Time & Life
From the perspective of time, our life is the summation of all the time we have till we are alive!! Now the time we have can be used to pursue & achieve our wishes & dreams, it can also be used to enjoy every living moment of it. But, for most people around the globe, much of this time is consumed without them having a clue as to where it went!! People realize that a large quantum of their time goes neither in activities of enjoyment nor in efforts for achieving whatever their goals. How & why does that happen?
We all have just 24 hours in a day. Don’t all of us want to gain the maximum out of this most precious God-given gift- Time. The concept around which it is tough to get one’s head around. It has existed before us, it exists with us & will go on to exist without us. And yet, we can’t imagine our own existence without it. Time, in a way, is a pre-requisite quality of existence. The quality of time is one of the crucial ingredients in making the magic of life happen.
Life happens when all its crucial ingredients merge in 1 magical twist of fate; when consciousness, matter, time & circumstance come together. Should these facts not make us realize the rarity of this phenomenon of life? And, should it not make us value it a bit more? And, by logical extensions, should not each one of us make the most of life while we still have it?
Our lives & limited times
For many people situations & circumstances in life don’t permit them to utilize time to its best possible extent. e.g. people born in or inhabiting war-torn areas like Palestine, North Korea, or people with life situation in-conducive for mental stability (divorce, family tragedy, illness, etc.). But what about others? Those of us who are in relatively stable life situations, with a job, able body & stable society? What restricts people like that from achieving their full potential in life?
The conflict in humanity’s base design
Quiet counter-intuitively, the biggest enemy to personal productivity is seated not outside of oneself but within each & every one of us. It is hard-wired into our biology by the process of evolution. Each specie survives in the wild by adapting to its environment. The snake crawls, Cheetah runs & the bird flies. Each specie has evolved to do 1 specific function very well. In other words, evolution ingrains specialization. Humans have followed this evolutionary path of mammals & apes to its present form
The human specialty
But what do humans specialize in? Certainly, walking or the opposable thumb by themselves wouldn’t have made us the dominant specie on the planet. It’s the ability to think & the exuding quality of intelligence that is the unique trait & specialization of humans!! But in stark contrast to any other evolution endowed skill, intelligence births within it the ability to do various things better, not just one. With intelligence humans can cultivate, hunt, build machines and what not! This skill is clearly a first in evolution as far as life on earth is concerned.
But what is the fuss about then? What is restricting humans now that they have intelligence? Well, even though the skill of thinking has manifested, humans have to use their brains to harness it. From evolutionary perspective, the human brain is just one part of the body & that’s it. It shouldn’t be given more importance than it’s due. But in the last 2000 -3000 years or so, everything in human society has changed so dramatically because of this single trait of intelligence. Great cities have been built, civilizations erected & invention have made our lives easier. Most humans don’t have to worry about out-running a predator, hunting for food, or cultivating, things which were primary concerns for humans only a few thousand years ago.
Progress outpacing evolution
Anyone who has read even basic history will know that the changes in humanity’s surroundings have only been increasing ever-more-rapidly with time. 1
The time-periods intervening phases of major transformation in humanity’s way-of-life have been declining very rapidly and consistently. It’s as if there is a build up to a major climax in a future point in time, not so far away. But the cost of such progress is an overwhelmed specie trying to cope up.
A key fact remains that evolution takes millions of years to wire-in an environmental reality into a beings biological design. One glaring observation is that: Societal progress has outpaced biological human evolution. The result: overworked people, stressed brains & lack of motivation to keep on working.
The apparent conflict in base design is thus: tasks expected to be performed by a single human as part of a civilized & intelligent society are very different from what humans are biologically designed to do. The brain feels overworked because it has not yet evolved biologically to match the skill level it expected to perform at by a civilized society. It’s like a Cheetah has been give a Formula F-1 car & the new fast-running Cheetah society expects each Cheetah to run faster & faster, all the time!! But Cheetah’s body also has other needs like sitting under the sun, lazying around, doting females, etc. Thus begins the conflict between opposing forces within the Cheetah as well as the humans.
What is Parkinson’s Law (PL)?
Parkinson’s law (PL) is the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. It is also sometimes applied to the growth of the bureaucratic apparatus in an organization.
In his book ‘Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress’ (London, John Murray, 1958), Cyril Northcote Parkinson derived the dictum from his extensive experience in the British Civil Service. 2 During his days at the British Civil Service, he noted that as bureaucracies expanded, they became more inefficient. He noted that even a simple task tended to become more complex if time allotted for its completion was relatively far. On the other hand complex task became simpler & easier to solve if time allotted for its completion was limited. He then extended his argument to a broader spectrum stating that as a task time-line or team size increased, the efficiency of work drops as a result. Clearly, more is not better in this case.
