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« More on Parkinson & Pareto | Main | Website changes: comments invited! »

Pareto meets Parkinson

I’m reading Timothy Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Work Week at the moment, and I notice that he recommends using the Pareto Principle combined with Parkinson’s Law in order to focus one’s work so that one is achieving the maximum in the minimum time. This is very similar to what I have just been writing about in my posting DIT And Focus.

You may be more familiar with the Pareto Principle as the 80/20 Rule. This states that 80% of results are produced by 20% of the effort. This can be applied in many different ways. In a time management context you could say that 20% of your tasks produce 80% of your results. Or in a marketing context, it could be phrased as 20% of your customers produce 80% of your income. Note that the corollary is also true: 80% of your customers produce only 20% of your income!

By concentrating on the 20% that produce the results and jettisoning the other 80% you can greatly increase your productivity.

I expect most of you are familiar with Parkinson’s Law:

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

As I have often said, if you are struggling to fit all your work into the day, the solution is to set limits on your working hours. This forces you to be more selective in what you do and more efficient in how you do it.

The Do It Tomorrow system works best with set working hours. If you carry out the audit procedure correctly whenever you fail to complete your Will Do list within your set hours for more than a few days, then you will be forced to narrow and define your focus. Always try to identify the 20% of actions which bring in that valuable 80% of results.

And if you gradually reduce the length of your working day, the effect will be even more pronounced. I don’t expect many of us will get down to the 4-Hour Week Tim Ferriss dangles before our eyes - but do we have any real doubt that our focus could do with a bit of improvement? How far can we go in the right direction if we use these two principles - Pareto and Parkinson?

Reader Comments (7)

"Parkinson meets Newport"

Cal Newport, of the excellent Study Hacks blog, has an excellent post where he actually reads Parkinson's book and explains the nuance behind the Parkinson's "law" and where it truly applies.

I've quoted below Cal's main argument, but the whole post is worth reading if you really want to educate yourself about the nuances of Parkinson's work.

Study Hacks » Blog Archive » Debunking Parkinson's Law
"If you read deeper into Parkinson’s work, you soon discover that he is not making a general claim on how humans procrastinate. He is, instead, summarizing a rather rigorous statistical proof he devised to explain observations of a very specific context: the British Civil Service. Parkinson, it turns out, was intrigued by the following paradox: the number of people employed in the British Colonial Office bureaucracy increased even as the British Empire imploded — an event that decreased the amount of work available.

"Parkinson’s Law is not a catch phrase, but instead a statistical model devised by Professor Parkinson to describe the factors that control the growth of bureaucracy. It’s central conclusion: growth is independent of the amount of work to be done."
July 27, 2008 at 2:01 | Unregistered CommenterMike Brown
And in my previous post, by "you" I meant "you" the blog reader, not Mark Forster. Sorry if my comments came across as arrogant. Just wanted to share this interesting take on Parkinson's Law.
July 27, 2008 at 2:03 | Unregistered CommenterMike Brown
I've noticed that I work with laser precision and efficiency right before I'm scheduled to go on vacation. Suddenly I know what the 20% is and I get it done!
July 27, 2008 at 6:15 | Unregistered CommenterAnn/One Bag Nation

I do have the advantage that I've actually read "Parkinson's Law" (I have a copy right here in my house), and I have to say that I don't agree with Cal's article. Parkinson meant the Law in exactly the way that we normally take it it to mean. Indeed he starts the essay with the example of an elderly lady taking all day to write a short letter to her sister - and feeling exhausted at the end of the day with the effort.

Cal is correct though in saying that Parkinson was not writing a self-help book but instead a humorous commentary on aspects of work life which had been revealed by statistics about the Civil Service. He would be amazed to see how fast the British Civil Service has continued along the same lines during the half-century since he wrote the essay!
July 27, 2008 at 8:48 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Ah, thank you for the clarification! 'Tis the case in this speeded-up age, I only read the summaries, never the book!
July 28, 2008 at 22:10 | Unregistered CommenterMike Brown
That's a good idea to combine the ideas of Pareto efficiency with Parkinson's Law - even if Parkinson's Law doesnt always apply. Here is a blog about why Parkinson's Law sometimes fails:
July 31, 2009 at 16:58 | Unregistered CommenterJim Tressor

I wouldn't have thought the example they give of the worker producing widgets was actually in violation of Parkinson's law. There was one more person's time available to do the work so the work expanded to fill that time. In case of manufacturing widgets that's generally speaking a good thing. In the case of paper shufflers, probably not!
July 31, 2009 at 17:09 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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