Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s Law states that work will increase to fill the time allotted to it.

Typesetter at Enschede, Haarlem – Charles Frederick Ulrich

Typesetter at Enschede, Haarlem – Charles Frederick Ulrich

This is not always a bad thing. Every morning after first break students at the school spend half an hour or so doing a little preparation for the lesson that follows. They might do a bit of reading, or think about language in a given context, and so on. Often the preparation can be done well within the half-hour, and when it is appropriate we’ll just start in with the lesson. But students will take different amounts of time to complete tasks, and it happens that certain students, once they have finished the assigned task, will stare into space for a minute, look out of the window, check their mail; and then go back to the exercise in question, and start to think more carefully about it. They will check meanings or details of grammar, or complete bits of work not requested. This is all useful, small corners of time taken up with unedited work on language.

But in general, Parkinson’s Law, taken as a measure of the imbecility of institutions and bureaucracies, holds. Time is allotted, and tasks swell.

Cecil Northcote Parkinson, the originator of the law, had many unhappy years’ experience with the Civil Service, and made a number of trenchant and witty observations regarding it. He noted, for example, that bureaucracies will inevitably swell, pointing out that the British Colonial Office reached its greatest size just as it was folded into the Foreign Office for want of colonies left to administer. This happens, he noted, for two reasons:

  1. Officials make work for each other.
  2. An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals.

He noted, in this connection, that ‘a perfection of planned layout is achieved only by institutions on the verge of collapse’, and was also able to outline a law of triviality, whereby the amount of time spent considering matters in committee is in inverse proportion to their complexity. Committees will sign off on vastly expensive projects to build nuclear power stations in a matter of minutes because no one on the committee understands the issues, while they will agonise over the construction of a bikeshed, because everything thinks they know what they are talking about.

It is one of the odd luxuries of teaching English as a foreign language that the trivialities are often the most worthy of exploration – for example, I sometimes think students get more benefit by an order of magnitude from wrangling over the softwares in use in their presentations, than they do from any amount of grammar tense work. The implication of Parkinson’s Law, perhaps, is not that we should more carefully manage and audit our time, but that we should not be too quick to fill our time with tasks of pompous magnitude.