Parkinson’s Law, The Deadly History of Deadlines, and A View of Time as a Vessel

One comes across a variety of content while surfing the web. 

Some are educational; these you save and never look at again. Others are life-saving, like that video of a dog and a cat snuggling. 

But every once in a while, the algorithm slides you a chunk of sobering truth—reality stripped of embellishments and presented in the most matter-of-fact way. I share that with you today: 

“You can give me a year to write an essay, and I’ll still do it the day before.”

Shout out if you R-E-L-A-T-E. 

College season has officially rolled in, and with it, a parade of things waiting to take over your time and life [force], or better grasped in the words of the great philosopher, Rihanna, “Work, work, work.” 

When you’re juggling hats and failing miserably, I hope this article swoops in like Fairy Godmother, not that it’ll magic-wand your way out of a sticky situation, but it’ll be the help you never knew you needed. So stick around, will ya?

We’ll take a look at one of the governing principles related to Work and Time and why it seems easier to complete a task when the sirens of the deadline are blaring in your eardrums. 

The Deadly History of Deadlines

Haven’t you ever wondered where the term ‘deadline’ came from? 

Some of the earliest mentions of the word can be found in the diaries belonging to captive soldiers during the Civil War.

“Before noon we were turned into the pen which is merely enclosed by a ditch and the dirt taken from the ditch thrown up on the outside, making a sort of breastwork. The ditch serves as a dead line, and no prisoners must go near the ditch.” 

—Robert Ransom, Diary of Robert Ransom (entry 22 Nov. 1863)

Fortunately, our use of the word is only figuratively bound to the concept of death. No one’s actually going to kill you for overstepping a deadline in the 21st Century. Now we know that wasn’t always the case. 

Camp Sumter, a Confederate prison for captured Union soldiers in Andersonville, Georgia, was infamous for having poor living conditions, rough punishments, and, yup, deadlines. 

“Twenty feet inside and parallel to the fence is a light railing, forming the ‘dead line,’ beyond which the projection of a foot or finger is sure to bring the deadly bullet of the sentinel.” 

—The Sanitary Commission Bulletin, 1 Sept. 1864

“In a memorial addressed to President Lincoln in August 1864, by Union officers confined in Charleston, occurs the following passage with reference to the Andersonville prisoners: “They are fast losing hope and becoming utterly reckless of life. Numbers, crazed by their sufferings, wander about in a state of idiocy. Others deliberately cross the ‘Dead Line’ and are remorselessly shot down.” 

Thomas Prentice Kettell, History of the Great Rebellion, 1866
The 20th Century [and Parkinson’s Law]

The end of the Civil War somewhat also marked the end of the cruel practice of shooting prisoners for crossing a literal line. By the mid-20th century, the term ‘deadline’ permanently established its meaning as something time-related. 

But there’s one other thing that came with this century, and that is Cyril Northcote Parkinson’s lively essay for The Economist published in 1955. 

“It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,” began the article—a line that would ring true for years to come.

Why You Can’t Get Anything Done

Parkinson’s Law engages the idea that work and time are not rigid properties, as they are often represented in our culture and language. Rather, they are something elastic. 

Work expands to fill the time allocated for its completion. If you’re given a year to write an essay, it will take you a year to write an essay. Whereas if the deadline was in a day? You’d pedal to the metal and get it done. 

In the 4-Hour Work Week, author Tim Ferris writes, “Parkinson’s Law dictates that a task will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for its completion.” 

Your colossal tasks and projects, or even the simple chore of cleaning up the pile of clothes on your bedside, will balloon in proportion to the space you’ve set aside for it. 

So to speak, if you have a task with no definite time or target date of completion, the odds of you accomplishing that task are slim to none.

Now the more important question begs: how can this knowledge best serve you? 

Like every new piece of information presented to you online and by a stranger, no less, let’s look at what Research has to say first.

Research Says 

A study from the 1960s by Aronson and Landy demonstrates the law at work. When subjects were “accidentally” given an extra fifteen minutes to complete a five-minute task, they spent significantly more time on it. Thus, work expands to fill the time allocated for its completion.

In another study from 1999, subjects were asked to evaluate four sets of pictures. When they were informed that the fourth set was canceled, they lingered longer on the third set instead of completing the task right then and there. 

I’m dropping the last bomb here. Researchers also discovered that the extra time spent on a task, in this case counting the number of letters in a phrase, didn’t make a difference in accuracy or recall.

Productivity Is Not Linear 

There is considerable merit to the words behind the eponymous law, and it’s helped several highly productive people. But it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution because productivity is not a linear thing. 

Using Parkinson’s Law, you have the advantage of seeing things from a different angle, which allows you to:

  1. evaluate your tasks based on your behavior and tendency to procrastinate,
  2. determine your own deadline,
  3. and reorganize your plan to get it done. 

We say we need more time when what we really need is more focus, effort, and a better plan. More time doesn’t always mean higher productivity. Sometimes it’s just a prerequisite to ‘more overthinking.’ 

Parkinson’s Law has its limitations, too. 

You can’t use it to set unrealistic goals, AND you shouldn’t sacrifice the quality of your output for the sake of saving time. But considering the nature of the task at hand, whether complex or relatively simple—for that Parkinson writes: 

“Thus, an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and dispatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half-an-hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the pillar-box in the next street. The total effort which would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil.

So what is Parkinson saying about Work and Time? 

That I am yet to know, but here’s how I see it: 

Time is a vessel. It is not the sand in the hourglass. It’s the hourglass itself, and what counts are the things we decide to fill it with. 

When we feel like we’re running out of time, maybe it’s a good idea to step back and look at our hourglass, and ask, “Are these things worth it?”