Parkinson’s Law and the PhD Student: An Important Rule for Perfectionists

Parkinson’s Law 

Parkinson’s law originally described the phenomenon that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” So, for example, if you schedule an entire day to clean out your toolshed, it will probably take you the entire day to clean out your toolshed. You typically work at the pace required to get the job done in the the time that you have allotted.


Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons


While not foolproof, I have seen the truthfulness of this adage come to pass more than I would like. I am a perfectionist. I can stare at the computer screen for far too long searching my mind for just the right word to use in my thesis. I can dig around for what seems like forever in journals and books to ensure that I have made use of the right resources. With no firm deadline in sight, my perfectionist tendencies can lead me to spend unnecessary—and unhealthy!—amounts of time on work that is in the end trivial.

Such behavior obviously hinders productivity. My goal is not just to create a quality thesis, it is to create a quality thesis on time. I cannot spend forever wrestling with my “inner critic.”

Protecting Yourself

The solution, I have found, is to impose strict deadlines on myself to prevent the sort of task expansion that Parkinson’s law describes. If I am doing a book review for a journal I will give myself a set amount of hours to complete it. Leaving the work with no firm deadline will cause me to spend far too long on it. If I am typing a rough draft on my thesis then I will make sure that it truly is a rough draft. I will keep my time limited so that I will not go back and unnecessarily edit; the point of the rough draft is just to get as many words as possible on the page.

Now, make no mistake. I am not calling for a lackadaisical approach to research. Also, what I am saying will certainly not apply to everyone. However, those of us who are perfectionists and who have seen precious hours slip by whilst we struggle with even the smallest of tasks will do well to remember Parkinson’s law. We must produce quality work, and we must discipline ourselves to produce it in a reasonable amount of time.

Has anyone else experienced similar struggles? What do you do to combat your inner perfectionist demons? Do feel free to comment.



About David Rathel

Husband to April; Baptist Minister; Student at St. Mary's Divinity School at the University of St. Andrews
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1 Response to Parkinson’s Law and the PhD Student: An Important Rule for Perfectionists

  1. Pingback: While you wait… – Theology at St Andrews

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