Parkinson’s Laws: How the principles of bureaucracy affect our lives

Parkinson's laws
Ted Scott
Ted Scott
11 November 2023
8 min

If you do not have time for anything and constantly put things off until the last moment, it is not laziness or procrastination that is to blame, but empirical regularities. The British historian and bureaucrat Cyril Parkinson developed these regularities and gave them the form of strict laws.

According to the most famous Parkinson’s Law, work takes up all of your allotted time. This means that whether you want to spend an hour or the whole day on a task, it will take all the time you have planned. It sounds silly at first glance, but often it really is. If we want to do the cleaning in 2 hours, it will probably take that long. And if we set aside an hour, we can easily meet this deadline. The author himself as a proof of the law gives an example with an old lady who is going to send a letter to her niece. In the absence of other things to do, such a simple task for an elderly woman stretches quietly throughout the day. First she spends an hour looking for her glasses, then for an envelope, then she thinks about the contents of the letter for a long time and remembers the address. Before going to the post office, the old woman chooses an outfit and considers whether she will need an umbrella and a handkerchief on the way. In the evening, just before the post office closes, she finally manages to send the letter.

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History of the creation of laws

Cyril Northcote Parkinson was born in 1909 in England. He received a history degree at Cambridge. During the Second World War he served in the British Colonial Office. He got his first ideas in the late 1940s when he worked for the British Colonial Office. It was there that Parkinson began to notice that the number of employees in the ministry was growing, despite the shrinking British Empire and decreasing workload. This led him to think that there were certain patterns in the development of bureaucratic structures.

In 1955, The Economist published an article entitled “Parkinson’s Law”. It humorously described how the growth of the administrative apparatus occurs regardless of the actual amount of work. This article had a great public resonance.

History of the creation of laws

Already in 1957 the book “Parkinson’s Laws” was published, in which the basic laws describing bureaucracy were formulated. Among them: the law of state expansion, the law of wasting time and others. Not only officials, but also businessmen began to read the book. The book was a huge success, although there were opponents of the observations described in the work.

Despite the controversy about the effectiveness and validity of Parkinson’s inferences, his laws have changed not only the perception of the work of government agencies, but also found their application in time management and teamwork. Let us consider each law in detail.

Parkinson’s first law

At the very beginning of this article we have already given a brief analysis of the first law, but now we will analyze it in detail. Literally, it sounds like this: “Work expands until it fills all the time available to it”. That is, if a certain amount of time is allotted for a task, the work will be extended for all this time.

This happens for several reasons:

  1. People tend to fill all the time allotted for work in order to appear busy and in demand. If a report is prepared in 2 days, it may give the impression that the employee is not using his/her working time efficiently.
  2. Expanding work can be a way to avoid getting new assignments. If an employee finishes one assignment quickly, they may be given another right away. And by filling all the time with current work, this can be avoided.
  3. People tend to strive for excellence and continuous improvement in performance. Therefore, even if a task can be completed faster, employees will improve and refine it until the end of the allotted time.
  4. Long deadlines for getting work done are often set aside as a contingency reserve. And even when things go smoothly, people use this contingency to appear busy.
Parkinson's first law

Compressed deadlines force people to work faster, as they leave no time for distractions. In the presence of a tight deadline, we are forced not only to speed up, but also to think more, to look for non-standard solutions. New ideas often help to reduce time costs and improve the quality of work. If you try hard enough, you can reduce the time for personal and work tasks by several times. Allocate 2 times less time to a task than usual. It is clear that not everyone will be able to meet the deadline the first time, but you should not be upset. Think about what could have prevented you, draw conclusions and try again.

The first law can be applied not only in personal time management, but also when delegating tasks. Managers and supervisors are interested in making sure that all tasks are completed as quickly as possible. In the case of mechanical, one-syllable work, it is quite easy to follow the law. But if the task is creative or requires a non-standard approach, there is a risk that the performer will violate the deadline. Therefore, designers, PR, smm-specialists and other representatives of the creative class do not respond well to the inferences of the famous Briton. But not everything is unambiguous, in order to provide the result on time you do not need to obsess and strive for perfection.

Parkinson’s second law

Parkinson’s second law states: “Expenditure rises after income”. According to the law, people tend to increase spending if there is an increase in income. The law can be applied to both personal and business finances; it explains why many companies and governments spend more money than they can afford.

This observation has important implications for project management and business planning. If project costs are not controlled and contained, they will steadily increase even if the amount needed does not increase. As a result, the project may become unprofitable and inefficient.

