Parkinson’s law strikes again

Computer scientist and best-selling author Cal Newport shared an “interesting observation” on the importance of structuring one’s time in episode 247 of his Deep Questions show.

After having delivered the last in a long series of tightly packed projects, Cal finally found himself with a week without any demanding work on his plate. One would expect a week of reduced workload following a long period of intense work to feel light and relaxing, but that was not the case. “I was ending days feeling rushed and feeling like I was not on top of things,” Cal tells his listeners, “Which is crazy because, objectively, the amount of available time was probably doubled.”

The discrepancy between a low workload and a high feeling of unfinished business was caused by Cal taking an unstructured approach to his daily schedule. When you don’t have much on your plate, you might as well take it easy and tackle things at your leisure, right? But as Cal observed, because of the lack of time pressure, the small stuff ended up “metastasizing” and eating up all the available space in the schedule.

Apparently, not even the man who the Financial Times credits with having rewritten the productivity gospel can escape Parkinson’s 1955 adage: It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

The experience renewed Cal’s appreciation for planning and structuring one’s time. “Even when you don’t have a lot to do, you have to structure your time like you have lots to do,” he recommends.

Mind you, structuring your time like you have lots to do doesn’t mean coming up with new work to fill up a schedule that would otherwise be sparse. It means treating shallow work with the same rigor you dedicate to the most demanding of tasks.

Don’t let work creep up on you and consume more time than necessary. Be proactive and intentional by strategically planning your work, however much or little that might be, throughout your day.

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