Police Psychology: Parkinson’s Law

Posted: April 6, 2017 in Mastering Effort
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Police Psychology | Parkinson’s Law

by Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D.  ABPP


In 1955, a year before my birth, an English historian who had worked in civil service was written up in the magazine “The Economist” about a law of nature that would control my life, in fact, controls many of us.  He said “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”   “Data expands to fill the storage available” is a corollary to the initial observation and finally “if you spend 10 hours on a project you will be twice as far behind than if you only spend five hours on the project.”  I think these were meant to be humorous, but I am not exactly laughing about them.  In fact, it may have been true back then, but now it is more like work expands to fill any time in the day, including the time set aside for relaxation and comfort, and sometimes even dinner.   

Why does this happen?  Why does it seem we are always running out of time?  Why do deadlines appear even when they are not apparent at first?  Of course, there is the obvious, that people’s natural tendency to procrastinate work causes deadlines to appear that didn’t exist before.  People want to do non-work things more than work things.  Deadlines are unnatural and imposed on us usually from outside.  Everybody gets that.  But what are the other reasons that works expands to fill the time allotted or usually more than the time allotted?  How is it that we always seem to underestimate the time needed to complete a project?

First Step:  Start

The first place for clues to look into this phenomenon is by seeing the approach most people take to a task.  After all, you must start a task to complete it.  Many people build up the task at the beginning and avoid starting until they think it through.  Many people avoid what they perceive as problems that may be in the way of starting a task.  And still others avoid starting a task until the timing is right, or they have the feel for it.  The latter is especially true for writing tasks.  I mean who can write without the right feeling?  By building up the entrée to the task, they collapse the amount of time they have for a project and thus never get it off the ground until too late.  These all mostly fit into the category called procrastination and is an obvious problem with getting work done early.  But what about the project that gets started on time, but just seems to fizzle as you progress.

Problems appear that you cannot anticipate.  In the world today, very few times do people answer phones.  It is usually an automated system that sometimes the proper number to push isn’t obvious.  As a doctor who has to call insurance companies frequently to get coverage information, I can get to the person I need to ask a simple question quickly, or sometimes it can take hours if I get through at all.  One insurance company I have to call frequently keeps throwing me out of the system before I talk to anyone and I have to keep calling back.  I remember one insurance company that said “your wait time will be 189 minutes.”  That’s over three hours.  Who works a three-hour wait time into their schedule?  And they were only open another two hours anyway.  I had called IRS in an attempt to get a simple question answered about a bill they sent me.  I was trying to pay them money, but it took two full weeks of calling every day because I kept getting that no one was available.  Once I got through by calling early (6 a.m. eastern) in the morning, they were extremely pleasant and great at solving the problem, but getting through was a difficult proposition.  So unanticipated delays from other people or companies can cause you serious problems on checking off something on your to do list.

Alert:  Problems on the Edge

The next problem is internal to you.  Often when you begin to approach a problem, you uncover other concerns that you feel you must handle first.  You look at it and look at it and then say to yourself, I can’t do “B” before I handle “A.”  So, you go about the task of handling “A” and unfortunately it steamrolls and create even other delays that are not anticipated.  Often times when this happens “A” becomes a bigger problem than “B” and ends up taking more of your time.  This happens a lot in committees.  They are presented with a problem and then get sidetracked into another issue, which they spend most of the committee meeting discussing, leaving the original work behind.   Cyril Northcote Parkinson, the man who professed Parkinson’s law first, said that a committee will grow in size until it becomes irrelevant, and called it the co-efficient of inefficiency which main factor was size of the committee.  Gee, I wonder if that applies to the US having 435 congressmen and 100 senators.   

The final problem is one of priorities.  Many of us are expected to do many things in this world, play many roles.  Some have very few expectations.  If you want something done, find the person with many expectations.  The person with few expectations will tend to prioritize the relaxation and easy feeling they are used to having.  The one with many expectations will fit your project in.  That seems counter-intuitive, but people develop habits that work or allow them to live.  Even though the busy person will probably drive you crazy by putting what you want him to do on the back burner for awhile, he will get to it.  The not so busy person will constantly say “it will get done in time,” or “these things find a way to get completed” but you are likely to not have it completed.  The problem with this is when the busy person just has way too much on his plate, and actually can’t complete your project then you have a situation.  Generally though the busy person is the best bet, just give him a deadline short of what you want.

This final statement is important to hear.  Complete your tasks a few days or hours short of when it is needed, and go back and make some changes.  Nobody writes perfect in a first draft.  Put some time between and go back and make changes as needed.

Careful:  Insight Can Lead to Inaction

I learned early on that insight doesn’t lead to change, so I usually give precise advice on changing.  Advice like get started, don’t build up the resistance, stay focused on task and keep busy with the problem.  I don’t know if that will make a difference, so I just wanted to point out Parkinson’s Law to you and let you make the adjustments.  Believe me, you will get criticism regardless of what you do because people are just ready to criticize.  Although Cyril died in 1993, if he were around today in the internet age he would have made this comment.

“The best way to get an answer on the internet is to not to post a question, but post a statement of what you think to be right and you will be criticized and corrected many times, even if you are correct.”

I’ll let other people tell you how you should act to control this law of nature, I just want you to be aware of it.


Site Administrator:  Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP

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