of your work, prioritize them, and use your time wisely.

4. Use time blocking.

Make use of time blocking to divide up your day into distinct blocks and devote each one to a particular subject or activity. To prevent spending more time than necessary on some tasks, time blocking entails setting aside designated periods for specific activities rather than managing tasks on a to-do list without a deadline.

a man lying on a yellow couch looking at his phone.

5. Break down large tasks.

If you are faced with large tasks or assignments, divide them into smaller, easier-to-handle parts. This keeps tasks from getting bigger and also gives you a clear path forward.

6. Have an accountability partner.

Get a study partner or a mentor and talk about your study objectives and due dates. By establishing mutually agreed-upon deadlines and regularly checking in with one another for progress, having an accountability partner can serve as a powerful motivator and curb procrastination.

7. Use a planner.

Make a solid timetable and track your progress with the aid of a planner. An extra perk is that you can tailor your planner to your preferences and use it to divide up bigger objectives into smaller, more manageable chores.

8. Use productivity tools.

Look into apps and tools that can help you be more productive and better at managing your time. Focusing apps, task management apps, and time-tracking apps can help you stay on top of things and not get too stressed out.

Productivity tools that can help schedule and set deadlines

A number of resources are at your disposal if you are experiencing difficulties with time management or if the majority of your assignments lack firm due dates. It is always a good idea to use a planner, but here are some other tools that can help you get things done that focus on time management and setting deadlines. In dealing with Parkinson’s Law, these tools can be especially useful.

  • Todoist – Easily incorporate time blocking into your routine with Todoist, a flexible tool for managing tasks that lets you schedule and prioritize them.
  • Google Calendar – One of the most popular online calendar tools is Google Calendar, which lets you plan events, add reminders, and share your schedule with others. Simple and easy to use, it is perfect for everyone.
  • Microsoft Outlook Calendar – Schedule events, set reminders, and collaborate with others with the help of Microsoft Outlook Calendar, which is part of the Outlook email platform.
  • TrelloTrello is a great visual tool for managing projects and tasks because it uses boards, lists, and cards. Those looking for a visual and flexible method to organize their tasks will find it to be an excellent tool.
  • AsanaAsana is an app for managing projects that lets you schedule tasks, keep tabs on your progress, and collaborate with your team. Users can also set up dependencies between tasks or see how different tasks in a project are connected, which shows the order in which they need to be done.


Learning is a process that requires investment of time and resources. Striking a balance between meeting deadlines, getting work done, and learning new things has always been a challenge. By understanding the psychology behind tight deadlines, using useful tips to break down goals, and planning how to deal with procrastination, learners can become more productive and efficient in their studies. Remember, in mastering the art of productivity, it’s not enough to simply know how to manage your time; you also need to know how time affects your attitude and behavior.