I first came across Parkinson’s Law in The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss. It’s the idea that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Tim describes it here:
“If I give you a week to complete the same task, it’s six days of making a mountain out of a molehill. If I give you two months, God forbid, it becomes a mental monster. The end product of the shorter deadline is almost inevitably of equal or higher quality due to greater focus.“
I think Parkinson’s Law works both ways – and we can turn it to our advantage. The more things you take on, the more you are able to fit in. You quickly adapt. You’ve got no choice but to focus on the most critical elements of the task at hand.
‘What about the dangers of overdoing it?’ I hear you cry. Consider the world of weightlifting: ‘overtraining’ is a term thrown around with alarming regularity. It’s actually incredibly rare the average gym-goer will ever train that hard. The word has been twisted and deformed into something else, a convenient excuse – when really, you’re just a bit knackered.
It’s the same with work. “I’ve got too much on” is an excuse (for most people, most of the time). How many hours do you spend scrolling aimlessly through social media? How many times have you let the next episode autoplay on Netflix? Hmm. I thought so. I’m guilty too.
So be honest with yourself. Identify the areas you want more from in your life, take on responsibilities or commitments in those areas, and let Parkinson’s law work it’s magic. Utilising dead time is a great way to fit more in.
Here’s why it’s better to err on the side of ‘more’ than ‘less’:
1. Better to overshoot and dial it back, than never try in the first place. That’s actually only the way to find out where our upper bounds are – and start to think about how we can push them further.
2. We grow through adversity. Operating at the margin is the way we improve. You get stronger through lifting heavier and heavier weights, with more volume, steadily over time. The muscle fibres tear, and knit together slightly stronger. Every time you speak publicly, you get a little more confident, a little more aware of how you can use vocal inflections to hammer home a point. We get stronger when we challenge ourselves.
For more on the evolutionary foundation of this idea, you might want to check out this video from biologist Brett Weinstein. He talks about the disadvantages of being humble and underselling ourselves, versus being a little cocky and taking a punt at something – even if we’re not sure we can do it:
I love the observation that for anyone attempting to do anything extraordinary, they are, by definition, supremely underqualified to do so. Prior to Yuri Gagarin successfully leaving Earth’s atmosphere in 1961, nobody on the planet had built a rocket ship before. They had to take on more than they knew they could.
We’ve got to grow the same kind of balls if we want to break new ground in our own lives.