Parkinson's Law: achieving more in less time

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Author: Gian Marco Grieco



Unrealistic schedule is the 3rd most relevant reason behind project failure. Poor capabilities of activity duration forecasting is not the only cause, its cause often lies in a less evident time management concept: Parkinson’s Law.

Articulated by Cyril Northcote Parkinson, its law is the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. Basically, it expresses the concept that there is a proper amount of time to devote for a task completion, depending on the task and the availability of resources, and assigning more time is not going to increase the quality of the outcome.

This concept, regarding project management, has a relevant impact on project schedule management, more precisely on the “Estimate Activity Durations” phase where motivation of staff plays an important role, it is thus an fundamental factor to take into consideration but also impossible to quantify and difficult to manage.

In this article, several strategies to counteract Parkinson's Law effects are briefly presented, along with two practical approaches derived from different perspectives:

  • a modelling framework for project management activities that expects workers to behave influenced by Parkinson’s law. It ultimately adopts a stochastic activity completion time;
  • a basis for incentive schemes design, which can be implemented in many different organisation types thanks to its flexibility, that reward earlier and on-time task completion.

Finally, the final section presents an analysis of the described methods limitations and a speculation about future Parkinson's Law implications in project management with regard to increasing industrial automation.

Psychological boundary to productivity

Parkinson’s Law consists in the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. In 1955, Cyril Northcote Parkinson articulated the saying with the aim of satirically highlighting the inefficiency of public administration and civil service bureaucracy in the United Kingdom. He noticed that despite a decrease of fleet size by two thirds and of personnel by a third, during that period the number of bureaucrats rose by almost 6% a year [1]. In his book “Parkinson Law: The Pursuit of Progress” he also stated a correlation between the size of bodies and their efficiency, providing with evident proofs of institutions, in the English history, which lost power as they grew [2].
Relation between effort made and time allocated to activity, due to Parkinson's Law (own figure)

The resonance of the law comes from its universal application. As well as in bureaucracy, it finds applications in everyday life. Its approach is purely psychological and can lead to put in action important strategies for a superior time management, increasing both efficiency and effectiveness as well as enhancing time use. This law describes a key concept which should not be ignored by any project management while managing complexity. The concept can be basically rephrased as “people tend to be less efficient in carrying out a task when the time constraint is not well perceived” and perceived, instead of defined, is a key word of this statement because it means to also include in the scope all of these situations where people have too much time compared to the task perceived length, so that they feel like not having a deadline at all.

Why to have a clear deadline is that important? Because it gets you stressed. Although that does not sound like a benefit, actually it is. As stated in “The Yerkes-Dodson Law” the best performance is reached when the right level of mental arousal is experienced. A strong anxiety would impair performance as much as feeling too relaxed [3].

Consequently, when no urgency of working on the task is perceived, people put in place inefficient behaviours [1]. Given the fact that they perceive having plenty of time, unimportant details gain more attention than needed, longer or more frequent breaks are taken and many other actions that make them use more time than required. Another tendency is to procrastinate, that means waiting for the last possible moment to start working, without considering unexpected events might occur however. In particular, procrastination is supported by social loafing while working in a team, members feel even less pressure since each of them is sharing responsibility of task completion with the others.

Parkinson's Law in Project Management

Similar conducts take place among members of a team that is working on a project. According to PMI’s 2017 Pulse of the Profession Global Project Management survey, innacurate task time estimate was the primary reason for 26% of project failures; further, team member procrastination accounts for 11%[4]. Preventing inefficient conducts is thus fundamental for the project success.

The main step of scheduling process to handle is “Estimate Activity Durations”. This is basically the process of estimating the amount of time and resources required by each activity to be concluded; as the others, it needs to receive information as input, which are used by tools and techniques in order to provide the desired estimate as outcome [5]. Activity duration and allocated resources mutually determine each other and the scarcer eventually influences the others. From one perspective, few available resources imply a long completion time and on the other hand, completing an activity in a short time demands many high quality resources. Project managers usually focus on the resources-side, since factors involved are easier to manage.

In particular, one factor, that affects duration estimate, is staff motivation[5]. It is difficult to measure, so to control, and its perception heavily depends on skills of team manager. Furthermore there are no standard techniques to achieve high motivation, on the contrary the strategy used needs to fit with team members’ personalities. As described above, low motivation leads to less effective behaviours, lower performances and compromises duration estimate of activities. Foreseeing impacts of Parkinson’s Law helps preventing unexpected task lengths during execution stage of the process and consequential expedited costs, which are the higher the later the detection occurs [6].