The adage grew in popularity as it properly reflected the realities in the corporate world where organisations rewarded employees for long-hours rather than the real work they put in. In today’s office culture where the perception of busyness is given more importance than effectiveness at work, PL is visible for all to see its effects.
Relevance in our day-to-day lives
You might have even noticed it yourself, especially as a student. Whenever an exam was far off, you might have tended to relax even though the complexity or no. of chapters to finish would actually have required you to start studying around 15 days in advance. But since 15 days seem a long time, you slack! You assume there is sufficient buffer time. You wait, stall & wait till only 2 days are left for the exam. Suddenly, you realize that if you don’t pass this exam, your career could be in jeopardy. You panic & in that panic you start studying. You study with focus, intent & determination. Somehow you manage to finish the syllabus & get a descent score. Not a score you would be proud of or a score that matches your true abilities, but a score you think does justice to the time you put in for exam preparations.
The trend extends not just for exams but for any activity for any or most individuals across cultures, religions, organisations & nationalities. Truly, this trait binds us humans as one. Self-driven, self-motivated individuals are rare. The old carrot-and-stick approach to people management derives directly as a knee-jerk reaction to PL, a basic part of human nature.
The X-axis represents the passage of time. Y-axis represents the intensity of effort. Ideally, for a logical entity, effort should be evenly spread across time whereby one is not overly exerting oneself & still efficiently reaching the goal. But what we observe above is something different. We observe the infirmity of human nature!! Stalling, procrastination & actioning in response to fear.
The beastly origins
Employee Rohan works in a goods packaging company as a warehouse manager. His typical day revolves around making forecasts of inventory, ordering new stock of material, managing work of his subordinates, giving updates to his boss & other miscellaneous activities. In addition to this, new projects keep popping up from higher management from time to time. e.g. helping the IT team designing a new system with his inputs, making a presentation for an upcoming meeting, making reports, etc.
While the tasks seem not abnormal, let us not forget that at the end of the day, Rohan in a Primate. Because that’s what human really is!!
The conflict within Rohan
The expectation from Rohan is to do all this brain-centric work in a typical working day. But his body isn’t designed for it. So, what happens? Conflict arises within him. His motivations & drive go for a toss. Beyond a point Rohan starts to avoid work!! But what else can he do? He has to do the work to survive. Rohan pushes the work for latter, subconsciously being governed by his biological design to shirk excess brain-work. He pushes & pushes till the deadline is so near that work might not get done at all. This goes on to the point that Rohan’s job becomes at stake!!
Manifestation of Parkinson’s Law
When Armageddon is upon Rohan, biology kicks in again because it is now a matter of survival!! He finishes the task using his ever-elusive motivation & brain-power within a tight schedule & somehow survives but is drained at the end of it all. This becomes a routine for Rohan. Work comes on his plate, he pushes it off for later until the deadline is so close that his survival instinct kicks in & he forces his brain to work & get it over with. Then he rests, exhausted. Isn’t that more familiar to our primate Rohan? Hunt, get exhausted, then rest till you are so hungry then hunt again!
The above scenario is a typical example of how Parkinson’s Law operates. Parkinson’s law is the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”
Hence, Parkinson’s law is a mere manifestation of the basic incongruence between human biology and the expectations of an evolved society from its members.
Knowing is curing
They say that experience bears wisdom. Across ages, great men have seeken council from wise old men. Old sayings often bear flashes of wisdom acting as a substitute of the council of such wise men. ‘Look before your leap’ or ‘Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder’ or ‘Work expands to fill the time available for its completion’, all represent perceptions of reality that those before us. They want future generations to gain from their acquired wisdom.
But what makes one such adage so important that we want to investigate it so deeply? It is a common wisdom that knowing about a problem is half the problem solved. From management consultants to rocket scientists follow this simple yet powerful wisdom in taking organizations & humanity to new heights. In a similar vein, the problem of loss in productivity can be traced mostly to this rudimentary old adage: Parkinson’s law. This is why a proper we attempt to diagnose this condition at an individual and a group level.
In today’s capitalistic society where everyone strives to be as efficient as possible, any waste in productive hours directly translates to not just a loss in societal status or power, but a threat to survival itself. This has implications not just individuals, but entire teams, organisations & societies. Parkinson’s Law (PL) becomes relevant for people & organisations who want to overcome their biological boundaries & embrace the accelerated pace for human societal.