Timeboxing Works. Use Parkinson's Law to Your Advantage as a Software Engineer.

August 11, 2020 · 2 min read

Old hourglass standing on rocky ground. Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

You’ve probably heard of Parkinson’s Law before. “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

It is the introductory sentence in a humorous essay about British civil servants made by Cyril N. Parkinson in 1955. You can find the original essay here. Go read it, it’s still relevant and funny today.

You can take an entire week writing a short essay. Doing research, outlining, writing, and re-writing. Or you take 4 hours. Research the essentials, read the style guide, write what you know, and fix grammatical issues. If you still have time you can smooth some rough edges in your writing.

How can we use this law to our advantage?

Let’s find out.

Work expands and shrinks based on constraints

Constraints shape the way you solve problems. They restrict the paths you can use that lead to a valid solution.

In your day-to-day work you have many types of constraints, from time constraints (yay, deadlines!), to resource constraints (a fixed team size), to technical constraints (that obscure API you need to use). You may also be restricted to use certain tools and not others.

Constraints lead to unexpected but great solutions.

How to use Parkinson’s Law to your advantage

The two uses I see in Parkinson’s Law are:

  • Timeboxing: if you want to do anything, set yourself an ambitious deadline and you’ll be more productive, even if you don’t make it. Most often it doesn’t matter if the deadline is self-imposed or comes from a client. Scrum kind of works this way. You start by planning backwards and thinking: “how much can we achieve in the given time?”. Then when the sprint starts your thinking shifts to “how can we reach our sprint goals?” which gives you a time constraint.
  • What if’s: when you think something takes two weeks, ask yourself how you would approach it if you wanted to finish it today. How can you reach your one-year plan in the next two months? What would you need to focus on, and what should you drop?

Both tools together help you make the most of your most important asset: your time.

How to make time constraints second-nature to you

Here are the three most important exercises around time-constraints:

  • Before you start any task, think about how long it will take you. Halve that time and see if you can finish your task within this self-imposed deadline.
  • If your to-do list feels too big for the day, ask yourself what you would drop if you only had 4 hours instead of a full day.
  • Find a plan to reach your personal goals for the year in two months. Such a heavy time constraint helps you to find alternative paths towards your goals, to identify the essential steps and to use every leverage you can find.