This week, I met up with a chap called Chris. He’s of the Acute Medicine Consultants at my hospital. Some friends and I are working with him on a Quality Improvement Project to improve the way junior doctors at my hospital respond to cardiac arrests.

We shared our thoughts about how to analyse the data, and discussed the changes we might make to make junior doctors more comfortable with holding the Crash Bleep, the pager that goes off whenever there’s a cardiac arrest that we have to run to.

We wrapped up with an action plan - stuff that we’re going to be doing to move things forward over the next few weeks. As we were working through some of the finer details, Chris advised us to keep Parkinson’s Law in mind.

Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time allocated to it.

Although our true deadline for completing this project is many weeks or even months away, having such a long time to do the work is actively unhelpful. We’d put it off for ages, then we’d run into logistical issues, then some of us would be on annual leave, all while the very idea of doing the work would be a weight on our shoulders.

Instead, he suggested, we should give ourselves a self-imposed deadline of 3-7 days to complete the next steps of the project. This would avoid unnecessary time wasting, and ensure we actually get the important stuff done.

Parkinson’s Law is useful to keep in mind in any endeavour that requires some level of work. That work will always expand to fill the time we allocate to it. In my school and university days, when I’d give myself a whole day to get an essay done, that essay would end up taking the whole day. If however, I had social/sports stuff that day and only 2 hours to work, I’d get the essay done in that time. I suspect there wasn’t much difference in quality between the two.

Equally, when I give myself a whole morning to film a video, it inevitably ends up taking the whole morning with multiple takes and a tonne of procrastination. If instead I just allow myself 30 minutes to film, I naturally get it done much faster and there’s legit no difference in quality between the two modes of operation.

I came across Parkinson’s Law many years ago when I first started reading books about productivity. I hadn’t really thought about it for a while though, so it was useful to have the reminder from Chris to apply it to our Quality Improvement Project. I’ve now started actively thinking about the Law more often whenever I need to get something done (including this email). Hopefully you’ll find it useful too.


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