Counteractive strategies and project management tools

During the years, many tools and approaches have been proposed to counteract Parkinson’s Law impact on productivity: after briefly presenting the main strategies to avoid its effects, two practical approaches based on two different perspectives are described.

There are several ways of ensuring great time management, that are effective in project management as well as self-management. These strategies could be divided into two groups with slightly different targets: help allocating the right amount of time to each task and stimulate mental arousal. However, it is not always easy to state which group a strategy belongs to, since most of them might serve both purposes in most situations.

Regarding the first set, task prioritisation suggests somehow the order of tasks execution, so that tasks requiring more mental effort and the most important in terms of time or urgency are likely to be handled at the beginning of the working day when the level of employee performances is higher since their work is not affected by time constraint and mind is refreshed. On the contrary, less time and effort are going to be used for less significant tasks.

Moreover, time blocking is a technique that consists in dividing a period of time, typically a day or a week, into time blocks assigned to specific tasks. That is useful for efficiently planning work routine, furthermore that provides employees with an overview of entire day workload. Since it is a kind of scheduling, its effectiveness relies heavily on the estimate quality of task time.

Setting hard deadlines leads to higher level of performance and, of course, saving time [7]. As described in many studies this strategy does not affect the quality of work, except for drastic application of this concept. However, assiduous supervision is required to avoid growth of employee turnover [8].

Adopting a different perspective from time management, reward systems could be also used to stimulate employees to finish tasks before or within deadlines. Human beings are reward oriented creatures and bounties for every completed activity or subtask helps them to stay focused.

In the following part of this section, two project management tools, that take into consideration Parkinson’s Law and its effects, are presented. They rely on some of the concepts previously explained and are based on two counterposed ways of solving the problem, so that two different approaches to this issue are discussed.

Stochastical Critical Path Model

The first method proposed by Gutierrez and Kouvelis (1991) can be described as a “Stochastic Critical Path Model”; CPM or PERT are the most known critical path models concerning project management [7]. The former operates with deterministic activity completion times and identifies a “critical path”, that is a sequence of activities which delays the project due date if only one of them is late. CPM draws the attention on this sequence of activities, which require much effort and many resources to ensure project on-time delivery[9]. While PERT basically works in the same way, yet defining three different time lengths: pessimistic, optimistic and most likely time. Based on those, this model calculates mean and standard deviation of each activity duration, finally expressing activity times as stochastic variables normally distributed[10].

However, both ignore worker behavioural issues and fail to model their implications on activity durations. The proposed method extends PERT model embedding a different time calculation in its probabilistic approach, according to Parkinson’s Law definition. Firstly, it considers activity completion times as a function of the allocated time d, further introduces “work expansion” term w in the calculation, a new factor representing leisure time or unnecessary time expansion. As well as completion time, work expansion is a function of the allocated time and is always higher than zero. To provide a simple formulation example of this method, it is considered an activity A that can be divided into two subtasks 1 and 2 which respectively require time T1 and T2 to be completed. Then the completion time of A, taking into account allocated time and work expansion term, is:

(1) T(d)=T_1+T_2+w(d)

In particular, whenever a task is completed a worker can decide to expand completion time. The term w is defined as the difference between the available time left before the deadline and the expected time needed. For instance, after completion of subtask 1, then w is:

(2) w(d)=d-T_1-ET_2

In this case d is due date of subtask 2 as well as activity A, ET_2 is the perceived completion time of task 2. If the available time is larger than the remaining time for completing the activity, the worker expands work by an amount of time equals to their difference.

From (1) and (2), the expected completion of activity A is derived:

(3) ET(d)=ET_1+ET_2+Ew(d)

Furthermore, this method models three kinds of worker corresponding to three different behavioural patterns in relation to work expansion:

  • regular worker, correspondent to the pattern described above;
  • busy worker, who postpones the start of activity until there is barely enough time to complete it, but once started he won’t expand;
  • moderate worker pattern, that is basically a middle way between the previous, postponing the start not as the busy worker does and expanding, albeit not as much as the regular worker.

These behavioural profiles are insightful because model another fundamental of Parkinson’s Law. The expected completion time taken by the busy worker is going to be:

(4) ET'(d)=max(d; ET_1+ET_2)

Then, comparing the regular and busy worker profiles, the following inequality is deduced:

(5) ET(d)>ET'(d) , highlighting that the busy worker, even though starting later because involved in other activities, tends to complete activity A earlier than the regular who paradoxically has more available time. Following that, keeping workers reasonably busy improves the overall productivity.

