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Are Your Resources Swallowed Up By Parkinson’s Law?

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parkinsons-law-crowding.jpgEvery time I've heard about Parkinson's it's been in the context of the debilitating medical condition that my grandmother died of. Recently I've read about a different kind of Parkinson's - Parkinson's Law. Even if you don't recognize the name, I'm betting that you've come across the phenomenon. Wikipedia's definition is very brief, Parkinson's Law is the adage that "work expands to fill the time available."

Three Ways I've Been Impacted by Parkinson's Law

If you read a little more into the Wikipedia definition, you'll see that a more general definition is "the demand upon a resource tends to expand to match the supply of the resource." I've found this to be true of nearly every project I've tried to accomplish in life. Specifically it applies to at least three areas, work, space, and money.

Parkinson's Law of Work/Time

This was the base case mentioned from the outset. Have you ever had that book report that you put off until the last minute? I always choked it up to procrastination, but maybe it was Parkinson's Law. In my years as a software engineer, I've rarely seen a project finish under the projected time allotted for the work. This is theme that's prevalent in Frederick Brook's Mythical Man-Month.

Sadly, I find that this continues with my writing today. In fact, it's several times worse, because I have some long term projects that have no definitive due date on them. When there is no due date, the work expands infinitely. I need to work on this. One idea I'm thinking of is enlisting my wife as a project manager. I'd explain to her each week what I'm looking to accomplish. At the end of the week, we'd go through and make sure that I have it - instant accountability!

Parkinson's Law of Space

Do you have a problem with clutter? Ever think that if you just had more space, you'd be magically organized? Maybe it works for you. It doesn't work well for me. If I have a really big desk, I will use up every inch of that space with stuff. I think I rationalize it as, "I still have more space before I have start to clean."

Maybe it's not your desk, but your clothes closet. Or maybe it's a McMansion that you need to fill with furniture. Or maybe it's crowded kitchen counters.

Parkinson's Law of Money

Have you ever gotten a tax refund or raise? Was your first thought in your mind that you can now buy that pair of Jimmy Choo shoes or a plasma television? Yeah, I've never had those thoughts either ;-). That's probably because you are reading this site and likely have read other personal finance sites.

The average person does think like this and some call it lifestyle inflation. If you make more money, the demand for your money rises.

Possible Solutions for Parkinson's Law

While there are many solutions here are a couple that I've found help me.

  • Time - I stay on track when I work at home with a kitchen timer. I divide my tasks into smaller, manageable pieces. I then give myself 10-15 minutes to finish the task and move on to the next one.
  • Space - My wife and I live in a 1100 sq. ft. apartment. We could probably squeeze into an 800 sq. ft. place with a little spring cleaning. I like to focus a little more on thinking small and doing more with less space. Maybe that means having a Wii instead of a pool table.
  • Money - I pay myself first. If I don't see the money in my checking account I can't spend it. If I can get it in a tax-advantaged retirement account, I'm sure I'm not going to spend it frivolously.

Do you have a problem with Parkinson's Law? How do you solve the problems that can arise from it? Let me know in the comments...

Photo Credit: Guacamole Goalie

Posted on June 24, 2008.

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7 Responses to “Are Your Resources Swallowed Up By Parkinson’s Law?”

  1. I first heard of this phenomena after reading the 4 hour work week. I’m the definition of a procrastinator and I couldn’t agree more with your article. If work doesn’t have a time limit, there are simply too many options. In order to work effectively, for me anyways, the options need to be cut down, and a time constraint usually does the trick.

  2. Mrs. Micah says:

    Yeah, I see that all the time. And yet, there are things that have been at my parents’ house for the last year and that I simply don’t use. So I could probably cut back on 1/4 of everything I have and not even notice. Strange…

  3. Chad @ Sentient Money says:

    It’s unfortunate that this is actually true.

  4. celticbuffy says:

    Wow. I can see myself completely fulfilling this law. Some changes are in serious order, I think. Good information.

  5. I see it all the time in relation to time both at work and at home.

    At work, I try to limit meetings to a slightly shorter period than I think that it will actually take to accomplish the work.

    At home, I try to dangle something more important or fun out in front of finishing a task.

    The egg timer is a good idea. I also do the same thing with Roth IRA and savings as you mention. The paycheck comes in the Roth and other savings goes out. No money is left in the checking to spend on anything necessary. If I really need something, I have to make the decision to move it back from savings into checking.

  6. Patrick says:

    I never heard of this by the name, but it is certainly true for me… especially tasks with no deadline. I have a bad habit of procrastination.

  7. Gates VP says:

    4-hour workweek is the most recent book to bring this phenomenon to life. But yes it does indeed prove to be true.

    The short-term personal solution is to notice what’s happening, which we do thanks to great articles like this one. It’s also important to realize that dismantling Parkison’s law and countering its effects is a long-term, lifestyle decision, there’s no quick-fix.

    On the grander long-term scale, the solution is community living.

    Drive down a residential street and you’re bound to see rows of houses with great big garages each containing copies of the same sets of tools. Most of the tools spend nearly all of their time sitting around not being used. And at any given time when they are being used, it’s probably not at the same time as the others. What blows my mind is why we haven’t figured out something as simple as the “community garage”.

    And that’s just one example of excess resources being swallowed up on a large scale. As we move into leaner times here in North America, I’d expect (nay, hope) to see more people making this kind of “community-level” decision to help down-size their lives. Shared vehicles, shared “garages” (i.e. workshops), shared community spaces for kids (and adults) to play.

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