Work Expands (or contracts) to the Time Allowed

Parkinson’s Law is a book by C. Northcote Parkinson. And this book is best known for its opening line: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Do you recognise it? I bet you do. Honestly, I didn’t know it had a name until I started writing this episode.

Hello, my cubicle crisis, open space sink or swims, corner office crossroads, home den do-or-dies and coffee shop crossroads. My name is Brock Armstrong, and I am not the workplace hero. Hopefully, despite the fact that I abandoned you for a few months, you are the still the true heroes around here.

I’m back!

That’s right folks; I am back! Season two officially begins today. It was a nice but busy break, I feel like I have a slightly clearer head and a few more ideas rattling around that I need to share now, but I also feel like I need to do some explaining.

But before I continue with that, allow me to do some self-promotion.

I have been working all over the place lately. I have this wonderful podcast, and I also write and record an episode and blog post every week over called the Get-Fit Guy. I have my online fitness coaching business at SkywalkerFitness.ca and my business partner Monica Reinagel and I have a weight loss program called Weightless over at Weightless.me. Not to mention that I work on four other podcasts as a technician or producer.

With all that in mind, I have decided that I need to get all of my current projects and future projects under one roof and to help with that I would love it if you would take a moment and sign up for my email newsletter over at workplacehero.me. The sign-up form is on the right-hand side of the page, you can’t miss it. Because I believe so strongly in the idea of Inbox Zero, I promise that you will only receive an email once per week (tops), and it will be short, to the point and easy to delete. And then, once I have myself all situated under one roof, I will be able to let you know all the ways that I can help you stay fit, trim, happy and healthy. So please sign up at workplacehero.me and help us stay in touch.

Ok, back to the topic at hand.

How many of you have heard of the “Parkinson’s Law?” Show of hands? Not many of you! Ok… no problem.

Parkinson’s Law is a book by C. Northcote Parkinson. And this book is best known for its opening line: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Now, do you recognise it? I bet you do. Honestly, I didn’t know it had a name until I started writing this episode.

The entire title of the first chapter of this book is “Parkinson’s Law, or The Rising Pyramid” and it explains how work expands to fill the available resources within a bureaucracy and then goes on to explain why bureaucracies grow exponentially at a compounding rate of around 5% per year. Which is a lot more specific than the way we use that phrase today. Today, Parkinson’s Law is usually condensed to saying “work expands to the time allowed.”

Parkinson found that even a series of simple tasks could increase in complexity to fill up the time allotted to it. As the length of time allocated to a task became shorter, the task became simpler and easier to solve.

If you look closer, this concept goes hand in hand with the belief that we all need to “work hard” rather than efficiently. That mentality is reflected in the fact that most jobs reward us for having our butt in a seat rather than for the hours we actually spent working with results to show for it.

In the Wikipedia page dedicated to Parkinson’s Law, they say that the first-referenced meaning of the law has dominated, and sprouted several corollaries, the best known being the Stock–Sanford corollary to Parkinson’s law: If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.

Other corollaries include Horstman’s corollary to Parkinson’s law: Work contracts to fit in the time we give it.

The Asimov corollary to Parkinson’s law: In ten hours a day you have time to fall twice as far behind your commitments as in five hours a day.

As well as corollaries relating to computers, such as: Data expands to fill the space available on your hard drive.

The subtitle of the chapter of Parkinson’s book is “The Rising Pyramid”, and that focuses on the way this growth happens, which is simply that bureaucrats create a pyramid of subordinates over and over again. Parkinson derives his law from “two almost axiomatic statements”: An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals. Officials make work for each other.

But that isn’t really relevant to why I bring this up today. I bring this Law up as a way of explaining my absence from this podcast.

My Conundrum

The sad reality of it all is that by taking a break and making a hole in my workweek, all the other work I had expanded to fill the time I had, and when it was “time to come back” from my hiatus, I got a terrible panicky feeling in my belly. Where the heck was I going to find the hours to research, write, record and edit the podcast? And moreover, how on earth did I manage to do it before? There is simply not enough time in the day!

So, months went by while I waited for time to free itself up. I waited for a few hours to burst through the door and shout: “Tada!” And can you believe it? That never happened. And so I kept hearing those dreaded words slip out of my mouth: “I wish I had more time so I could get Workplace Hero rolling again.”

UG! I wish I had more time. That bothers me on so many levels.

