Vocab Rehab: Parkinson’s Law

Like the Hobson’s Choice, here’s another adage you may find useful for spicing up the occasional cocktail party (or industry conference, board meeting or weekend with the in-laws). Years ago, when I was remarking how our workload never seemed to ease, even in the draft of increased staffing, my wise coworker Fred clued me in on Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

This was first humorously articulated by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in a essay published in The Economist in 1955. Hence the naming rights. And I’ve seen this Law in evidence for most of my professional life. Purchase a new CRM tool to streamline the sales and marketing process? Instead of freeing up time for market research, you’ll find you’re just processing more data in the same amount of hours. Decide to hire an assistant to offload some of your responsibilities? Your schedule is guaranteed to be no less dense. The demand for your time increases with the availability of that time.

Interestingly, Parkinson’s Law comes with some clever corollaries:

  • If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do. (Stock-Sanford Corollary)
  • Data expands to fill the space available for storage. (for computers)

But don’t confuse this Law with Michael Pollan’s “Snackwell Effect,” which is based on the self-defeating phenomenon where people eat more low-calorie cookies (like the Snackwell brand) than they would eat regular-calorie cookies. The same applies for agave nectar, which as a replacement sweetener should actually be used in smaller amounts than the equivalent honey or sugar. In these cases, I believe the stomach expands to fill the available notches on your belt.

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