We all have that lingering personal project we promise to tackle someday.
With no set deadline, there's no urgency to complete it, so we continuously postpone it, believing time is on our side.
This habit of stretching tasks also affects our professional lives, leading to project delays and missed deadlines. For instance, a report expected to take three hours stretches into a week, a 30-minute meeting lingers for two hours, or a project is delivered just seconds before it's due.
This behavior is tied to Parkinson's law, which suggests that having more time leads to tasks taking longer than necessary. In this article, we'll delve into the concept of Parkinson's law, explore its implications, and uncover strategies to overcome it for more efficient project management.
A brief history of Parkinson's law
In a tongue-in-cheek essay for The Economist, Cyril Northcote Parkinson tells the story of an elderly woman who devotes an entire day to sending a letter to her nephew.
She spends an hour selecting a postcard, another hour finding her glasses, and half an hour searching for the address. She finally writes the letter and spends about twenty minutes trying to decide whether or not to take an umbrella when going to post the letter.
To account for her actions, Parkinson formulated the principle known as Parkinson's law, stating that "work expands to fill the time available for its completion."
Procrastination was not the only time waster Parkinson observed. He also noticed that in group settings, time is spent debating unimportant details. Parkinson's lesser-known law of triviality (or bikeshedding) states that the amount of time spent discussing an issue in an organization is inversely correlated to its actual importance. Sound familiar?
Though Parkinson's essay critiqued the expanding bureaucracy of the British Navy, his insightful observations can enhance today's project time management.
By placing constraints around time, controlling project scope, and applying time management strategies, we can reduce project overruns and missed deadlines.
How does Parkinson's law affect projects?
Parkinson's law can impact projects in numerous forms, resulting in inefficiencies and delays that hinder the timely completion of tasks. Some of these manifestations include:
When given extra time for a task, a team member may wait until the last moment before the deadline to begin working on it. This last-minute rush often results in compromised quality and added stress on the individual and the team.
Faced with a complex project, a team member might continuously put it off, thinking, "The deadline is in two weeks; I'll start it tomorrow." This delay can lead to accumulating tasks and increased pressure, ultimately affecting overall project progress.
Delaying delivery until late finish dates
A UX designer may complete wireframes two days before the due date but withhold submission until the deadline. This delay can cause other team members to lose valuable time, hindering the project's smooth flow and leading to potential bottlenecks.
The front-end developer might continually tweak button colors to pursue a specific aesthetic, ultimately missing their deadline. This excessive focus on minor details can divert attention from more critical aspects of the project, impacting its overall success.
During a stakeholder meeting, attendees may engage in an extended discussion on a minor issue, causing the session to last much longer than necessary. These lengthy meetings can drain team energy and diminish productivity, hampering the project's timely progress.
How to help your team beat Parkinson's law
As a manager, you play an essential role in helping your team manage their time at work. You can guide them to utilize their time efficiently by accurately estimating task durations, establishing priorities, placing constraints around tasks, and motivating them to complete tasks promptly.
Use Float to estimate task durations accurately
It's difficult to predict how long a task will take, especially when working on a new project.
Will the designer need three days or a week for the wireframes? Will the QA engineer finish testing in a week, or do they need extra time?
One way to avoid overestimating is to track your team's time to gauge how much time individual tasks take.
Tracking time in Float can provide valuable insights into task durations and help you allocate resources more effectively. Here are a few examples of how time tracking can help:
- Accurate time estimates: By tracking time spent on past projects, you can more accurately estimate how long similar tasks will take in the future.
- Resource allocation: If you notice that certain team members consistently take longer to complete specific tasks, you can allocate resources more effectively and adjust deadlines accordingly.
- Project tracking: Tracking time spent on individual tasks can help you monitor project progress and identify potential delays before they become significant issues.
- Cost tracking: By tracking time spent on each task, you can more accurately track project costs and make adjustments to stay within budget.
Track your team's time in Float
Compare scheduled time against actual time to improve your team's efficiency and forecast future projects more confidently.Try for free
Motivate your team with realistic deadlines
In an ideal world, deadlines would motivate people to prioritize tasks and work towards completing them.
However, missed deadlines are still a common occurrence. A survey by PwC showed that wrong estimates and missed deadlines are some of the top reasons projects fail.
Setting realistic deadlines and consistently motivating your team to work towards them prevents Parkinson's law from delaying projects.
Check in with your team regularly to ensure that they are focused on the right tasks and to find out what blockers they are facing:
- Are they working on tasks that bring them closer to the project goals?
- Are they reacting to other tasks that are stealing away valuable time?
- Are they struggling with a complex task?
Consider using the Eisenhower Matrix as a tool to help team members struggling to prioritize. This matrix can help identify which tasks are most impactful and need the most attention.
Set time limits with timeboxing
Timeboxing is a time management strategy that involves producing deliverables within a predetermined period. This approach sets clear and immovable limits on the duration of tasks and can help counteract the effects of Parkinson's law of triviality.
Most agile teams already apply some form of time boxing, whether it is in the form of sprints or daily standups.
For example, if your team's daily standup meetings frequently run over an hour due to endless discussions about trivial topics, you could use a timer at the beginning of the meeting and assign a limited time for each person to speak. If people start to stray off-topic, you can gently but firmly bring them back on track. Once the timer goes off, you can bring the meeting to an end.
Implementing timeboxing may be challenging initially, but according to Matthias Orgler, an agile coach, teams will gradually become more efficient within the timebox as they gain experience and a feel for time.
"Teams who don't have much experience with timeboxing have to learn it and get a feel for time. They will run into time's up events without producing any results for the agenda point in a discussion or the task at hand. But you will see that after a few of these events, they will gradually become more efficient within the timebox. And they will arrive at results before the time is up."
When implementing timeboxing, it's essential to keep a few things in mind:
- Ensure all team members understand and respect the time constraints set by the timeboxes for meetings and other activities.
- Know how much time each activity realistically needs, and avoid trying to fit tasks that take too long into too short of a timebox, which can lead to frustration and delays.
Keep project scope in check
Scope creep is Parkinson's law in disguise. Each new feature request may add to your project timeline and delay its completion. To combat this, create a statement of work (SOW) outlining the project's tasks, duration, resources, deadlines, milestones, and deliverables.
As the project progresses, here are some tips to help prevent scope creep:
✅ Require all stakeholders, including team members, to request changes in writing.
✅ Analyze how changes affect the project timeline and communicate this to all parties involved.
✅ Require all changes to be approved in writing before implementing them.
Protect your team’s time with tested and trusted strategies
Don't let Parkinson's law prevent your team from achieving its project goals.
By adopting the right time management strategies, you can help your team to overcome these challenges and keep them focused on the right tasks. Whether it's time tracking, timeboxing, or managing project scope, it's important to take a proactive approach to protect your team's time.
Remember, it's not about working longer hours but working smarter and more efficiently. By doing so, you can achieve your project goals, meet deadlines, and maintain a healthy work-life balance for you and your team.