How Parkinson's Law can Teach Lawyers to Use Time Frames to Accomplish More


In 1955, philosopher C. Northcote Parkinson coined an adage that is now known as Parkinson's Law:

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

In other words, the amount of time we give ourselves to perform a task will be the amount of time it takes us to the complete the task. For example, if we're given two days to complete a project we probably would take the full two days. But if we were given just one day to complete it, we'd find a way to get it done in that shorter time frame. 

Most lawyers can relate to the concept of Parkinson's Law in the context of filing or client deadlines. We've all been under the gun to finish something in an hour or 30 minutes and felt like there was no way we'd be able to finish on time, wishing we had just a few more hours to make it better. But in that circumstance--with the consequences of missing a major deadline staring us in the face--we somehow always rise to the occasion and simply get it done, even though we thought we'd need more time.

Although the squeeze of an upcoming deadline can be uncomfortable, we can use Parkinson's law to our advantage by applying structured time frames to tasks or projects we’re working on.

For example, instead of coming into work and saying “I need to finish this brief today,” take a few minutes to evaluate how long you think it will take to complete, decide on a specific amount of time (e.g., 1 hour, 2 hours), and choose a time in your day to complete it. Tell yourself that you'll "Take 2 hours between 1pm and 3pm to finish this brief", which will be a much more effective use of your time.  

The goal is simple: define as many work time frames as you can throughout your day, and apply a light amount of pressure to finish within the boundaries you’ve set. You’re not trying to rush through, but you are applying a level of consistent concentration and effort that will aid you in sticking to the timeline. If we don’t apply this kind of pressure, projects can meander for hours or even days longer than they need to.

Here’s the takeaway: don’t start a project or a task with an open-ended timeframe. Provide yourself with structure by defining the scope of the work and assigning a definitive time to complete it.