Parkinson's law and how to manage it

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Author: Emil Ballermann



The definition of Parkinson's Law is that work expands to fill the time alotted . Cyril Northcote Parkinson, whos was a British author and historian outlined the concept in a humorous essay in The Economist in 1955 [1]. In the essay, Parkinson describes how assigned tasks will usually take up all the time available for its completion, and if more time can be made available, the task will also take up that added time. Sometimes the law is applied to limit increasing bureaucracy in a company or organisation. The growth of bureaucracy depends on mainly two factors: The Law of Multiplication of Subordinates and The Law of Multiplication of Work. The Law of Multiplication of Subordinates is the tendency of managers to hire two or more subordinates to report to them so that neither is in direct competition with the manager themself; and the fact that bureaucrats create work for other bureaucrats [2]. The Law of Multiplication of Work states that people will create deliverables for each other by complicating it to keep everyone occupied. Employees are the overworked, lacking resources amd therefore more an organisation will hire more employees. Parkinson determined from his analysis that a typical company had a staff increase per year to be around 5-7% completely unrelated to the amount of work in the organisation. The fact that there is no linear relationship between amount of staff and amount of people depicts Parkinson's law. Based on this, he formulated a mathematical formula to determine the annual increase in staff in any public administrative department.

Example and sub-laws

Whether it’s an engineering project, a essay due in the english class, or a work exercise in your everyday job, how long it will take you to do it depends on how much time you have for it. Imagine an elderly woman who wakes up and decides to send her grandson who lives in the capital a postcard today. Before anything she has to get breakfast because of her daily routines. After that she spends half an hour trying to remember where the old postcards are hidden. An hour is spend on waking up her husband to ask him to fetch it in the back of the messy storage room. There is none to her liking, so she decides to go and buy a new one in the corner store which open up in another hour. After a successful trip to the corner store, she will spend another half an hour in search for the adress before the composition will be made. Twenty minutes is now spending on deciding wether or not she has to bring an umbrella for dispatching the post card in the pillar box 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 [3] .

Law of Multiplication of Subordinates

In order for us to understand the underlying theories, an experiment was outlined in the article for Parkinson’s Law in The Economist [1], regarding a civil servant denoted with an A, who are assigned too many tasks. It is immaterial whether this stress is legitimate or imaginary. However, it should be noted that A’s sensation may be the result of the decreasing energy that is normally accompanied with age. From the viewpoint of A, there are a total of three possible remedies, proposed by C. Northcote Parkinson[1]:

  1. They may step down from their position.
  2. They may ask to share the workload with a colleague called B.
  3. They may ask two subordinates for help. They are denoted C and D.

It is reasoned that throughout civil service history, there has been no instance in which A has chosen any but the third alternative. Resignation would deny A of their pension rights, and by appointing B, A would merely bring a rival for promotion to a higher position, should a vacancy occur. Therefore, A would rather have subordinates C and D, below them. Another point to realize in law of subordinates is that C and D are inseparable, since appointment of i.e., C alone would have been impossible. This is because C would divide the work with A and therefore assume nearly the equal status if B were appointed instead; further emphasized if C is A’s only apparent successor.

Law of Multiplication of Work

In this sub-law, described by C. Northcote Parkinson in the Economist[1], seven workers are now doing the job the one worker did previously. The seven workers make a lot of work for each other. They demanding all their available time from eachother and A is working more than ever before. An incoming paper may very well be presented to each of them in turn. In this example, E decides that the contents of the paper fall into the work area of person F, who then places a draft reply to C, who amends it exceedingly before consulting D, who asks G to handle it. However, G is absent on leave in this point in time, and therefore forwards it to H, who drafts a minute, signed by D, and returned to C, who once more revises his draft accordingly and lays this version before A [1].

Visualisation of Parkinsons law by Emil B.
A now has a choice to make regarding signing the thing unread, therefore also deciding whether C or D should succeed to his own office. Considering F’s special increment of salary for the period of the conference, and E’s application for transfer to the Ministry of Pensions. This along with other countless considerations may color A’s intentions, thus tempting A to sign C’s draft and have it done with. However, being conscientious, A decides to go through the draft with care, deleting unnecessary paragraphs and restores the document to the form preferred by F. A then produces the same reply they would have written if C through H had never existed. See Figure for visual representation of this thought experiment. The results of this thought experiment have thus showed that far more people have taken far longer to produce the same result. No official has stayed idle. All parties have done their best.

