Time Hacks and Parkinson’s Law

Patrol Base

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion

I stood in the middle of the patrol base. It was completely dark, and I was giving orders to my team leaders. I told them to have the men pair up, and one at a time, pull off the line. One would clean his weapon while the other maintained security.

They dutifully nodded and made it happen, tired soldiers crawling a few meters back from their position to lazily wipe carbon and oil out of the guts of their rifles. They droned on.

I sat in the middle of the patrol base and worked on a sector sketch, feeling good about having given out orders.

The military trainer approached me and kneeled. I could barely see his face in the darkness.

He asked, “What are you doing?”

“I’m working on my sector sketch,” I responded.

“No, what are your guys doing?”

“Oh, they’re cleaning weapons,” I said, looking over my shoulder at dark figures, barely moving.

“How long have they been doing that for?”

“Uh, about thirty minutes,” I responded.

“Listen, when you give out orders you need to give a task, condition, standard, and a time hack. Otherwise, they’ll just go on doing whatever it is you told them to do forever.”

This small piece of advice would be forever etched in my mind. I was 19 years old in the the woods of Fort Bragg, North Carolina and it was right there that I learned the importance of giving clear orders with an associated time hack. In this case, instead of simply telling the guys to to “clean their weapons” I should have said something like “pull out the bolt, wipe off the oil and carbon, dump some oil on it, put the bolt back in and then swap out with your buddy. You have five minutes to have both rifles clean. Go.”

The “time hack” is a leadership technique used to great effect by both small unit military leaders and field grade officers. If you tell a soldier to do something – whatever it is – without giving specific guidance on how to do it and more importantly, when to do it (or when to have it completed), you are leaving the task to the individual leisure of that soldier. If he or she is motivated and a go-getter, they may tackle it immediately with fantastic results. If he or she is a shammer, it will always be the task that they are right about to get to, as soon as they finish this other thing.

Years later, after I left the Army, I became really interested in “lifehack” blogs and “GTD” articles. Somewhere along the way, I came across “Parkinson’s Law,” which states “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” That is, if you give someone a big chunk of time in which to accomplish a task, it is likely that they will use that time to its fullest. This is related to procrastination, in the way a student can knock out a paper they were assigned a month ago on the night before it is due, simply out of necessity.

The original essay was meant to be humorous and a jab at the British Civil Service – specifically, the British Colonial Service, which incidentally I recently mentioned in another post. Funny as it is, Parkinson’s law makes sense, and can be applied to both organizations who duplicate jobs and create “busy” work as well as individuals, for whom, as Gretchen Rubin recently posted about – nothing is more exhausting than the task that is never started.

Parkinson’s article is worth reading in its entirety. The manner and style is outdated, which is why I think boiling down the law to assigning “time hacks” is more digestible. Schedule a task and limit the amount of time you give yourself (or someone else) for completion, and you are more likely to see it to completion. Leave it floating out there in the ether to be completed at leisure, and it will never get done, becoming an exhausting nag that stares at you for days and weeks and months on end.

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