Experiments in Lifestyle Design: A Lesson in Parkinson’s Law

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It was November 1955, and a British naval historian by the name of Cyril Northcote Parkinson had just published a comical article in the Economist, poking fun at the way government bureaucracies behave. In his short, satirical essay—which eventually lead to an entire book on the subject—Parkinson investigated the inner-workings of bureaucracies, arguing through keen observations that they are inherently positioned to swell up and expand.

Fast forward 50 years, and the essence of Parkinson’s witty and cynical argument, known as Parkinson’s Law, is still just as true. The first sentence of his original essay says it all:

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

Bureaucracies inevitably expand because there is no time crunch for government growth. During Parkinson’s time in the British Civil Services, he saw the inefficiencies of expansion firsthand and realized that progress wasn’t necessarily about working hard. It was about defining goals and working efficiently and optimally—one of the core elements of lifestyle design.

For individuals, this proverb is an incredibly useful tool. If you give yourself a month to complete a project that might only take a few days of work, the project will invariably become more difficult so as to fill the entire month. While your work load may not increase, time is wasted with unnecessary psychological pressures—the fear and stress of getting the project done. If you take a step back and allocate an appropriate amount of time for projects, for assignments, for daily tasks, etc. then you’ll see that the work becomes much less complex than it needs to be. You might even find that you’re able to accomplish more in the same amount of time. For whatever reason, it took me a long time to figure this out.

PhotoBunga and Interview140

I love coming up with ideas. Businesses, book scripts, blog posts, the best songs to sing in the shower (cough cough)…you name it. It wasn’t until after reading about Parkinson’s Law, though, that I realized how inefficient I have been in pursuing some of them. Below are two case-studies that help explain how to apply Parkinson’s Law to side projects and business ideas.

Case 1: PhotoBunga
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The idea—a travel photography/social network/e-commerce site, where images are geographically tagged to a large, interactive world map. Profile pages are set up for each photographer.

Over time, contests and an advanced rating/commenting system would make it easier for PhotoBunga users to search for quality, featured images. PhotoBunga would jump behind these high-end, amateur photographers and market their photos to various forms of print media. Companies like Fodor’s Travel (owned by Random House) are constantly in need of travel photographers, and PhotoBunga would be a cheaper yet just as professional alternative to using freelance photographers.

Why PhotoBunga never got off the ground—my time line was too loose. I dove too quickly into working with an outsourced web developer and did not spend enough time mapping out the shell of the site. I didn’t have milestones, I didn’t have short-term goals, I didn’t really have any kind of grand vision.

How Parkinson’s Law applies—I was working hard, not smart. If I had set distinct dates and milestones, I would have been able to move much more efficiently. My work was “expanding” to no end. I would have spent less money, less time, and less psychological energy wrapping my head around the idea. Luckily, it only took me a few months to package up my work and put PhotoBunga on hold, but I could have reached that point much quicker.

Case 2: Interview140
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The idea—Interview interesting people via Twitter and post/categorize the interviews into a blog called Interview140. Eventually, I was hoping to build enough content and credibility to interview celebrities via their Twitter account.

How Parkinson’s Law applies—I went about this side-project completely differently. Influenced by a conversation with my friend Alex (check out his start-up, WebNotes), I decided to only take 30 days to get the ball rolling. I drafted a Microsoft Word document with 4-5 mini-milestones and sent it to Alex under the condition that, if I hadn’t finished my work by September 1st, I would owe him $1 for each day that it took me to get it done. I worked my way through most of the goals while I was traveling throughout Africa and the Middle East.

While I decided to put the project on hold to focus on a few other things (namely, organizing my life :)), I spent a minimal amount of time setting up the shell of the site, and not once was I stressed about getting my work done. In fact, I finished each one of my milestones ahead of schedule, often by 2-3 days. By allotting a short, manageable amount of time for completion, my work only expanded to the 30-day window I had set up.

Summary

Next time you’re working on a project, consider Parkinson’s Law and give yourself only the minimal amount of time needed to complete it. It’s much easier. Trust me. Are there projects, ideas or goals that you have failed to complete? Does Parkinson’s Law apply?

Photo credit: laffy4k

7 thoughts on “Experiments in Lifestyle Design: A Lesson in Parkinson’s Law”

  1. Alan!

    This is a beyond fantastic post. I love Parksinson’s law. Whenever I hear/read about it I always think of when I was in school and would wait until the last minute to write a paper. It’s funny how quickly you can get things done when it gets down to “crunch time.”

    I think that both of your ideas were awesome! Especially PhotoBunga. You should get back into that one, it’s a great idea.
    .-= Nate´s last blog ..98% happy =-.

  2. Hi Alan,

    Interesting post! In corporations, managers always tend to make everything much more complicated than it needs to be. It really is amazing how much time companies spend on administrative tasks not related to actually getting the product or service to the customer.

    I never really thought of it in terms of lifestyle design though. You are right of course. A more structured approach to getting things accomplished would probably benefit me a lot.
    .-= John Bardos – JetSetCitizen´s last blog ..What is it like to Teach English in Korea? Interview: Linsday Nash =-.

    1. @John: I’m convinced–there is always a way to make things less complicated!

      @Nate: I still think PhotoBunga is a good idea, but I thought that it would be easier to get started than it was. Definitely learned a lot about communicating with an outsourced web developer though. Sheesh that was fun.

  3. Hey Alan, thanks for sharing these experiences. I know I’ve read that sort of thinking from Tim Ferriss and others time and again, but mostly just in principle, but it’s great to see how it actually played out in reality for you. I guess I need to start setting more short deadlines for myself in my own personal goals!
    .-= Cody McKibben´s last blog ..Obey the Law Most of the Time =-.

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