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Why Constraints Are The Best Thing You Can Work With

Cyril Parkinson was a British naval historian who had spent a large amount of his time with the British Civil Service. As a British staff officer in World War II, he observed the numerous inefficiencies caused by a large bureaucracy. Indeed, he noted that the British Colonial Office increased year after year even though the British Empire was in decline.

In a satirical article for the Economist in 1955, he discussed how organisations had uncontrolled growth due to their self-serving nature — each department creates work for another. After all, an official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals. The punchline for his humorous essay was the following:

“Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”

He would later go on to popularise his idea with his book, which we know today as Parkinson’s law. More than half a century later, his observation continues to ring true.

The Long Arm Of The Law

Parkinson’s law doesn’t apply to just bureaucracies. It applies to everything, although it is more apparent in time management.

  • Doing work at the last minute makes you more productive; you get far more done in that hour than you usually do
  • No matter how much space you have, your belongings will find a way to occupy it — you subconsciously acquire more belongings to fill up that unused space in
  • You finish all the food on your plate; the amount of food somehow gives you roughly the same sense of satiety

Giving yourself a large allowance disincentivises you from making optimal decisions. After all, why fret over the small stuff when you don’t have to? Consequently, we spend a good portion of our lives with wasted time. We realise how this adds up only when it’s too late.

The solution is to set limits and constraints into your life. The human mind and body adapts quickly. Leave yourself without buffer and you’ll find yourself performing at a higher level.

Application Of Parkinson’s Law

For instance, you’ll observe that deadlines have a dramatic effect on the speed with which you produce your work. Given a week’s notice, you’ll spend at least half of that time writing that 1,000-word essay. You use the time to do extensive research and then meticulously edit your work. In my experience, a long time is also used to get inspiration before you get down to the actual writing.

On the other hand, your approach changes dramatically when you have a one-day deadline. You obtain just a few facts from research, understand the style guidelines and simply write what you know. Later on, you edit for grammatical errors and make sure there are no typos. It’s likely that it’s a less polished product than the others, but it’s viable.

“We should be careful not to exhaust our available time on things that are merely good and leave little time for that which is better or best.” — Dallin Oaks

The deadline is a constraint on time. You can apply constraints on other areas of your life to become more effective too. With such constraints, you have to sift out the essential from the optional.

This is the answer to Parkinson’s law — a disciplined approach to more.

  • Spending too much? Save half of what’s left from your bills. You’ll still be happy without spending the same amount on luxuries. You’re forced to prioritise what truly makes you happy instead of spending frivolously.
  • Buying too many clothes? Make sure everything can fit into your wardrobe. If one new item comes in, another has to go. There’s no unnecessary clutter.
  • Eating too much? Have smaller portions or use smaller containers. You become more aware of your progress when you end up eating 10 mini packs of chips as opposed to a family pack.

Going A Step Further

Parkinson’s law is an observation that we unnecessarily complicate things. It’s not voodoo magic — giving yourself one day to write a full length dissertation will still end disastrously. But the fact is that we always negotiate with others or with ourselves for extra buffer because we have an inflated idea of how long the task takes to complete.

This happens because humans have proved to be terrible at predicting outcomes. We’re plagued by cognitive dissonances. We overestimate how much we can do in the short run and underestimate how long much we can do in the long run.

In his book, Zero To One, Peter Thiel asks, “How can you achieve your 10-year plan in the next 6 months?”

Constraints force us to challenge the status quo. It makes us revisit the conventional approach of doing things, and make improvements in order to overcome the challenge that has arisen. The end result is that we walk away better and more enriched than we would have if the constraint did not exist.

“The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.” — Ryan Holiday

Final Thoughts

Cyril Parkinson coined his observation to describe the inefficiencies of bureaucracies. Distilled to its simplest form, it’s about how we’re unable to manage ourselves as well as we would like. In the digital age where our attention is constantly divided, we would do well to utilise Parkinson’s law to safeguard our most valuable resource — time.

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