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Guiding principles in project management: Parkinson’s Law

Complete tasks on time and efficiently

Parkinson's Law

How often have you experienced that a project was completed in a shorter time than planned? And how often was the opposite the case, namely that a project was delayed and became more expensive than planned? To protect against such cases, generous buffers are often built into the schedule. Unfortunately, this can have fatal consequences, as Parkinson’s Law shows.

What is Parkinson’s Law?

Cyril Northcode Parkinson, a British historian, coined the following maxim on the theory of administration and economics:

>>Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.<<

He came up with this idea when he examined the British navy. Parkinson realised that within 14 years, the number of officers and sailors had fallen by a third, as the navy had only 20 battleships instead of 62. At the same time, however, the command crew grew by 78 per cent, even though there were fewer to supervise. Parkinson concluded that the more people are involved in a task, the more time they needed to do it.

Why does work expand?

Put another way: Regardless of the complexity or difficulty of a task, the task will take exactly as long as there is time to do it. This can have different reasons:

  1. Work is done more slowly and without pressure because there is enough time.
  2. Time is used to perfect every detail of the work.
  3. Work is not started until the last minute because there is enough time and other tasks can be completed first. However, starting at the last minute often leads to stress and overtime, even though the task could have been completed long ago.
  4. A task is only reported as completed at the end of the available time in order not to be given less time for the next project.


Why is too much time allocated?

There are several reasons why too much time is allocated in projects and additional buffers are built in.

  • Stick to the schedule: Nobody wants to exceed the planned time or budget of a project. So a generous buffer is often built in from the start just in case unforeseen events would otherwise postpone the end of the project.
  • Incorrect effort estimates: Effort estimates are also given cautiously. Some employees work more efficiently than others. Therefore, such estimates tend to be based on the employee who takes the longest to complete a task rather than the one who is the fastest.
  • Doubts about the estimates: If a project manager has ever had to learn that an employee has underestimated the effort of a task because, for example, he or she could not see the big picture, this project manager will often add a general buffer to the effort in the future in order not to get into trouble.


How can you tell if Parkinson’s Law has struck?

Since, according to Parkinson’s, as much time is used to complete tasks as is made available, it is generally difficult to determine whether the task has been completed efficiently. However, a hallmark of Parkinson’s Law is when project management effort increases even though the quality of projects or tasks remains the same, or even deteriorates. This can even be measured by determining the Schedule Performance Index, the Cost Performance Index and the effort for project management. Read more about this in the article „Earned Value.“


Measures against Parkinson’s Law

To prevent a project from becoming bloated and to work as efficiently as possible, you can take various measures:

  • Task planning: If you know Parkinson’s Law, you can try to generally schedule less time for tasks than you normally do. Eliminate buffer times, for instance. The now tighter schedule can motivate employees to work more efficiently. This is especially important in meetings, as the most important points are often checked off in the first few minutes, but then the scheduled time is used to discuss other things that are not relevant for all participants. If you plan less time for a meeting in advance, you can expect it to be more efficient.
  • Set deadlines and milestones: According to Parkinson, without a fixed deadline by which a task should be completed, it will never be finished. Therefore, you should make sure that each task is assigned a deadline. For example, use project planning with the critical path. This way, each task is assigned a deadline and you can check the critical path for unnecessary buffers. You should also divide large tasks into smaller milestones. With such milestones, you ensure that even large tasks can be completed on time.
  • Plan resources efficiently: According to Parkinson’s observations, too many employees hold each other up and even create more work for themselves. Therefore, when planning a project, you should only plan for as many employees as are absolutely necessary. So check carefully who can do what, what skills you need in your team and who might delay the project due to lack of knowledge. Smaller teams are usually quicker in coordinating with each other and in this way you save unnecessary discussions or explanations to other team members.
  • Assess effort more accurately: Also learn to assess your team members. Are there people among your team members who generally only start a task at the last minute or who generally estimate their effort too optimistically or pessimistically? Then you can include this knowledge in the project planning or carry out an effort estimation in the group, e.g. with the Planning Poker method. This way you can better assess estimates and in case of pessimistic ones you can reduce the buffer. Expert knowledge about the project as well as accumulated experience in project management can also help you to better estimate workloads.
  • Limit perfectionism: To ensure that perfectionism does not unnecessarily delay a project, try to apply the Pareto principle. This assumes that 80 percent of the results are achieved in only 20 percent of the work effort. To perfect the work result, the remaining 80 percent of the time is then needed. If you bear in mind that the result may already be completely sufficient after 20 percent of the time, you can save the rest of the time if appropriate.
  • Task management tools and methods: Use to-do lists, kanban boards or task management tools to structure your work and the work of your project team. This way you will keep a good overview of the tasks and be able to plan your time better. Time management methods such as Getting Things Done or the Pomodoro technique will additionally help you prioritise your tasks and process them as efficiently as possible.
  • Optimise processes: Consciously analyse the processes of your tasks and projects to identify potential savings. Also use the end of a project to review the processes again and thus gain important insights for future projects.


With the right strategies and knowledge of Parkinson’s Law, you can complete projects and tasks on time, get them done in less time and work more efficiently – even if you can’t completely eliminate Parkinson’s Law. However, when planning projects and tasks, also bear in mind that while it makes sense to work efficiently, you and your project team should not work permanently under pressure. You can use the time saved to continue working, but also to take a short break and so be able to start the next task strengthened.

Project management software can make it easier for you to plan tasks, deadlines and milestones and also help with resource planning. Integrated task management tools, such as to-do lists or Kanban boards, also help you to keep track of the tasks you have to complete.

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