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Parkinson's Law

C. Northcote Parkinson wrote one of the most famous of all business laws in his book Parkinson’s Law:

“Work expands to fill the time available”.

This law can be reframed to cover a host of other situations as well, such as “Expenditure expands to fill the income available”, “Files expand to fill the storage space available”, etc,etc.

As a life coach my biggest challenge was usually not to get my clients to do things, but to stop them from doing things — so many things that they don’t have time for what is really important to them. We all tend to rush around in a continual state of stress, feeling that we can never call our lives our own. Yet the horrible truth is that we could probably do our work in a fraction of the time it is taking us at the moment — and do it more effectively.

How can we do this?

The first step is to reduce the time available. If you are consistently working long hours, then try shortening them drastically. This will force you to concentrate on the things that are important. (It will also give you time to live the rest of your life).

Second, apply this principle to individual projects as well as to your overall work. Give yourself as short a deadline as possible to finish each project and see what happens!

If you don’t believe this will work, consider the following scenario. Imagine you have kept all day free to finish a report. You have nothing else to do that day but work on it. What usually happens in such a case? Answer: you spend all day working hard at verifying figures and perfecting the layout and finally get the report finished at about 6 p.m.

But consider this: what would happen if your boss called you at the beginning of the day and said: “Sorry, change of plan, I need the report on my desk in two hours time.” What would happen? You’d have the report on her desk in two hours time, that’s what!

Third, keep asking yourself the question “Why am I doing this this way?” and even better “Why am I doing this at all?” Go on a hunt for useless time-wasting practices that serve no purpose. There are all sorts of reasons we may be doing things in a quite unnecessarily long-winded way. We may be doing them that way because we think they ought to be done that way or because we think other people would expect us to do them that way or because they’ve always been done that way or because that was the way our predecessor did them or our colleagues do them. And of course we may be doing them that way because being busy gives us the perfect excuse for not facing up to the major issues that we need to be looking at.


Take a recurring work situation that you have difficulty finding time for. It might be answering your email, dealing with paperwork, or catching up with your professional reading. Write as many endings as you can to the sentence “A way I might deal with my [email/paperwork/reading/etc.] in less time and more effectively is … “

This exercise is best done straight off the top of your head without thinking too much. It doesn’t matter if the answers make sense or not. The aim is merely to get your thinking moving. Aim to write between six and twelve endings. Repeat it every day for five days and you should have some really useful ideas.

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