The Eponymous Principles of Management : Parkinson’s Law, Its Variants & Time Management – Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s Law is essentially a thumb rule which states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. It is used as a criticism against the inefficiencies of bureaucracies in large organisations. Parkinson’s law refers to the tendency among people at work to finish their tasks only just in time for the deadline even though they are capable of completing it earlier. Over the period of time, it came to be identified the usual procrastinating tendency in, almost, everyone.

Parkinson’s law is attributed to British naval historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson who wrote about it in a satirical article published in The Economist in 1955. It was later reprinted in the 1958 book Parkinson’s Law or the Pursuit of Progress. The line which is now accepted as rule was in fact the first line of that article- “It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

Parkinson did not name the current law as such in that article. He in fact observed that what really can occupy a busy person for not more than three minutes can leave another person prostrate for the whole day, with all incumbent doubt, anxiety, and toll. His main interest still was in the effect this elasticity of time had with reference to the quantum work had on the rising number of civil servants. He went on to explain this phenomenon by two axiomatic statements:

(1) “An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals,” and

(2) “Officials make work for each other.”

He noted that the number employed in a bureaucracy rose by 5–7 per cent per year “irrespective of any variation in the amount of work (if any) to be done.” Parkinson states that,  ‘in any public administrative department not actually at war the staff increase may be expected to follow this formula” (for a given year), which he called as The Law of Multiplication of Subordinates :

x = (2km+P)/n

    • 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)
    • P – difference: age at hiring − age at retirement
    • n – number of administrative files actually completed

It was this multiplication of subordinates that necessitated work distribution such that each one of them remained busy, which was perhaps possible by only through completing the task only when it was finally due.

Parkinson states at the end of his article that discovery of the law (of multiplication of subordinates) is purely scientific delivery.  As botanist’s business is to only eradicate weeds, not to tell us how fast they can grow, so is the case with his law.

One scholar who has taken a serious look at Parkinson’s Law is Stefan Thurner, a professor in Science of Complex Systems at the Medical University of Vienna. He happened to read Parkinson’s book around the same time when he was perplexed with increase in the number of administrative employees and was inspired to turn it into a mathematical model that could be manipulated and tested, along with co-authors Peter Klimek and Rudolf Hanel. In fact, studies in the decades since Parkinson wrote his essay have shown it has some merit.

In his book, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, Eldar Shafir and co-author Sendhil Mullainathan talk about focusing deeply on a project at the cost of other things. “When you have a deadline it’s like a storm ahead of you or having a truck around the corner. It’s menacing and it’s approaching, so you focus heavily on the task.” And you may well pull off a great job, but the problem is that everything else gets moved to the periphery. And there’s always the chance that rushing to accomplish something in too few hours can have drawbacks as well, particularly if your deadline is set by somebody else.

Elizabeth Tenney, an assistant professor at the University of Utah’s Eccles School of Business, in her book – co-authored with Don A Moore – Time Pressure, Performance and Productivity, states, inter alia, that “When people sit down to do a task, they’ll put in a lot of effort initially. At some point there’s going to be diminishing returns on extra effort. To optimise productivity, you need to maximise benefits and minimise costs and find that inflection point, which is where you should start to wrap up.”[1]

Similar other studies have established Parkinson’s Law, in the form as is now well-known, as the cornerstone of productivity of time.

[1] The ‘law’ that explains why you can’t get anything done – Tiffanie Wen



In July 2011, I opted to retire from my active career as a practicing management professional. In the 38 years that I pursued this career, I had opportunity to work in diverse capacities, in small-to-medium-to-large engineering companies. Whether I was setting up Greenfield projects or Brownfield projects, nurturing the new start-ups or accelerating the stabilized unit to a next phase growth, I had many more occasions to take the paths uncharted. The life then was so challenging! One of the biggest casualty in that phase was my disregards towards my hobbies - Be with The Family, Enjoy Music form Films of 1940s to mid-1970s period, write on whatever I liked to read, pursue amateur photography and indulge in solving the chess problems. So I commenced my Second Innings to focus on this area of my life as the primary occupation. At the end of four years, I am now quite a regular blogger. I have been able to build a few very strong pen-relationships. I maintain contact with 38-years of my First Innings as freelance trainer and process facilitator. And yet, The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.

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