Parkinson's Law And The Art of Time Allocation

Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA, said that we should divide our days “into 10-minute units and sacrifice as few of them as possible in meaningless activity.” Reality is that we spend a lot of time in low-value activities without even realizing it.

Strive for a job well done in less time.

When we attempt to estimate how long an activity will take, we tend to underestimate or overestimate the amount of time needed. That's not just you or me; it's most of us human beings. We underestimate when we need to cram as much as possible in a short time block, and we overestimate when we want to make sure we have ample time to complete a given activity. The fact is that we are not very good at accurately determining the amount of time needed to run an errand or complete a project. As a result, we are anxious, or we waste a substantial amount of valuable time.

I’m one of those people who likes to complete a project ahead of schedule whenever possible. It gives me peace of mind to know that I’m leaving room for the unexpected. For instance, some time ago, my good friend Annie and I were working on the draft of our college thesis. Wanting to have all sorts of safeguards in place, we asked someone to make a backup of the floppy disk (yes, that long ago!) that contained our months-long research, just in case (God forbid!) something terrible happened to the original floppy disk.

Notwithstanding the good intentions of that person, he made a backup of the blank disk. Result: two blank floppy disks and no thesis research. Nothing. Nada. The only option was to take several deep breaths and redo the whole draft based on previously revised printouts that we didn't get to throw away, and whatever content we could recall. Luckily, we had planned for contingencies, and after a few sleepless nights and many hours of intense work, we met the deadline. Due to the rush, the quality wasn’t as good, and the inspiration wasn't the same either, but we met the deadline nonetheless. Setting early deadlines works well for me.

On the other hand, procrastinators work better when under pressure to complete a project. They may insist, "Why start today if I can start tomorrow and produce the same result?” Controlled procrastination works for many people, and that’s fine. I guess their secret is not to let it get too out of hand. Maybe. I get all stressed out, so I don't dare procrastinating, at least not intentionally.

When working with clients on time allocation, here is where I start: Parkinson's Law. According to, "Parkinson’s Law says that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." This adage was penned initially by British historian and writer Cyril Parkinson in an article he wrote for The Economist in 1955. At that time, he was referring to bureaucracies and not to time management, but it has long been applied to time management.

In the field of time management, most of the literature out there refers to the application of Parkinson’s Law regarding team projects or other business-related situations. However, my goal here is to show you how this law applies to the day-to-day of people like my clients: stay at home or working moms who struggle to find enough time for their busy family schedules.

Set realistic deadlines for your tasks.

To exemplify the meaning of the law as it applies to time management, I’ll give you the following example. If you had two full hours to get ready and out of the door in the morning, it will take you two hours to take a shower, dry your hair, decide what to wear, choose what color makeup goes well with your outfit, select your accessories, and so on.

However, if you had just 30 minutes to get ready, that's the amount of time it will take you to take a shower, get dressed, and do your hair and makeup. You may need to get creative to do it, but you’ll do it in 30 minutes.

Ask yourself how much time you would save every day if you committed to doing the same activities in less time. I invite you to experiment and draw your conclusions.

If you want to give it a try, start by keeping a time log -I like Laura Vanderkam’s Time Tracking Sheet. Keeping a week-long time log will provide you with a pretty accurate indication of how much time you spend doing your daily activities for a week. Next, pick one or two actions you believe could be completed in less time; let’s say, if tidying your bedroom every morning takes you 15 minutes, then challenge yourself to do it in 10. If you are serious about saving time every day, this new “deadline” has to be binding. If it's just a wish, it won't work. At first, it may take you more than the 10 minutes, but as long as it's less than the original 15, you're on the right track. Be flexible, and get creative!

Keep filling your time log to have a visual record of your progress. Once you have mastered the art of tidying your bedroom in 10 minutes, move on to another activity and see how much time you can shave there. If you try this approach with several daily activities, your time log will reflect the newfound time available for other matters that are important to you.

Usually, one of the first arguments against this advice is, "but then I'll be doing a sloppy job because I’ll be rushing it.” Well, not true. Longer time doesn’t necessarily translate into a better job. Parkinson’s Law says that the more time we have to complete a task, the more complicated we make that task. If we have an hour to tidying the bedroom, we'll get picky and start doing unnecessary things to fill the time we have. We don't need to straighten all the books in the bookcase every morning to have a tidy bedroom, but if we have plenty of time, we will. Keep it simple!

Another important consideration for this approach to work is to avoid unreasonable deadlines. You don’t need a time log to realize that it’s impossible to make your king-size bed, pick up two days worth of clothes lying on the armchair by the window, and bring your empty glass of water to the kitchen in under three minutes, thus be realistic with the deadlines you set.

Make time for what matters to you.

I find the challenge fun and am always looking for ways to complete my tasks in less time. Then the question is, What do I want to do with that extra time? Ah! What a refreshing problem to have! We have to manage our options, not our time, and this is an example of that.

For more on how to apply Parkinson's Law to your daily life, contact us at

Would you like to take the challenge? What activity do you believe you can do well in less time? I encourage you to share your experiences below. I would love to read about them.

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