C Northcote Parkinson

C Northcote Parkinson

When it comes to time management most of us are aware of Parkinson’s Law, the idea that work expands to fill the time available.  What many of us aren’t aware of is Parkinson’s other law, the Law of Triviality, which states that “organisations give disproportionate weight to trivial issues”.

One of the examples given by the eponymous C Northcote Parkinson was a committee looking at the design of a nuclear power station that became focused on the requirements for a bicycle shed.  This, incidentally, is why the same behaviour in software development is known as “bike-shedding”.

The reason for the tendency for organisations to do this is plain – by definition it’s easier to grasp trivia than larger and more complex issues.  But this is also true for us as individuals, and Parkinson’s Law of Triviality affects our time management just as much.

We have a tendency to gravitate to tasks that either deflect us from less enjoyable tasks, or that we enjoy in themselves.  This is why so many tasks at work involve setting up a new folder or spreadsheet, putting together contact lists or template reports, or a hundred and one other displacement activities.  This is why work expands to fill the time available – because instead we put an overall heading on the task (such as “Design nuclear reactor”) and then spend disproportionate time on one minor aspect (such as the bicycle shed).

I wrote in my blog post on “Information overload” that addressing that issue was about choosing more carefully the tasks that we become involved in, and behaving more assertively.  The strategy for dealing with time management is essentially the same, in that it needs us to make decisions based on what’s important and what’s rewarding.

Rewarding in this sense isn’t about the tasks that we find enjoyable, but about those that will give us a sense of purpose or achievement.  It’s about facing and dealing with tasks that we assume, whether from experience or imagination, will be unpleasant or uncomfortable.  Not only can completing these tasks be rewarding in itself, but normally it can also reduce the stress involved with them.

In mentally rehearsing a task’s unpleasantness we don’t actually make ourselves more prepared or more resilient,  In fact by imagining the stress and then postponing it we get to experience the stress as we picture the task, and then experience further stress about the fact that it’s still hanging over us.  The displacement behaviour that is designed to minimise our discomfort therefore ends up increasing it instead.  Better time management then can mean not just greater effectiveness or focus, but actively reduce stress and discomfort.