Work has a tendency to become increasingly more complex as to fill the time alotted when poeple are involved. Procrastination plays a big role in Parkinson's law. Knowing that a project or and undertaking has a deadline often inspires us to leave work to right before that deadline – and our delays in getting started mean the time required for that task expands.

Parkinson uses the example of how the bureaucracy of the British Civil Service grew unrelated to the amount of work. The growth depended on two factors: The Law of Multiplication of Subordinates and The Law of Multiplication of Work. He formulated a mathematical formula to determine the increase in staff in any public administrative departmment. Parkinson's Law explains the behavioural aspect of scheduling. If more time is available to complete a task, the task will most likely take up all the time. This results in inefficient use of time and effort. Project managers can use this to understand employees motivation for completing tasks. In project schedule management, this is valuable knowledge when estimating activity duration. The project manager should account for this tendency when scheduling a project and to ensure efficient use of time. To account for Parkinson's Law, a project manager needs to set deadlines. Deadlines ensure that a task only takes up the necessary time for completion while requiring the most effort.

Parkins formula


  • x – number of new employees to be hired annually
  • k – number of employees who want to be promoted by hiring new employees
  • m – number of working hours per person for the preparation of internal memoranda (micropolitics)
  • L – difference: age at hiring − age at retirement
  • n – number of administrative files actually completed

Managing the problem

Risk Management

Monitoring and Controlling

Annotated bibliography

This article's literature was found mainly through research-based papers in 1) DTU Findit - articles relating to Parkinson's law, 2) snowballing from the reference lists of accessed articles. Thus, relevant material ranging from scientific articles to webpages were found, resulting in a comprehensive and broad study. A selection of the references will be described in the following section.

Geoffrey, R. Penzer. (1978). An Empirical Test of Parkinson's law [4] This article gives a fundamental introduction and understanding of Parkinson's law. The article concludes several things, but most importantly that big, centralized bodies have proportionately more supporting staff and fewer scientists than a small or dispersed organisation. Also, it is concluded that Parkinsons law is of general application: the number of administrators in an organisation expands irresistibly in response to the first law of sociodynamics.

Judith, F. Bryan and Edwin, A. Locke (1967). Parkinsons law as a goal setting phenomenon [5]:
Two experiments were designed to test the effects of different time limits on time taken to complete a task (Parkinson's law) and to determine whether goal-setting mediated the effects of time limits on performance rate. It was hypothesized that the different time limits would produce differences in performance rate only if and to the degree that different goals were set by Ss in the different conditions. Both groups in both experiments performed in accordance with Parkinson's Law on trials 1 to 3 (the Excess Ss taking longer to complete the task), and the hypothesis that goal setting mediated the Parkinson effect was supported.

Porter, B. D. (1980). Parkinsons law revisited - War and the growth of American Government[6]:
Bruce D. Porter wrote this article to outline some of his thoughs on C. Northcote Parkinon's article from the Economist. When George Washington’s first Administration was inaugurated in 1790, it functioned with nine simple executive units and approximately 1,000 employees. A century later, the 1891 census recorded that over 150,000 civilians were working in the Harrison Administration. During its first 100 years the American government had grown nearly 10 times as fast as the population. This article investigates whether Parkinson's law can be applied to these administrations.

Aronson, E. Landy, D. (1997). Further steps beyond Parkinsons Law - Replication and extension of excess time effect [7]:
In this project, subjects were presented with a second task which was either identical to, similar to, or different from the initial task. Of the subjects given the identical task, those who had been allowed excess time on the initial task chose to spend a greater amount of time performing the second task than those initially allowed minimum time. Thus, Aronson and Gerard's 1966 demonstration of the excess time effect was replicated. The design also permitted a test of the extent to which this effect generalized to dissimilar tasks as well as a test of a dissonance interpretation of the effect. Results regarding these last two aims were suggestive but inconclusive.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Parkinson, C. Northcote (November 19, 1955) "Parkinson’s Law", The Economist. Retrieved 25 February 2021.
  2. Wen, Tiffanie (May 22, 2020) "A British historian famously wrote that work expands to fill available time – but what was he actually saying about inefficiency?", BBC. Retrieved 25 February 2021.
  3. Waschenfelder, Thomas (November 8, 2020) "Mastering Your Time With Parkinson’s Law", Wealest. Retrieved 25 February 2021.
  4. Geoffrey, R. Penzer (November 19, 1955), The British Council, Cairo, Egypt. Accessed 25th of February 2021.
  5. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Edwin
  6. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Revisited
  7. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Aronson,for%20the%20Economist%20in%201955.

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