Parkinson’s Law and 3 Ways to Work Less and Get More Done

May 2, 2014 by



Australia: 20. Sweden: 38. Canada: 15. Norway: 26. Switzerland: 32. Germany: 25.  The countries are those ranked as having the world’s highest standards of living. The numbers are minimum number of paid leave days employers are legally obliged to give their employees in those countries (note the numbers can far exceed those listed).

Then there’s the United States: bupkis. American employers are not required to give their employees any paid time off. To be fair, 10 days is pretty standard for employees of most big companies. But check this out: a survey by Glassdoor found that 51% of Americans who had paid leave didn’t take it. That’s right, their companies told them to take off, gave em’ some loot to have fun, and these folks said, “No thanks, I got work to do.”

The survey also found that only 25% of employees took all of their paid leave, and that 61% of those who took vacation leave said they worked during those vacations.

This inability to not work might be linked with the American belief that working more means more success and happiness, another study found (a belief celebrated in the above Cadillac commercial). With a belief like this, vacationing and taking time off are stressful events. The Glassdoor survey found that 28% of people feared a vacation would cause them to fall behind at their jobs. 17% feared losing their jobs.

However, the link between working more and more success and happiness is not strong in most other nations. For a good reason: it’s not true. John de Graaf, who runs an organization called Take Back Your Time, told CNN, “There is simply no evidence that working people to death gives you a competitive advantage.” He points to the World Economic Forum Global Competitive Index, where all but two of the top ten economies have workforces with requisite and substantial paid leave (the US and Singapore being the exceptions. And some say Singaporeans are some of the most miserable folks on earth).

Overworking and Parkinson’s Law

This American overworking phenomenon–one that, like obesity and Walmart, will probably travel the world–might have something to do with a “law” set forth by a Brit named C. Northcote Parkinson. Parkinson said that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” In other words, there will never be enough time to do your work if you have no limits for the amount of time you work. For many Americans, work time is primarily limited, not be vacations, hobbies, leisure, family, etc, but by the interruptions of routine bodily functions.

Okay, perhaps it’s not that bad, but it is bad. Americans have trained themselves to fill their prescribed or self-imposed work-time vacuum in order to satisfy their (um, our) drive for success and happiness. The issue isn’t that this strategy is making us economically successful (the US is #4 on the WEF Competitive Index, though you could argue about the distribution of this success), it’s that our strategy has no positive correlation with success–as evidenced by the fact that many of the most economically powerful nations enjoy ample paid leave. And there certainly isn’t a positive correlation with happiness. According to the JWT Anxiety Index, Americans are more anxious than these other countries who have mandatory paid leave. This is not to say that overworking is the specific cause of the anxiety, but the level of anxiety should call into question the notion that more work = more success = more happiness.

What does this mean to Joe and Jane Six Pack? We have a few suggestions for anyone looking to escape the “don’t have enough time/gotta work more to be more successful” hamster wheel:

  1. Look how inefficiencies might be bloating our punchcard. Remember that the average American spends 4 hrs 15 mins watching TV and 2 hrs 38 mins on his cellphone or tablet per day. Many of us probably waste many hours a day on things that have nothing to do with work, but because we do them while working, it somehow satisfies our desire to fill the work-time slot. For example, 5 hrs work + 2 hrs Facebook + 1 hr fantasy football = 8 hr workday. What if we just did the 5 hrs of work and then went for a run or hung out with our kids?
  2. Impose limits on how long you can work. As any college student with three days to finish a ten page paper will attest, short timetables tend to put things in motion faster than indefinitely long ones. Consider that the addition of leisure time or some other non-work event–one that might make you more than a worker bee–may well drive you to get work done quicker and more efficiently than the addition of time.
  3. Don’t be afraid to work less. Consider that more time is not what you need to be more successful, and that less time may do the trick and leave time to play. We understand there is a deeply entrenched culture of overworking to contend with, but when we focus on quality of work, rather than quantity of time, performance and contribution rather than duration, we may even win over colleagues. Of course, this might not translate to every profession–e.g. a babysitter is paid for her time–but there are many professions where this is quite applicable.

We welcome your comments!