“It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” British naval historian and author Cyril Northcote Parkinson wrote that opening line for an essay in The Economist in 1955, but the concept known as ‘Parkinson’s Law’ still lives on today.
“People like to say if it wasn’t for the last minute, nothing would get done. But research shows people’s productivity is not linear,” says Elizabeth Tenney, an assistant professor at the University of Utah’s Eccles School of Business who has written about time pressure and productivity. “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.”
That might not mean taking up the full time allotted or working all the way up to your deadline, she says. “Cut yourself off rather than keep tinkering for all time.”
So what about Parkinson’s hypothetical little old lady writing letters? If she had given herself a tighter deadline, she would’ve probably finished more quickly. But with nothing else to do all day, she finished just in time.