Parkinson's Law

The size of a job expands based on the resources permitted.

If you're into pop psychology, you might have heard of “Parkinson's Law.” Let's unpack the concept here, along with a quick chat about where it helps and where it hinders.

I like to define Parkinson's Law as follows:

The size of a job expands based on the resources permitted.

In other words, if I give you a month to complete a reasonably-sized job, it'll probably take you a month. But if I give you a year to complete the same job, it'll probably take you a year.

Parkinson's Law is often an argument against bureaucracy, but I don't think that's always fair. Much of the time, Parkinson's Law happens not because we're being lazy, but rather because if we've got the time, we'll be incentivized to use that time to do the best job possible.

Note that despite the name, Parkinson's Law isn't really a law. It doesn't apply universally, there are a lot of exceptions, and nobody's going to arrest you if you break it.

But we're talking about Jiu-Jitsu here, not project management. So why do we care about Parkinson's Law?

Because the opposite of Parkinson's Law is often true: if you put constraints on a job, and the right motivation is there, you'll probably find a way to get it done.

This insight — that constraints can be a huge driver for performance — is huge.

So does this mean we should set aggressive and impossible-seeming goals in the hopes that Parkinson's Law will push us to success? Not necessarily.

Spending less time on a job isn't always a good thing. Some jobs need to be done right, even if it takes longer. Imagine your heart surgeon telling you they were going to optimize for efficiency and try to complete your operation in under ten minutes!

Aggressively manipulating Parkinson's Law to get things done faster can also lead to degrading results, avoidable mistakes, and burnout. Stress must be balanced with recovery. Despite what the motivational posts on your Instagram feed might say, we can't go 100% all the time.

It's also worth noting that setting aggressive goals can also lead to equally impressive failures. So Parkinson's Law requires some finesse to apply properly.

But all the same, understanding Parkinson's Law can be hugely beneficial to our decision-making. Done wrong, it can lead to missed deadlines, big mistakes, and burnout. But done right, it can achieve amazing things. Would the United States have dominated the space race as it did without Kennedy committing to putting a man on the Moon in less than ten years?


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