Personal Growth, Student Life, Students, Wellbeing

Parkinson’s Law: using psychology to become more productive

Have you ever had seven weeks to write an essay and left it until the night before to start? Or had all day to write a post that would take you two minutes, but you don’t do it until the evening? Well I definitely have, and this is due, in part, to Parkinson’s Law.

Parkinson’s Law: work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion

Parkinson’s Law by C. Northcote Parkinson

So it’s not exactly a scientific principle such as Newton’s third law of motion, more a generally accepted observation, but when you think about the examples I mentioned above, you’ve probably experienced something similar. It doesn’t mean that the longer you have to complete the task, the more work there is to do, because usually this extra time is taken up by procrastination and worrying, thinking ‘what if this happens?’ instead of getting on with it.

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A familiar example

Even if your school or work have given you a longer deadline e.g. 4 weeks to write an essay on the ethics of personalised medicine, you need to set a shorter one for yourself. Let’s look at the essay example in more detail.

You’re set the essay on the 1st February, and the deadline is the 28th.

  • 1st – 7th – For the first week you don’t do anything at all. It’s not due for four whole weeks, that’s a ridiculous amount of time to write an essay, you’ve written an essay in a couple of days before, why do you need to start this early?
  • 8th – 14th – You think ‘maybe I should start looking into this essay now, I don’t really understand the concepts so it’ll probably be best to make a start on it’. You spend 2 hours googling the topic on the 9th, without making any notes, and then you don’t do anything for the rest of the week. But every day you think, ‘I MUST do some more research on that essay’
  • 15th – 21st – You eventually get round to doing some more research and this time you make notes. Whilst doing your research you find a video and get lost in YouTube for hours.
  • 22nd – 28th – You only have one week left and now you’re really stressed that you haven’t done anything. You still have all your other lectures and work during the day so you spend two nights staying up late writing out your essay. The day before the submission date you spend 2 hours referencing the essay, and submit it with just a few hours to spare.

Sound familiar?

So how can I use this principle in my life?

You were given four weeks to do the work and you managed to spread it out over the whole time. Instead of that entire process, you could have broken down the essay into individual tasks, roughly estimated how long it would take you to do them, and then give yourself a shorter deadline to get it done. This essay might have taken you one week to do properly, you could have had it finished by the 7th and then forgotten about it, but instead the tasks filled the whole time.

Some people may use the excuse ‘I work better under pressure’ and that’s why they wait until the last minute, but if you do that and you can’t finish it in time, you’re screwed. Whereas, if you set your own deadline for the 7th, work really hard to finish the task on time (with the pressure of the upcoming deadline) and for some reason you couldn’t get it done and needed another day, there would be no problem.

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Setting deadlines

It may take a while to get used to setting your own deadlines, and giving yourself the right amount of time to do a project, but with practice it will become a lot easier. One of the issues with setting our own deadlines is that we often give ourselves too long to do them. I often think ‘oh, that’ll take me around 45 minutes, so I’ll give myself an hour. But if I was focused, and completed my task under the pressure of a closing deadline, I could actually get it done in under 30 minutes. Start my halving your deadlines, so if you were given two weeks, make it just one week, and then adjust from there, you will get to know how long it takes you to do things.

How does this make me more productive?

Think about it, if you had 5 hours to do work in, and you’ve just taken all your tasks and halved the amount of time it’s going to take you to do them, you can now do twice as many tasks. Alternatively, you could just complete all your work in 2.5 hours and then go back to bed for the other 2.5 hours, the choice is yours.


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