Parkinson’s Law and the Pull of a Deadline

It was like a nightmare. I was entering a $100,000 essay contest, and it was deadline day, with plenty of work still to do. Then I noticed with horror that the deadline was not midnight, as I’d thought, but midday.

My first draft was written, but it still needed a lot of work. I’d planned to spend all day polishing it—a nice, leisurely 14 hours or so. I now had two hours.

Deadline 1, Caffeine 0

Here’s the thing, though. When I thought I had until midnight, my mind felt foggy, I couldn’t concentrate, and I was slowly working through the manuscript while succumbing to endless distractions and diversions. I drank coffee, but it didn’t seem to have any effect.

When I realised that I only had until midday, however, I suddenly became an essay-writing machine. I focused in on the text and found myself seeing problems and devising solutions with perfect clarity. I did only what was necessary, and accomplished that with speed and precision.

In less than two hours, I pulled a decent but disorganised first draft into an essay I was proud of—and I had time to double-check everything and send in all the materials with almost half an hour to spare.

Parkinson’s Law in Action

I wonder what would have happened if the deadline had indeed been midnight. Would my essay have been better or worse?

Logic dictates that the end result would have been better in 14 hours than two. I would have had more time to make improvements, to go through a series of drafts and make the essay the best it could be.

But we’re not logical creatures, are we? (If you’re not sure about that last statement, just go and switch on the TV news for a minute or two, and then come back and continue reading.) I think it’s possible that my two highly focused hours produced a better result than 14 unfocused, distracted hours.

I’ve made my living as a freelancer for over a decade now, so I do have a certain amount of discipline. I don’t always leave things to the last minute—I know that I must work consistently if I want to survive. But I also know that a looming deadline sharpens the mind and removes all the excuses and evasions in a heartbeat.

One thing I know for sure is that I would never have finished the essay in two hours. I would have spent most of the day on it—probably not going right up to the midnight deadline, but certainly working late into the afternoon or evening.

It’s an example of Parkinson’s Law, which I first learned about from my high-school history teacher, Dr. Thompson:

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

If you have 14 hours, you’ll take 14, even if it’s possible to complete the task in two. You don’t necessarily waste all that extra time, but you do invent a lot of extra steps. Some of those extra steps may be useful, but others simply add complexity. My deadline was a sudden reversal of Parkinson’s Law, stripping away all that extra complexity and reducing the task to the bare minimum.

Past Form

This is not the first time I’ve noticed this kind of effect. At university, I usually had one essay to write every week. At first, I filled the whole week with that task, dutifully acting out Parkinson’s Law.

Then, one week, I was busy with whatever things seem important and urgent to an 18-year-old history student with no real commitments, and I had to write the whole essay in one day.

The result? More clarity, more focus, and a better end result.

Parkinson's Law: "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."

Years later, it was National Novel Writing Month that gave me the spur to write my first published novel from start to finish in a single hyper-focused month, when before I’d been grappling for years with something much longer and more complex, with worse results.

Speed Isn’t Everything

I’ve focused a lot in this post on speed, but of course that’s not the goal of life. Faster is not necessarily better.

That’s probably why I took much longer to write my second novel, and I’ve been writing even more slowly since then. I think it’s fine for a novel to take years to write. My first novel was deliberately impressionistic and improvised, so the compressed writing time worked. It wouldn’t work for every project.

There’s pleasure to be had in taking your time, ruminating on ideas, slowly developing your points and reaching your conclusion. I wouldn’t always trade that for a deadline-induced productivity binge.

But it’s useful to know, when I need to pull out all the stops, that Parkinson’s Law can be reversed. If it’s possible for a task to expand to fill the time available, it’s also possible to compress that task back down again by limiting the available time.

Does any of this resonate with you? Let me know if you’ve found any useful tricks for reversing Parkinson’s Law without having to rely on misreading a deadline.

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There are 6 comments

    1. Thanks Roni! I probably won’t win the $100,000, but at least I learned a thing or two in the process 🙂 It’s great to hear from you—hope you and Peter are doing well!

  1. I completely resonated with this post. And I am with you on being productive in shorter duration. Of late I have come to depend on lists with timelines to keep me on my toes and I have arrived at the same results. I also found that last minute ( real or self inflicted) panics are the best for both creative and repetitive tasks, surprisingly. I will share this post and ask my friends what they think of this as well.

    1. That’s good to hear, Gayathri! I like the idea of using tools like lists and timelines to be productive in shorter duration – that way, it should be possible to have the compressed time without leaving everything to the last minute. I’ll give that a try.

      And thanks for sharing! Do let me know what your friends say about it.

  2. There’s a lot I relate to in this piece! I do tend to – especially with creative writing – allow the work to fill whatever time I think that I have. That’s a habit I’ve been really trying to shift out of, over the past year or so. Trying to find a balance between helpful procrastination (to build up the kind of energy, intensity you describe) and out-and-out panic (or paralysis, especially with general calls like this one where you really don’t HAVE to submit). Will you revisit this piece, after the panic has faded, to see if you still believe it’s a solid submission, or whether you might wish you had taken more time after all?

  3. Yes, balance is the key, isn’t it? As I mentioned, there are times when I like taking my time and spending half an hour finding just the right word, and I wouldn’t want to be hyper-productive but stressed all the time. I think I will revisit the piece as you suggest, and it’ll be interesting to see what it looks like in the cold light of day. But for now I’ll leave it alone for a bit 😉

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