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Debunking Parkinson’s Law

June 11th, 2008 · 23 comments

Rewriting Science…The Good Professor Parkinson

The phenomenal success of Tim Ferriss’s recent book, The Four-Hour Work Week, brought to prominence a distressing trend that has been recently plaguing the self-help community: citing rough summaries of scientific principles as evidence for unrelated how-to advice.

The principle, in particular, that I’m interested in here is Parkinson’s Law. Informally, the law states:

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

This was the opening sentence of the humorous essay Professor Cyril Northcote Parkinson published in The Economist in 1955. The essay went on to explain the results of a study of the British Civil Service. (Click here for an expanded version of the essay published in Parkinson’s eponymous book on the subject).

Unfortunately, as we’ll see, in modern usage the study itself has been discarded in favor of this one sentence opening — a tendency that obscures its true meaning.

The Misuse of Parkinson

Parkinson’s Law is widely cited in Ferriss’s book and in countless blog articles as evidence that when given a task, a human will fill whatever time was alloted for its completion. The conclusion: a feeling of busyness shouldn’t prevent us from reducing the time we set aside for work. In other words, they take the opening sentence from Parkinson’s essay and then interpret it literally.

The reality, however, is more complicated…

Inside the Civil Service

If you read deeper into Parkinson’s work, you soon discover that he is not making a general claim on how humans procrastinate. He is, instead, summarizing a rather rigorous statistical proof he devised to explain observations of a very specific context: the British Civil Service. Parkinson, it turns out, was intrigued by the following paradox: the number of people employed in the British Colonial Office bureaucracy increased even as the British Empire imploded — an event that decreased the amount of work available.

Parkinson’s Law is not a catch phrase, but instead a statistical model devised by Professor Parkinson to describe the factors that control the growth of bureaucracy. It’s central conclusion: growth is independent of the amount of work to be done.

Among the non-work related growth factors he identified were:

  1. The tendency of slightly overworked officials to hire pairs of subordinates to relieve the strain — the pair being necessary to prevent any one from usurping the original official’s functionality. The added work capacity here far outstrips the demand.
  2. The well-known ability of officials to create work for those below them.

Parkinson Doesn’t Care About Your To-Do List

In light of Parkinson’s full findings, the adage that “work expands to fill available time” takes on a new meaning. To Ferriss, and other how-to writers, it’s interpreted, as mentioned, to mean that individuals will procrastinate and drag out tasks to fill an arbitrary work day. To Parkinson, however, the adage was meant to highlight a truth about large bureaucratic organizations: growth can be unrelated to work.

Parkinson would be amused at best, and confused at worst, to see his conclusion applied to self-employed, blog-reading, high-tech entrepreneurial types struggling to maintain a work-life balance. It’s a worthy cause. But certainly not one that concerned the good Professor.

Finding New Relevance for Parkinson

At the risk of suffering the same sin I just urged you to avoid, I suggest, tentatively, that there is still some modern value to be mined from Parkinson’s work. When you forget the famous one sentence summary, and dive, instead, into the guts of his study, the following more profound conclusion shakes loose:

Well-established work cultures can harbor irrational behavior. Beware!

In the civil service, this meant employee growth can occur even as work demands decrease. For a college student, on the other hand, this could refer to the irrational belief that physical suffering — in the form of all-nighters and long study marathons — is the key metric for proper test preparation and paper writing.

This isn’t logical. As Study Hacks readers know, a little pre-planning and some efficient review techniques can eliminate the need for such suffering all together. But a strong work culture — as Parkinson observed — can exert surprising strength on your behavior.

Conclusion

To conclude, be wary of any writer, myself included, who uses a brief high-level summary of some scientific principle as justification for any manner of unrelated ideas. What lurks beneath the fortune-cookie headline invariably provides richer insight.

23 thoughts on “Debunking Parkinson’s Law

  1. Eve says:

    What a fantastic post. This is what I come here for! I had no idea that’s where the phrase originated. It makes sense; we don’t actually expand the work we do, we just put it off and/or do stupid extra stuff that fills the time that would fall to the bottom of the priority list if we had stricter limitations. Viewing it from the point of view of bureaucracy puts on a different spin entirely.

    Oh, and… it’s “its completion!” Sorry, couldn’t help it :D

  2. Study Hacks says:

    @Eve:

    Good eye! Made the change…

  3. Scott Young says:

    I haven’t heard much of the references to Parkinson’s Law being aimed at the research itself per se. Rather, just the common sense principle that work tends to expand to deadlines. But it’s nice to see some deeper research.