First of all, “wish” is what my boss-friend Dave calls a weasel word. Words that give you a wishy-washy escape route like “wish” and “try” are words you learn quickly not to use around a high performer like him.

Second, having more time is just not possible and we all know that. I gave up on the idea that I could pull all-nighters way back in high school and aside from my inability to skip sleep, I know I am only productive for 8-10 hours per day. So what is the point of wishing?

This amount of time in the day, week, year is the reality. Deal with, Brock.

But then I thought… what if solving this puzzle is simply a case of fitting the same work into a shorter time? Isn’t that simply what I was doing before the hiatus? I mean, time didn’t actually shorten itself when I took that vacation to Peru? I mean, did it? No… that’s crazy. Of course not.

Can this be reversed?

Interestingly a marketing agency in Liverpool back in 2016 tried and experiment focussed on the idea that if work can expand to fill time, it can also contract. It only lasted for the last two months, but it had a lasting impact. The company’s old 8.30am-5.30pm work day was swapped for a 9am-4pm one that also included a mandatory one-hour lunch break. When the experiment ended, the company weighed the costs and benefits of a six-hour day.

Sadly, they decided not to introduce those hours on a permanent basis, but the reason was that their office is a place where clients are used to their calls actually getting answered by a human until 6 pm. So, it just didn’t make good business sense.

But the trial still shook things up. The workers have continued to cut daily meetings from one hour to 15 minutes and abolished Friday’s meeting altogether. Every employee also has a six-hour day at least once a week and on Fridays, everyone finishes at 4 pm.

Despite not being able to adopt the new hours forever, the owner of the company says that hours are down but productivity is up!

Evidence that shorter hours can boost output has been around much longer than this 2016 experiment too. Munitions plants during the first world war shortened their hours and found that it made workers healthier and also more productive, according to research by John Pencavel, a professor of economics at Stanford University.

Professor Pencavel crunched the data collected by the health of munition workers committee, to investigate the effect of working long hours on the factories’ (mostly) young female workers. In the end, the committee’s recommendations actually included giving workers at least one full day off each week. Which apparently was a smart move, because it was calculated that the week’s output was slightly higher when the munition workers worked 48 hours over six days, compared with 70 hours over seven days.

Ok, back to me and the experiment that I am diving into.

How am I going to do this?

Well, first I noticed a few opportunities in the last few weeks where I finished the work on my to-do list (you remember how much I love those, right?) and found myself shifting activities from other days onto today so I could “get ahead.” Seems like a great idea right? Not really. I simply kept getting ahead but never experienced any benefit from it. There was no magical “free day” waiting at the end of my to-do list. Just more tasks. So… what the hell?

So this morning, I edited a podcast that incidentally I didn’t actually have to be completed until late next week and then I cleared off the rest of the day. I resisted the urge to start on a script for next week’s Get-Fit Guy podcast and moved “get groceries” on my to-do list to tomorrow (no one is going to starve to death in this house in the next 24 hours).

So, now nothing pressing is waiting for me. I am not letting any clients down or pushing work into my weekend. I just resisted the urge to “get ahead” or to focus on the work that makes the most profit, and I busted out the old Workplace Hero letterhead and dove back in.

Your homework!

You thought I would forget about your homework, didn’t you? Ha ha! Nope. Your homework this week is to look at your own workload and see how you can apply a reverse Parkinson’s Law to it. Where can you compress the work to fit in a shorter amount of time?

Now, I am not suggesting that you start half-assing anything. That would defeat the purpose. Just look for places where you can trim the fat, so to speak.

Look for a place where you can be the employee who defies the unwritten rule of “work harder, not smarter.” Instead of engaging in a leisurely 20-30 minute email perusal, give yourself five minutes. Or better yet, give yourself two minutes. If you work at a computer, use a digital timer when you start doing this. Remember not to panic and revert immediately back to the original time if you get it wrong the first time. Keep experimenting.

Wrap it up!

As I mentioned in my self-promotional ad earlier in this podcast, I am in the process of rebranding, reorganizing and restructuring my own work life right now, so I am not making any huge declarations or commitments at the moment – for now, I am simply happy to be back in your ears again. And I plan (not hope, that is also a weasel word) to make this experiment in time-travel, time-shifting, time-crunching a successful one.

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Workplace Hero is researched, written, narrated and recorded by me Brock Armstrong in slightly snowy downtown Vancouver. Artwork by Ken Cunningham. Music by my old band, The Irregular Heartbeats.

Now, you know what to do – go make this week count!

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