Managing Work Efficiency and Combating Parkinson's Law

People – the Parkinson's Law

Parkinson's Law states that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion". From my point of view, it should be rephrased as: "unfulfilling unmanaged work has the tendency to fill the time available for its completion".

Let's talk about it a bit.

First let's put aside the exceptions, we are not talking about a 2 minute task that you allocate 2 weeks to do and you will end up with 2 weeks spent on a 2 min task also we are not talking about a task that will overflow its original timebox because it was estimated poorly, we are talking about everyday tasks that we come in contact with.

 Let’s talk about the unfulfilling word used in the definition. For a person to be proactive to be concerned about his work he must be involved in it. When you are shuffling through the long list of resumes keep that in mind. When you are about to start the interview remember it. Somebody once said that you should hire based on talent and passion instead of skill, can't remember who said it but it stuck with me. If you fail to consider this, you will end up with people waiting for input to do something, waiting on something/somebody to nudge to do something or even anything, or in the right direction. Sounds familiar? It should, if you are working in the IT industry. We basically described a computation machine, always waiting on some input to do something. I am not saying that you can't make it work with a skill predominant person, it is just not feasible to do so, they will require more attention, they will need to be motivated more often, this will take more of your time as a manager and will eventually influence other people to behave the same making your life harder.

The word unmanaged that I used reflects the fact that once you decided to go with a person that has skills and little to no passion, you will have to manage and I mean manage like you are managing for your life, everything will tend to be a problem every small issue will be an impediment or blocker, because they simply do not care if the product/deliverables end up delivered, they are just not involved in their work. A passionate person will find a way to work around the issues (somebody will pick those up later and find proper solutions to them) and make it work. A passionate person will understand the meaning of working smarter hot harder. A passionate person will require little to no effort since that person is involved in his work and will do his best to finish the work as soon as possible without compromising quality or slacking off.

It is basically up to the managers and HR department to be able to identify these qualities in a possible candidate.

The revised Parkinson's Law as a management tool.

If you have in place a time tracking system, you can actually see if things start to extend beyond normal limits for usual tasks. This might mean that something changed or was added that needs adjusting or the person is confronting with a chain of unfulfilling tasks which will if it did not already affect the person's efficiency. With that signal raised you can then take corrective actions to bring that person's morale back to normal, switch the project, add more interesting tasks, have a chat with them, do a little pick-me-up, give them a bonus.

Fighting the Parkinson's law in day to day tasks

Anything that distracts you from your goal will help enforce the Parkinson's law, media, social media, email and so on. Most of the work is done during the flow, when everything clicks and all works like a charm, but if you get interrupted, you will suffer a 15 min penalty, because this is how much time on average a person needs to get back into the flow. You can start by timebox-ing you task that distracts you from work. Let's take email for example, if you do not have a timebox there will always be a new email to read or write, there will be more content to view. Try to allocate let's say 5 min per hour for this and do your best to stick with it. Tasks that have no timebox will tend to linger and extend in size for as long as you let them.

Another approach for this is to use the Pomodoro technique. This technique is used to break work down in small parts and work on them without interruption. You take a task and then allocate a timebox for it, after that you start the timer. Once the timer started you must focus on your work and on it only. When the timebox expires take a short ~5min break. After 4 pomodoros it is advised that you take a longer break ~20min.

Using this technique, you will be able to stay in the flow as much as possible. We humans can't actually multitask that well so we need to pick one task and focus all our attention on it if we want to deliver good quality.