Parkinson’s Law

Sep 8, 2023


Parkinson’s Law

In 1955, Cyril Northcote Parkinson wrote a humorous essay in the Economist based on his experience in the British civil service.

In that essay, Parkinson proposed what became his eponymous law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” If something must be done in a year, it’ll be done in a year. If something must be done next week, it’ll be done next week.

If something must be done tomorrow, it’ll be done tomorrow. We plan based on how much time we have, and when the deadline approaches, we start to make Choices and Trade-offs to do what must be done to complete the task by the deadline.

Parkinson’s Law should not be considered carte blanche to set unreasonable deadlines.

All projects take time—you certainly can’t build a skyscraper in a day or a factory in a week. The more complex the project, the more time it typically takes—to a point. Parkinson’s Law is best used as a Counterfactual Simulation question.

What would it look like if you finished the project on a very aggressive time scale? If you had to build a skyscraper in a day, how would you go about doing it?

Answer the question the way you would a counterfactual, and you’ll discover techniques or approaches you can use to get the work done in less time.

Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA, once said, “If you split your day into ten-minute increments, and you try to waste as few of those ten-minute increments as possible, you’ll be amazed at what you can get done.” For small tasks, use what is called Ingvar’s Rule—assume each task will take no more than ten minutes to complete, then begin.

This includes meetings and phone calls: for some reason, the default time period for meetings is an hour —whether you need it or not. Often you can get just as much, if not more, done if you assume that the basic unit of time for a meeting is ten minutes


Ingvar’s Rule is a counterfactual—what would you do if you only had ten minutes to get something done?

Act accordingly.