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#81: Parkinson’s Law

Bob Ewing
August 12, 2022
a comic strip with a cat in the middle

One Idea. One Challenge. Once a Week.

“Don’t be afraid to take that first step.” 
~ Muhammad Ali

Our kitchen table is covered in clutter. 

We clean it off in the morning. And when we come home at night we wonder how it got so cluttered again. Maryrose says that our dog Ollie has secret parties when we go out. 

My desk suffers this fate as well. I clean it off. Then before I know it, Ollie has covered it in books and papers. 

No matter how big the surface, it gets filled with stuff.

The same is true with time. However long I have to do a project, that’s how long it takes to do. Give me a day, a week, or a month, no matter. That’s how long I take. 

Our clients have this same problem. There’s always a few each week that scramble to get their homework done right before we meet. They may have had a month to practice, but they wait until the last moment before our sessions begin. 

In the 1950’s the British historian Northcote Parkinson wrote a famous essay for The Economist magazine. He describes an old lady that takes an entire day to send a postcard. The moral of the story, he says, is that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”  

The adage is known today as Parkinson’s Law. Variations include “clutter expands to fill the space allotted” and “expenses rise to meet income.”  

Everywhere you look, you’ll see Parkinson’s Law in action.  

Financial advisors help us overcome it with principles like “pay yourself first” and “spend less than you earn.” Decluttering gurus promise us there is life-changing magic in consistently tidying up.  

Coaches of all fields, from music to sports to leadership and communication, teach us to avoid Parkinson’s Law when it comes to our time. 

The truth is, many of us treat projects like this: 

We procrastinate as long as possible and then scramble just before the deadline. For projects with no deadline – say to lose weight, learn to play the fiddle, or become a clear and confident speaker – this can mean never getting around to making progress. 

Why do we succumb to Parkinson’s Law? 

We all work hard to avoid negative feelings. We often think that practice will be boring or difficult, so we avoid it. Public speaking is particularly easy to hide from since it can also make us feel anxiety and fear.

According to psychologist Timothy Pychyl, to overcome Parkinson’s Law we should “just get started.” We don’t have to wait until we feel good. Rather we will come to feel good after we make even a tiny amount of progress.  

I’ve worked with several executives who spent years, sometimes even decades, avoiding public speaking at all costs. But once they get used to practicing they come to enjoy and feel empowered by it. Practice reduces anxiety and fear. The more we practice, the more we build confidence. 

How do you get started? Block your calendars. 

Researchers at Harvard University show that simply blocking your calendar is a powerful way to change behavior and make progress. We are more likely to do the things that we schedule. These little deadlines spur action and effort. 

Even grabbing one 15 minute slot a week to dedicate to practice will have a positive impact. Over time, you’ll see improvement:

Practice + Time = Progress

To overcome our fears and obstacles, we have to face them. And that begins with small scheduled commitments. Once our calendars are set, we are less likely to be pulled off track – even by saboteurs like Ollie. 

And with enough practice and time, progress is inevitable. 


Block your calendar to make progress. 

What is one thing you want to get better at? It could be storytelling, speaking with confidence, learning Spanish, or anything else. 

Right now, take a moment and block your calendar. Start small. Just block one 15 minute practice session within the coming week.   

You don’t have to know exactly what you’re going to do. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. Just get started.


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