To sum up, this method presents a mathematical attempt to formulate Parkinson’s Law that can be a theoretical basis to build on actual scheduling techniques which consider Parkinson’s Law implications while estimating activity durations.

Incentive schemes

On the contrary, the second method is designed by Chen and Hall (2021) to counteract Parkinson’s Law, instead of just taking into consideration its effects while scheduling[11]. In particular, they aim for mitigating its pitfall consisting in the asymmetry that longer task completion times are likely to result in later delivery of the projects, whereas shorter completion times fail to anticipate project end date. Their approach establishes incentive schemes in order to exploit the potential benefits coming from earlier task completion.

Since this method is particularly elaborate, in this article only a broad overview is provided. For reading further about it, useful information can be found in the section Annotated bibliography.

This method applies to projects designed under either Critical Path Method (CPM) or Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM) and motivates employees to complete their task at the earliest. Under the influence of Parkinson’s Law, two scenarios are possible when is assigned more time than needed to activities: either employees work slower in the first days and then complete the task at the deadline or they delay the start of the task until the latest time according to expected duration. The incentive schemes address both these behavioural issues: stimulating employees to maintain the proper focus along the whole period of task completion and discouraging procrastination. Furthermore, the proposed incentive schemes are easily implementable and flexible to be fit for different organisational structures of performance incentives.

As a result, this method tackles Parkinson's Law from another side than "Stochastic Critical Path Model" and prevents inefficient misconducts.

Final reflections

Even though the two methods address Parkinson’s Law implications from different perspectives, they are not mutually exclusive and can be actually embedded together in project management practices, improving scheduling reliability even more than if individually applied.

As far as Parkinson's Law impact can be reduced to its minimum, there is no chance of totally eliminating it from working routine. Since it describes an intrinsic trait of human psychology, contrasting techniques might not be completely effective. Then project managers should necessarily consider a longer activity duration than the expected, better still if keeping employees in the dark about that.

Nevertheless, as industrial automation is growing fast, Parkinson's Law will affect projects to an ever less extent since more and more activities are going to be automated. In the near future, project managers' concern might be therefore limited to sectors not mainly characterised by automation and fields where it is still slowly spreading.

Annotated bibliography

The following list provides some key references the reader might find interesting as further readings about the topic:

Bo Chen, Nicholas G. Hall, (2020) Incentive schemes for resolving Parkinson’s Law in project management. European Journal of Operational Research 288 (2021) 666-681

This scientific article provides a flexible basis from which various practical incentive schemes can be designed and implemented in organisations. This article is innovative in the meaning that addresses an issue which has never been handled before: the possibility that a project worker with multiple dependent tasks can improve their incentive payment by falsely reporting some of their completion times.

Genaro J. Gutierrez, Panagiotis Kouvelis, (1991) Parkinson's Law and Its Implications for Project Management. Management Science 37(8):990-1001.

The content of this article has been only partially presented above for the sake of scope consistency. A thorough conceptual and mathematical explanation of a project management model comparable to CPM or PERT is provided. That model handle Parkinson's Law implications through utilisation of stochastic activity completion time in project scheduling.

Damodaram Kamma, Geetha G., Padma Neela J., (2013) Countering Parkinson's Law for Improving Productivity

In this article a practical example is presented about successful implemetation of two techniques to minimise consequences of Parkinson's Law in a software development company. The "experiment" is exhaustively described along with data collection and results analysis. I believe this article is a valid piece to get inspiration from and find new innovative ways of facing Parkinson's Law in everyday project manager's life.


  1. 1.0 1.1
  4. PMI's Pulse of the Profession 2017, 9th Global Project Management Survey. url:
  5. 5.0 5.1 Project Management Institute, Inc.. (2017). Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (6th Edition). (pp. 173, 230). Project Management Institute, Inc. (PMI). Retrieved from
  7. 7.0 7.1 Genaro J. Gutierrez, Panagiotis Kouvelis, (1991) Parkinson's Law and Its Implications for Project Management. Management Science 37(8):990-1001.
  8. Damodaram Kamma, Geetha G., Padma Neela J., (2013) Countering Parkinson's Law for Improving Productivity
  11. Bo Chen, Nicholas G. Hall, (2020) Incentive schemes for resolving Parkinson’s Law in project management. European Journal of Operational Research 288 (2021) 666-681
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