How to Stop Parkinson’s Law from Wrecking Your Life

Parkinson’s Law refers to how we uncannily drag the time it takes to complete a task out to fit the amount of time we have available to do the dragging. Like if you have three weeks before a presentation at work, it’s going to take you three solid weeks to put together? But if you were told you only had five days, you could magically find a way to get it done just as well in that time? Yeah, that’s Parkinson’s Law — coined by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in his 1955 essay in The Economist.

To be clear, Parkinson’s Law isn’t procrastination with an appropriated name change. This affliction isn’t just about delaying a task, it’s about letting it fill our headspace and become more complicated than it needs to be, swallowing up more time than it deserves right up until its due date.

How does this tendency show up in your life? Does your work expand to fit the time you’ve allocated towards it? Are you focusing on trivial things because you have the perceived luxury of time to do so? Do you find ‘scope creep’ creeping up on you (like when a project grows arms and legs and tentacles because you’ve budgeted the space for them to grow)? Does your one task on a Saturday swallow up the whole day?

Let’s focus on the big picture for a sec.

Are you letting Parkinson’s Law creep into the vast expanse of your life? Not just the nooks and crannies of projects and to-do lists, but rather the macro-view of the life you call your own?

We think we have this long runway with our lives to fit in the things we want to do — and hopefully we will have an illustrious amount of “later” — but we also know it just doesn’t work that way. Waiting to Really Live until retirement, for example, is like bartering out our present for an up-in-the-air future.

We risk getting to the end of our lives, slapped with the realization that we maybe spent our time pursuing the wrong things or the trivial things, instead of the goals or activities that might have given us a shot at even a little more joy. Given that life isn’t long enough for a slew of do-overs, I believe we’re best served to figure out what our most pressing wants are, and then create a sense of death-inspired urgency to take action on them. What are your most pressing wants? What if you took three minutes right now to jot them down or doodle them?

Death forces us to be careful.

I said this before when I asked you, “Are You Waiting to Live,” and I’ll say it again (ad nauseum until I kick the bucket, FYI): DON’T WAIT.

In Parkinson’s Law speak: DON’T DRAG. You’ve been given one life to live, which should last about 80 years (especially if you eat a lot of green things and not a lot of white things). Don’t drag out your hopes and goals and intentions and business plans and far-fetched ideas and adventures and new career possibilities and African safaris and registrations for classes that inspire you and escapades and romantic getaways and whatever it is that makes you feel alive.

Dragging things out means we fit less of the great stuff in (because we’re too busy splitting hairs over what font to use in our presentation, when we could be meditating or baking brownies or anything better than tinkering with PowerPoint for three full weeks). Dragging things out means we put the great stuff at risk of never getting fit in at all. Toying with menial things means there’s never enough time to play with the significant things.

BrowniesLet’s not stretch our living out over our respective 80-ish years, diluting our intentions over the decades. Let’s imagine a false, Grim-Reaper-inspired deadline if it helps us (i.e.: “What if I only have 15 years left? What must I stuff in NOW?”). Let’s not let Parkinson’s Law be the truism that wrecks even an iota of our lives. Life’s too short to not live like we have expiry dates. All of a sudden I feel more of a sense of urgency to get down to the business of living. Brownies, here I come.

Parkinson's Law Calendar

Jodi Wellman

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