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Productivity Hack: How to Escape the Clutches of Parkinson's Law

Cyril Parkinson's Law, first published in 1955, states that the more time we have to complete work, the more likely we are to procrastinate and delay it. Fortunately, there are ways to overcome Parkinson's Law and improve productivity and innovation impact.

Phil McKinney
Phil McKinney
3 min read
image of a messy desk signifying an unorganized person
Productivity Hack to Escape Parkinson's Law

In 1955, Cyril Parkinson made a statement that would forever transform how we think about productivity and innovation. Parkinson's Law, as it's called, states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. In other words, the more time we have, the more likely we are to procrastinate and delay our work. For leaders in today's fast-paced environment, Parkinson's Law poses significant challenges if not managed effectively. But what can we do to overcome it?

About Parkinson's Law

The history of Parkinson's Law dates back to the 1950s when a British historian named Cyril Parkinson observed that government bureaucracies grew in size no matter how much work they accomplished. Parkinson surmised that this was due to the natural tendency of people to expand their work to fill the time available for its completion. He wrote an essay to this effect, and Parkinson's Law was born.

Parkinson's Law is, in essence, a statement of human behavior and psychology. It suggests that people need a sense of urgency and a firm deadline to motivate them to complete work efficiently.

Actions To Take

Leaders can take several actions to avoid Parkinson's Law and, by extension, improve productivity and innovation in their organizations. Below, we'll list some of these actions:

Set firm deadlines: Parkinson's Law suggests that when people have a lot of time to complete work, they often procrastinate and delay. Setting firm deadlines for projects and tasks can eliminate this tendency, as people will be motivated to complete the work before the deadline.

Break tasks into smaller chunks: When tasks are too large and seem overwhelming, people are less likely to start them. Breaking tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks can help people get started and remain focused on the work at hand.

Encourage collaboration: Working with others can help people remain motivated and focused on the work at hand. Collaboration can also help expand ideas and create more innovative solutions.

Focus on results, not process: People often become bogged down in the process of completing work rather than focusing on results. This can lead to inefficiencies and delays. Leaders should focus on results and encourage their teams to do the same.

Eliminate distractions: Distractions are often the enemy of productivity. Leaders should take steps to eliminate distractions in the workplace, such as turning off notifications and limiting access to social media.

"Time is not a barrier to progress - by setting firm deadlines and encouraging creative problem-solving within constraints, we can unlock endless possibilities and achieve great things."

Recognizing Parkinson's Law

Parkinson's Law manifests in many real-life situations. For example, when people have a lot of time to complete a task, they often spend more time than necessary on certain aspects of the work. They might obsess over minor details or spend too much time researching instead of synthesizing information and making decisions. By recognizing these tendencies and taking steps to mitigate them, leaders can help their teams avoid Parkinson's Law and remain focused on the most critical aspects of the work.

I'm sure that most of us can recognize these tendencies in ourselves. Parkinson's Law does not indicate an ineffective team or poor leadership. It is human nature. What's important is that we recognize it and take action to fight against it. With the right strategies in place, leaders can help their teams remain productive and innovative in this fast-paced world.

Parkinson's Law and Innovation

Parkinson's Law can manifest itself in innovation more readily than in other organizational areas. When a project has been given an unlimited time frame, people will become complacent and fail to take risks. By establishing deadlines, leaders can encourage innovation and new thinking by giving team members constraints within which to work and be creative.

These innovation constraints could include time limits, budget limits, or a limited number of resources. By implementing these limitations and encouraging creative problem-solving within them, teams can be motivated to find more efficient solutions and push the boundaries of what's possible in their work. I have found that adding what some would consider an extreme time constraint will incentivize people to think differently and creatively to find new solutions and thus avoid the trap of Parkinson's Law.


Parkinson's Law is a pervasive force that can hold leaders and their teams back from achieving their full potential. By recognizing the history and nature of this law, leaders can take steps to avoid its negative impact. Setting firm deadlines, breaking tasks into smaller chunks, encouraging collaboration, focusing on results, and eliminating distractions are all crucial actions that can help avoid Parkinson's Law. In conclusion, as leaders continue to innovate and drive productivity in their organizations, they must be mindful of Parkinson's Law and take proactive steps to avoid its adverse effects.

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Phil McKinney Twitter

Phil McKinney is an innovator, podcaster, author, and speaker. He is the retired CTO of HP. Phil's book, Beyond The Obvious, shares his expertise and lessons learned on innovation and creativity.


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