Work Expands to Fill Available Time

Parkinson's Law is alive and well.

Posted Aug 20, 2019

This aphorism of C. Northcote Parkinson is often used to explain why productivity is so low for lifetime appointees like civil servants. Is this generalization true? What is its psychological underpinning?

As individuals, we all experience days in which there is little to do and even less gets accomplished as work expands to fill the available time, Parkinson was interested more in organizations than in individuals.

Parkinson in Practice

Parkinson was a naval historian but authored Parkinson's Law a short humorous book that became a source for anyone interested in institutional, and governmental waste. Even so, the ideas were neglected by academics because they were packaged as satire rather than in scholarly form.

A key theme of Parkinson's Law was that bureaucracies inevitably become larger as heads of departments compete for resources and prestige and devote increasing numbers of workers to managing themselves.

While Parkinson provided good insight into why government bureaucracies get increasingly larger and more inefficient, Parkinson's Law has an intriguing individual component that is worth exploring.

It is hard to deny that people tend to become less efficient when they lack time pressure. Why? One example relates to the deadlines for student papers. Very little gets done early in the semester. This often produces a minor crisis in which almost nothing has been done in the week before the deadline. A flurry of activity ensues culminating in the masterpiece being completed in the hours, or minutes, preceding the deadline.

Is it Animal Behavior?

Given the stress of the end of the semester, it would be more rational for students to complete their term papers early so that they could focus on other responsibilities, such as exams. Yet, this rarely happens. Why?

This problem may have been cracked by B. F. Skinner many decades ago in his work with pigeons. The leading behaviorist of his day would give pigeons a reward if they pecked a key after a fixed amount of time and automatically recorded their key pecking that automatically generated a graph (which was state-of-the-art research in the late 1930's).

After getting a reward, the pigeons took it easy. As the time for the next food delivery approached, they became more active with an occasional peck. When the food was due, they would be pecking rapidly.

Skinner concluded that the activity of the pigeons was controlled by their schedule of reinforcement – in this case, an interval schedule.

Similarly, students are on an interval schedule such that the reward of delivering an anxiety-provoking paper happens at the paper deadline.

It is no accident that most people are also paid at regular intervals, a system that generates fairly low levels of work compared to piece work that induces people to work so hard they may endanger their health.

Students slack off because they are animals and all animals are controlled by schedules of reinforcement! Yet, there are some aspects of Parkinson's Law that are distinctively human, specifically our concern with how we are perceived by others.

The Human Side of Taking it Easy

While students and others may be affected by schedulers of reinforcement, there is more to human inefficiency than simple principles of animal behavior. Parkinson recognized that people in organizations are also affected by how other people perceive them.

In his view, the biggest driver of bureaucratic bloat was the vanity of department heads who competed over resources and personnel. In particular, having more people reporting to one was a key objective in bolstering the status of a particular department.

Whereas small private companies compete to be more efficient, and more profitable, and do the most possible work with the fewest employees, public bureaucracies essentially do the opposite. In that environment, those in leadership positions compete over available resources. Getting more employees is the most reliable method of tying up funding.

If new people are to be hired, their employment must be justified. That means that work must be invented for them to perform.

In a bloated bureaucracy, this means that work expands to fill the time available for its completion and that department budgets expand to consume all available money. This very human side of inefficiency is thus connected to organizational behavior rather than reflecting simple schedule effects.

It is what keeps political conservatives awake at night – at least those old-fashioned ones, like George Will, who still care about big government and bloated deficits.

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