The Incredible Expanding Agenda

Yesterday someone on my team came into my office and apologized for not coming earlier.  “When I saw the agenda, I thought my last meeting would finish early, but it wound up taking the whole time.”

We’ve all seen this happen, right?   You have a meeting that’s scheduled for two hours, and it always takes two hours, regardless of whether you have two agenda items or twelve agenda items.  Why is that?

The phenomenon is actually the result of something called “Parkinson’s Law”.  A British historian named Cyril Parkinson coined this term during this time working in government.  Parkinson’s Law states: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

Parkinson noted that as things the time to complete something expands, the tasks become more inefficient and take longer.  Thus, meeting discussions expand or contract to fill the allotted time to meet and tasks become more complex the longer we have to complete them.

Similarly, giving a longer deadline doesn’t make the work be done any better.  Most of us have experienced a situation where we have a long deadline, but we do the work in a short period of time.  For example, you know you have a term paper due at the end of the semester, but you do it the last week.  You know you have a report due for work next month, but you save it until right before the due date.  You know the baby is coming, but you wait for the 9th month to assemble the crib.

Despite all of us feeling busy at work,  adding staffing often creates additional inefficiencies.  I’ve seen this as a manager,  staff feel super busy, we add anther staff person, and people still feel super busy despite the additional staff capacity.

Parkinson wrote “Granted that work (and especially paper work) is thus elastic in its demands on time, it is manifest that there need be little or no relationship between the work to be done and the size of the staff to which it may be assigned.”

Parkinson’s Law also works with money and space.  You are thrilled to get a raise because you’re living paycheck to paycheck, then your new salary comes and you’re still living paycheck to paycheck because you’ve increased your spending to reflect the new salary.  Your apartment is super crowded, then you move to a house twice the size, but one day you realize that the larger space is now crowded with stuff.  You upgrade your phone because you keep running out of memory,  then quickly your new phone with double the memory is full.

People and organizations can also use Parkinson’s Law to their advantage. Some organizations have moved to a 6-hour work day or a 32-hour work week and noted that there is no correlated decrease in work productivity.  So people are literally working 8 hours less per week and getting the same amount of work done.

Here are some recommendations for using Parkinson’s Law to your advantage at work:

  • Schedule shorter meetings — in same cases a 30 minute meeting can replace a 2-hour meeting.
  • Use “just in time” training and production method to only do work when it’s needed and not in advance
  • Give yourself shorter deadlines, and stick to them. For example, schedule yourself one hour to do that report, and stick to it.
  • Break larger projects into smaller tasks, and knock out those smaller tasks.
  • Avoid another Parkinson Law, the Law of Triviality:  don’t spend inordinate amounts of time on trivial things (like checking e-mail) at the expense of larger and more important tasks.
  • Force yourself to take breaks and not work late.  Did you ever notice how much more efficient you are finishing your work when you have important plans after work and absolutely cannot stay late?
  • Decrease interruptions when possible, so that you are fully focused on tasks
  • Think about the task when you’re doing it, not before. Simply put, obsessing about what you have to do doesn’t help get the task done, and creates unnecessary stress. Don’t bring thoughts of work home with you.
  • If you have a small agenda, reschedule the meeting to a shorter time frame.

It’s human nature to use time and space to our advantage.  Use Parkinson’s Law to improve your efficiency,  increase productivity and create more focus so that you have more time for more pleasurable activities later.

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