Parkinson's second law

To avoid the impact of this above law when working on projects and in business planning, it is important to set clear goals and control costs at every stage. This will help to avoid unnecessary costs and improve the efficiency of the project or business. For example, you can consider investing in innovative technologies that can increase productivity and reduce costs. You can also develop a strategy to reduce advertising and marketing costs, optimize production processes and improve product quality, which can reduce costs and increase revenues.

When managing your personal finances, plan your expenses carefully and make sure they do not exceed your income. It is also important to prioritize and avoid unnecessary or excessive spending. It is recommended to set aside a part of your income for savings, create a passive income or invest in reliable instruments.

Parkinson’s third law

This law is more of a philosophical theory than a strict rule. According to this law, growth leads to complication, and complication, in turn, is the end of the road. That is, after reaching the peak of efficiency, decline inevitably follows. However, this does not mean that any success is necessarily followed by failure. In fact, the author emphasizes that all people should strive to overcome these laws.

Parkinson's third law

If we consider the question in more detail, it turns out that the number of elements in any developing system gradually increases. The complexity of such a system increases over time, which can lead to degradation. In order not to lose momentum, it is necessary to timely distribute forces between team members, get rid of unnecessary things, delegate tasks and introduce tools that will simplify work. If you don’t organize your processes properly, a decrease in profits or failure to meet project deadlines is inevitable. It is important to understand that Parkinson’s Third Law does not mean that growth and development necessarily lead to decline. On the contrary, growth and development leads to improvement and continuous improvement. However, it is worth keeping an eye on how complex processes become and taking measures to optimize them in time.

So, Parkinson’s Third Law is an important philosophical principle that reminds us that we need to follow growth and development to avoid decline. Understanding this law and applying it can help not only in business and projects, but also in personal life. When the first employees start working in a small office, they are enthusiastic about working together and eager to achieve high results. Work is boiling, people are full of energy and ideas. This is the first phase of team building.

Life cycle of offices

In place of the fourth law, consider another equally important observation. Parkinson observed that employee offices almost always go through the same stages and face standard problems. First, a group of 2-3 motivated employees is formed, and they enthusiastically get to work. Once the group reaches an optimal size of about 5-6 people, peak efficiency occurs. This number of people makes it easy to organize communication and interaction between all team members. At the same time, everyone is given sufficient autonomy.

However, as the number of people in the office increases further, the situation begins to deteriorate. Too many people make it difficult to communicate and coordinate joint efforts. The effectiveness of the group decreases.

Eventually, when the group exceeds about 10-12 people, a crisis occurs. Such a large gathering of people in a limited space interferes with normal work. The cohesion of the team falls, everyone feels superfluous. The effectiveness of joint labor is sharply reduced. This is how the life cycle of a team in one office goes. Taking into account the described regularities is important for creating favorable working conditions and maintaining high efficiency of employees. This observation of the British historian is relevant not only for public institutions, but also for joint work on projects.

Life cycle of offices

Let’s take a closer look at how to apply Parkinson’s observations when forming effective teams:

  1. At the team building stage, an important factor is the optimal number of people. Teams that are too small (2-3 people) may not be able to cope with the amount of work and will quickly lose enthusiasm. But too large teams (more than 12 people) are also ineffective because of communication problems. The ideal size is 6-8 people.
  2. As the project progresses, keep an eye on the team’s workload. If the workload grows, add new members quickly. Conversely, if the workload decreases, some people can be reassigned to other tasks.
  3. Organize a clear division of roles in the team to avoid duplication of effort. Also conduct regular audits of employee skills and project needs.
  4. Keep an eye on the mood in the team. If there is friction between team members, resolve conflicts in a timely manner.
  5. Periodically organize joint team activities to build rapport among employees.
  6. At the end of major project milestones, analyze the results and make adjustments to task allocation and team composition.

This flexible approach will optimize the team’s performance at every stage to maximize efficiency.

Parkinson continued to develop his ideas in subsequent works. The laws proposed by him are widely used in analyzing and describing bureaucratic structures to this day. Thus, Parkinson made a significant contribution to the understanding of the principles of functioning of organizations. The laws of the old Briton gained popularity comparable only to the popularity of Maslow’s pyramid of needs. His valuable observations allow people to become more successful, and teams and entire corporations to identify and reduce costs.

If you’re looking to maximize productivity for yourself and your team, following Parkinson’s Law is essential. Use a task manager to create an effective to-do list and keep track of completion. LeaderTask’s online scheduler will allow you to set reasonable deadlines for each task and help you not to miss deadlines on projects.

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