Parkinson’s Law, ADHD, and Getting Anything Done Fast
Life with ADHD is fascinating to say the least. Time always seems to elude me, and my task list continues to expand exponentially. Yet, one crucial lesson I’ve learned over the years is that you can’t borrow time from tomorrow.
Now, I wear many hats as the founder of a budding neurotech company. I’ve got a small but super-talented crew, knee-deep in building the Crown, and I also handle customer relations. With the complex demands of my daily operations, it’s easy to feel swept away by the relentless tide of work — and without careful time management and intentionality, I can end up drowning in my tasks as each week draws to a close.
Fortunately, maintaining focus and achieving a state of flow is at the core of The Crown’s whole purpose, which allows me to stay on top of everything.
But in the early days before my co-founder and I established our company, it took years of trial and error before I figured out the one ingenious hack that enables me to accomplish more work in less time…
Introducing Parkinson’s Law
Although originally formulated as a mathematical equation to depict the growth rate of bureaucracies over time, Parkinson’s Law finds relevance in a wide range of contexts, including your personal work habits.
Originating from an essay penned by Cyril Northcote Parkinson for The Economist in 1955, Parkinson’s Law asserts that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
What does that mean?
To put it simply, Parkinson’s Law can be boiled down to this: if you budget 4 hours for a task that could realistically be done in 2 hours, you’ll probably find yourself stretching it out to fill those 4 hours. You might dig into unnecessary research, procrastinate, or over-analyze your approach — the end result may not differ much, but you’ll have spent twice as much time as needed.
British naval historian and author Cyril Northcote Parkinson wrote an essay in The Economist in 1955. In the essay, he recounts the tale of a woman with a single daily assignment: sending a postcard — a job that would typically occupy a busy person for about three minutes.
However, this woman dedicates an hour hunting for the card, an additional half-hour in search of her glasses, a whopping 90 minutes to compose the card, and a good 20 minutes contemplating whether she should take an umbrella on her stroll to the mailbox. And so the cycle continues, filling her entire day with such tasks.
But here’s the silver lining: Parkinson’s Law works both ways. If you initially assume a task will take 4 hours but only allocate 2 hours for it, chances are you’ll manage to complete it within that shorter timeframe. This is what Horstman’s corollary to Parkinson’s Law suggests: “work contracts to fit in the time we give it.”
As I discussed in another post, conventional wisdom often suggests that to boost productivity, you simply need to invest more hours in your work. It seems logical, doesn’t it? But have you ever considered that this simply isn’t true?
To make things worse, American culture places excessive importance on the quantity of hours we devote to our work each week. We often applaud the martyr mindset, where enduring extended work hours is seen as a display of our worth, commitment, and diligence, or even as an honorable pursuit. Conversely, prioritizing rest or solitary reflection is often labeled as unproductive, a squandering of time, or even selfish.
Parkinson’s Law in Action
When you find yourself with an abundance of time to tackle a task, you often unintentionally (and sometimes even intentionally) invest less than your full dedication and focus into it. While you might not openly confess this to your boss, deep down, you’re aware of this tendency. Consider a project that typically demands around 30 hours of effort, but you’re given a generous 40-hour timeframe to complete it.
What do you do? Do you inform your boss that you have some spare time, hoping for more work to be assigned? Well, if we’re being candid with ourselves, we’d acknowledge that what we typically end up doing is “coasting.”
In those extra hours, you’ll likely notice yourself checking your email with higher frequency. You might find yourself getting up to stretch or taking more frequent walks. Perhaps you succumb to the temptation of a “quick read” of an intriguing online article. Checking sports scores or stock prices creeps into your routine a couple of times, and your overall work pace tends to slow down. These are the sorts of activities that, at a glance, might appear productive, but in truth, they’re just filling up those additional 10 hours.
The two faces of Parkinson’s Law
Whether you do it on purpose or it just “happens”, you allow yourself to act this way because you know you have enough “buffer” or “fat” in your schedule to still get the work done by the deadline, so you don’t give it your all.
This is a perfectly natural inclination, because your brain is wired to conserve energy wherever and whenever possible. So, whenever a task doesn’t demand immediate attention, you tend to invest only the minimum required effort.
As a side note, for individuals with ADHD (like myself), Parkinson’s Law becomes even more pronounced. Their brain chemistry tends to require work to be either intensely captivating or the deadline to be so imminent that focusing becomes inevitable.
The other side
Now, flip the script. When you’ve got barely enough time (or maybe not even close) to tackle a task, what usually unfolds? You tend to kick into laser-focused mode and find a way to make it happen, right? Sometimes that involves chaining yourself to your desk, going off the grid on the internet, slapping up a “do-not-disturb” sign, and zoning out to white noise through your headphones to drown out nearby chatter.
It may sound extreme, but hey, it gets the job done.
Thankfully, you don’t always have to resort to such drastic measures. But when your only choice is to complete the task immediately or face consequences, you somehow manage to shed all those little distractions that chip away at your productivity every day.
The secret sauce here is learning how to harness that focus without burning out. It’s a delicate balance because shorter timeframes can tempt you to compromise quality just to finish. However, there’s usually some wiggle room where you can trim down your usual time by a good 30 or 40% and still deliver quality work.
Here’s my challenge for you…
I’d strongly recommend giving Parkinson’s Law a whirl and pushing your boundaries to see what you can achieve.
What’s the worst that could happen?
If you allocate four hours for a task that typically eats up eight, and you manage to wrap it up in six, all while enjoying an hour or two of leisure time — you come out on top!