Back in law school, before the Internet, before laptops, before PCs almost and when affordable photocopying (Xerox, for short) was still a somewhat new and amazing thing, we had to read Supreme Court decisions in the library. We were there in the morning when the library opened, and we were there when it closed at 9:00 pm. We only left the library to attend classes and eat, and yet we were never able to read all the assigned cases. No matter how much time we set aside for library work, our reading load used it all up.
Through the many jobs I held, the same thing happened. Drafting pleadings and briefs (What irony!), for example, took all day, all night and all weekend; and just when I thought I was close to finishing, a supervising partner would put something new on my desk. Eventually we would be able to send everything to court at the last minute of the last day before the final non-extendible deadline.
When Powerpoint became the preferred mode of communication, no deck ever got completed until just moments before the presentation. Even if let’s say the board meeting was postponed by one whole week, there was always an additional slide to insert, a different sequence to follow or a whole new overall message to convey, and we’d end up huddled over a laptop making changes even as we hooked up to the projector.
Sometimes it was not a matter of work being added to the load, but of stress and anxiety (and laziness) conspiring to stretch out the work to eat up any buffer in the time allotted. Thus, even in my retirement when one might think I have all the time in the world, the smallest tasks somehow become complex and all-consuming, leaving me with no time to learn to play the saxophone.
These experiences led me to formulate what I call Dan’s Law of Workload, to wit: Work expands to fill the time available.
(A Google search revealed that exactly the same wording is called Parkinson’s Law, but since there is also a Parkinson’s disease, I believe the world will benefit from a less confusing name like Dan’s Law. Or maybe I can reword my law to something like You will always be working until the deadline. No, the first one sounds better.)
Dan’s Law has many implications. For instance, a kind and considerate boss always sets deadlines on Fridays because if he says “Submit on Monday” his staff will work needlessly through the weekend. Similarly, a smart boss never grants his subordinates an extension on a deadline. If he does, he will only get the same output he would have gotten at the original deadline. The trick is to require people to complete their work on time. Then, only after the job is done or submitted, give it back to them for improvement with a new deadline. Sneaky, but effective.
If, however, you are not a boss but a worker, it doesn’t help to set a fake deadline for yourself as some productivity experts recommend because, as the saying goes, you can fool some of the people all of the time and you can fool all of the people some of the time, but you can’t really fool yourself anytime unless you are a fool to begin with. All right, maybe you are the exception who proves the rule because you have enough discipline to meet your own self-imposed deadlines. If that’s the case, then you won’t be a mere worker for long; and as soon as you become a boss, it’s a whole new ballgame for you as far as Dan’s Law is concerned.
Now a couple of guys have posited the following corollary to Parkinson’s Law: Since work expands to fill the time available for its completion, then if you wait until the last minute to do the work, it will only take a minute to do it.
Nice one. Hahaha. Unfortunately, it’s not true. It’s crappy wishful thinking at best. Maybe if we were talking about an axiom in Euclidean geometry or laws of classical physics, it might work, but we’re not. Dan’s Law is a law of human perception and behavior, and we all know (from Star Trek again) that humans are incurably illogical and emotional beings.
Besides, for the corollary to be valid, you have to believe that work can also contract or that work can somehow be completed in less time than originally made available. Impossible. In the entire history of paid labor, I ask you, has anyone ever said his workload has decreased?
And here’s the ultimate proof: in the TV series MasterChef, the competing home cooks are always working, cooking and plating down to the very last second when Gordon Ramsay shouts, "Hands Up!" No matter what the cooks are required to make—desserts, fried eggs, comfort food or fine-dining restaurant-quality entrées—they are consistently rushing from the start to the end of the time given. No one ever finishes early and hangs out and watches the others struggle. No one. Ever.
I think I have just stumbled upon a companion law—Dan’s Second Law of Workload: Work never contracts.
However, since I’m already up against the deadline for submission of this article, an exploration of Dan’s Second Law will have to wait for another article (which BusinessMirror will have to pay for separately).