PARKINSON’S LAW states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. This law is a pervasive reality—and misguided practice—in much of the working world. But I recall first encountering it before I joined the ranks of the employed.
During the summer before my senior year of college, I spent several weeks in Fort Lewis, Washington, for the ROTC training required for a commission in the Army. On the day when it was my turn to lead my peers, we had just returned from several days in the field.
In military parlance, “the field” is shorthand for training outdoors, sleeping on the ground, and dealing with conditions meant to prepare you for war by being nearly as miserable. Consequently, everything was dirty, from our sleep-deprived bodies to our weapons.
Before we could clean ourselves, we had to clean our weapons and turn them in to the arms room. The whole platoon worked for several hours cleaning the weapons, shoving pipe cleaners into every crevice of our M-16s to remove the grime.
Here’s a conundrum about weapons cleaning: You can never really get older weapons completely clean because a proper cleaning requires oil at the end to keep the weapons from rusting. Once applied, this oil generates a dirty-looking residue from the carbon that’s ossified on the weapon’s metal coils and springs. The smallest amount of carbon combined with oil makes it look like you never cleaned the weapon.
Arms room sergeants who want to mess with trainees go directly to those coiled springs during an inspection of older training weapons. When we went to turn the platoon’s weapons in at lunchtime, the arms room sergeant discovered dirty-looking substances in the first two weapons he inspected.
He sent us back to clean some more. This order provided me with an opportunity to subvert Parkinson’s Law, although I didn’t even know its name then. I looked at my tired, dirty, hungry teammates in the platoon and decided we would try something new.
We each took turns guarding the weapons while the others ate lunch, showered, called home and caught up on missed sleep. Then we took the same weapons back to the arms room sergeant just before it was time for him to close shop and head home for dinner. When he inspected the M-16s this time, he miraculously discovered that they were clean. Unknowingly, I had used Parkinson’s Law against the sergeant. With dinner in mind, he had run out of time to prolong his inspection—or our cleaning duties.
When my senior officer discovered my perfidy—though I still think of it as common sense—he dropped my ranking in my final evaluation. Yet I would do it all over again, if for no other reason than it taught me a valuable lesson about time.
Many of us operate under the misguided belief that the amount of time spent working on a project equates to the quality of our work. Truly meaningful work has very little to do with the amount of time spent on it. Avoiding the trap of Parkinson’s Law is a good idea for organizations that want to have happy teams. But it’s even more critical to those of us who want to make good use of our days on earth.
Because time is my most finite, precious resource, I try to invert Parkinson’s Law whenever I can. I ask myself: What is the least amount of time I can spend on menial tasks to produce a successful outcome? Then I used the time I’ve saved on other activities—those I find more meaningful.
John Goodell is general counsel for the Texas Veterans Commission. He has spent much of his career advocating for military and veterans on tax, estate planning and retirement issues. His biggest passion is spending time with his wife and kids. Follow John on Twitter @HighGroundPlan and check out his earlier articles.