    -Scott

  4. Study Hacks says:

    @Scott:

    It has sort of morphed into this common sense principle. The problem, however, is that it gives the impression that the common sense principle is some sort of law that has been studied (like the real Parkinson’s Law), which, arguably, is dangerous, because common sense has a way of not being quite right…

  5. Lee says:

    “Well-established work cultures can harbor irrational behavior. Beware!”

    Does this mean if you’re study techniques are well-established, they will eventually cause irrational behavior? So then what’s the difference of studying like a grind and studying your way, if the end product is the same?

    Haha, sorry, I just felt the need to point that out. Obviously studying using your advice is much better than the way a grind does it..

  6. Study Hacks says:

    @Lee:

    Good question. An irrational work culture is one where factors unrelated to results — i.e., peer pressure or guilt — drive work habits. For example, at graduate school, there is often a work culture that says that ‘good’ grad students should always be working late and feeling stressed. This drives many people to stay late and give up weekends, even though the actually work they need to be completed could be completed with much less time.

  7. Marcos says:

    You still never disproved the idea!!!
    You only explained that it was misinterpreted. But the “misinterpreted” idea still holds on its own unless you disprove it.

  8. Study Hacks says:

    You still never disproved the idea!!!
    You only explained that it was misinterpreted. But the “misinterpreted” idea still holds on its own unless you disprove it.

    I never claimed that the idea espoused by Ferriss and company is not true. I’m establishing that Parkison’s Law has nothing to do with it.

  9. Jim Tressor says:

    I think it’s interesting that Parkinson’s law doesnt really apply in a lot of situations, and yet still gets so much press because of its applicability in hierarchical organizations. Here is an interesting article on why Parkinson’s Law isn’t always necessarily applicable: http://www.mindreign.com/en/mindshare/Global-Economics/Less-is-More/sl35291137bp353cpp10pn1.html

  10. Tim Ferriss, where is your response?

  11. Nathan says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. For me, the application of “Parkinson’s adage,” (the popular version) is helpful in practicality given critical thought. Any law or theory a person bases their action on without critical analysis is misused as this one–though you clearly weren’t trying to disprove the idea itself as it is used by Tim Ferriss. The one sentence summary he uses has been helpful for me as a starting place to test exactly how much or how little allotted time affects my productivity. If the issue is the origin rather than the content of the idea, however, I think you’re points are right on.

  12. andie says:

    Let’s assume that the Parkinson Law holds true for individuals. Even in that case it never states that decreasing the time allocation for a task will let you complete it (with a desired degree of quality). It only points that if you allocate either x hours or 3x hours, in both cases, you would (tend to) spend all your time on the task. From this, in no way does it follow that you would be able to complete the task in x hours. Simple logic.

  13. Study Hacks says:

    Let’s assume that the Parkinson Law holds true for individuals…

    This is the entire point of my article: we’re not free to assume anything about Parkinson’s law. It’s his law, based on his research, and it has nothing to do with how you manage your personal workflow. If you want to propose a law about the latter, call it something new.

  14. Jay says:

    Once again Cal, you’ve just gone and blown yet another pre-conception I’ve had out the water. Brilliant stuff.

  15. Pascal says:

    If I am not mistaken it is a corollary…
    The way I see it is just a law that holds true in another context.
    What Parkinson observe is what is in between I call “the rise and the fall”, even thought the bureaucrates might have been more and more, I am sure at some stage it declined. The way I see it, when you don’t have to pay for the salaries (The state does), you can easily employ more and more people to do less and less work yourself…but in this case it would not have been substainable…2cents

  16. Bruce Douglas says:

    It’s been years since I’ve read Parkinson’s Law but I remember him using an example of a retired woman writing a letter, spending all morning looking for a stamp, looking up the address, etc and then dressing to go post it while a busy person would have taken care of it in 10 minutes. So I think while Parkinson derived his research from the British Civil Service he had at least a tongue in cheek application to our personal time management. So I think Ferris was justified in using Parkinson.

  17. Alex says:

    hahaha, i love this article, it definitely doesn’t make sense that suffering should be a metric for success in test preparation and essay writing. I thought it was funny you did exactly what you critiqued Ferriss for doing at the end hahaha.
    Thanks for clearing up what Parkinson’s law! very helpful article for me!

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