SDS 156: Parkinson's Law to increase Productivity

SDS 156: Parkinson’s Law to increase Productivity

Law to increase productivityHave you ever submitted the job of yours on the ‘last minute’ before a deadline? Or have chosen to slack rather than finish the job because there is spare time ahead before submission? This could be the effect of the Parkinson’s Law.

You will learn more about the Parkinson’s Law and how to break it in today’s FiveMinuteFriday episode.

Parkinson’s Law is the phenomenon of expansion of work to fill the time available for its completion. It was coined by Cyril Northcote Parkinson, a British author. It first appeared in an article which appeared in The Economist in 1955.

We may not be aware but we may have been tricked by the Parkinson’s Law at least once in our working behavior as data scientists. For many, deadlines are what give instant pressure to motivate us to work faster. So, once that deadline is set way too far from what the work really requires, you slack.

Work can be compared to gas. Naturally, gas will take up the whole space. Their molecules will distribute randomly in space. So, if you give it a big or small container, it will take up the whole space of it. Like gas, work also expands and contracts. It depends on the time we allow for it.

I thought of Parkinson’s Law when I was having a dilemma last weekend. This was when I was planning to schedule my flight to Bali. I could choose to go earlier since I am available or spend the free time doing jobs in advance. How should I use my time? Remember to always choose what could affect your priorities and goals in a good way. That is what I did.

Be mindful of how some tasks are quick to finish. The inflated time offered to you at the moment may seem ideal but you have done first the things that needed to be done. And then, you can decide what to do with the ‘real’ spare time you have. The spare time can be used for learning new stuff.  Work can be expanded and contracted so choose to do tasks efficiently.

If facing this kind of dilemma in your work, challenge yourself to finish your work earlier. Be proactive. You are in charge of the outcome of your actions. Hopefully, you learn more from listening to this episode of Super Data Science Podcast!

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This is FiveMinuteFriday episode number 156, Parkinson's Law. Welcome back to the SuperDataScience podcast. Today I've got something interesting I'd like to share with you that happened to me this week. For this story, we're going to need Parkinson's Law. In case you're not familiar with Parkinson's Law, I'd like to first describe what it is.

Have you ever experienced a situation where you know that you have approximately three hours of work to do, but for some reason because you have five hours of spare time, that work takes up all the five hours. Or, you might have one or, let's say you have two days of work to do, but you've been allocated a whole week to finish that project, and somehow those two days of work end up taking up the full week, the full five days of your work week to complete anyway.

That phenomenon, the expansion of work to fill the time available to it is actually called Parkinson's Law. A quick trivia on history, Parkinson's Law was first mentioned by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in an article published in the Economist in 1955 and it was the first sentence in that article and it went like this.

It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion, and then the article goes on. That's what Parkinson's Law is all about. If you can think of work as a gas. If you have a certain amount of gas, I don't know, like, one kilogram of air, for instance, and you have a one liter bottle, than that gas will fill up one liter. If you have a 10 liter bottle, that gas will fill up 10 liters. As the gas expands to fill all the spaces provided to it, and so does work. As much as you have time to complete a certain task, that's how much time that task will take up.

The story that happened to me this week goes as follows. Today's Wednesday and on Friday evening I need to be in Bali. That means that I need to get some time between now and then, I need to get on a flight, on a six hour flight and go there. I already knew this quite a while ago, but on Monday, I needed to finalize the flights, and pick when I'm going. I had two choices. Out of the available flights, and due to other circumstances, I could have gone to Bali on Thursday or I could have gone on Friday.
But I know that I need to be there on Friday, so why would I ever decide to go on Thursday? Why not stay an extra day in Australia and spend it working because I also had quite a lot of work to do. I had quite a few tutorials to record, some podcasts, and some other things that I needed to do here, that I actually needed to be present in Australia to perform them.

Therefore, it makes sense to give myself as much time as possible to complete all the tasks. In that sense, I would buy the ticket to go to Bali on Friday, so I'd have the full week, or the full four days, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, to work and then Friday morning I would get on a flight and go to Bali. I decided not to do that, and instead, I decided to apply Parkinson's Law.
I thought to myself, okay, I have an X amount of work to do and it feels like I will get it done in four days. From Monday to Thursday I'll probably get it done. But then, I thought to myself, what if I only had three days? What if I put myself in the situation where I know I only have three days, and instead of spending an extra day in Australia working, I can spend that extra day, I can go fly to Bali on Thursday, and probably still going to find a way to get all that work done.

It made total sense in that approach, like, we can all ... Like, another thing I thought to myself, we can always keep working all the time, and forget to relax, and forget to just spend some alone time, things like that. Eventually, what I ended up doing is, buying the tickets for Thursday morning, and putting myself in the circumstance where I only had three days to do that amount of work, which I thought I could comfortably do in four days.

I basically did the Parkinson's Law in reverse. I knew that I have a gas which takes up four liters, and I knew as well, that I could squeeze it into three liters and it would be fine. Finally enough, right now, it's Wednesday evening, 7 p.m. and I'm sitting here, and I've done everything. I've recorded a good close to 20 tutorials for two different courses, and I've done a lot of other tasks, and a few meetings, and things like that.

Eventually, I ended up putting everything into those three days anyway and I'm going to go a day early and have a rest. That's what it's about and it's important, I guess, to understand this law sometimes and catch yourself. For me, it's a good example. I have not done this before, usually I would always give myself as much time as possible to get everything done. But here, I was able to do the things I needed to do and delegate the things that somebody else could do.

I'm pretty sure, looking back, I'm pretty sure, if I had bought the flights for Friday, the same exact thing would happen, except for it would take me four days. I would get exactly the same amount of work done, I wouldn't have gotten more work done. I wound up getting exactly the amount of work that I did, but it would just take me four days because I would procrastinate somewhere or I would spend a bit longer doing something else. I'll become, like, try to be too perfectionist about a certain task, and things like that.

There you go, just a story from my life experience from this week on how work expands or contracts. Hopefully, like, I definitely learned something from experience. Hopefully from sharing with you that allowed you to maybe also see something for yourself in that experience. Maybe looking back, you can think of situations where you've been affected by Parkinson's Law in either a good way or in a bad way. I think that's resinating with these things or recalling them in your memory, can help then, be more practive about how much time you allocate to certain tasks in the future.

It's probably not really applicable to the weekend, even though you might have some tasks on the weekend that you can apply Parkinson's Law to, but maybe next week, give it a go. See if you can apply Parkinson's Law in reverse to save yourself some time, and maybe go home early, or have a longer lunch break, or if you can't do either of those, spend some time learning something online instead of spending the same amount of time working and getting that same amount of work done that you could've gotten done sooner or faster. That's Parkinson's Law, hope you enjoyed the story, I look forward to seeing you back here next time. Until then, happy analyzing.

Kirill Eremenko
Kirill Eremenko

I’m a Data Scientist and Entrepreneur. I also teach Data Science Online and host the SDS podcast where I interview some of the most inspiring Data Scientists from all around the world. I am passionate about bringing Data Science and Analytics to the world!

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