Work

Cyril Parkinson is a bit like Bob Dylan—people know the stuff he wrote rather than the man himself.

This is often the case with aphorisms—the net (or the cloud, or the web, or whatever floats your boat) is full of quotes that are wrongly attributed—it’s also full of quotes that are just plain wrong; part of my job when I write is not to propagate stuff that’s fake—we have the orange man for that.

If you listen to a radio station you can trust, or (less likely) a TV channel you can trust, then some (hopefully all) triage has been done for you—but if I write about it, I always check—as they teach you in the CIA, trust but verify.

Parkinson wrote for The Economist, the kind of technical magazine you can trust—as a rule of thumb, anything the orang-u-tan says you can’t trust is probably reliable.

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

is probably Parkinson’s most famous aphorism—like Murphy, Parkinson is credited with this universal law. In his book—he actually wrote several books, because unlike myself he was a trained historian, rather than an amateur—he provides an example of the application of Parkinson’s law.

Thus, an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and dispatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half an hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the mailbox in the next street. The total effort that would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety, and toil.

Bognor Regis is a ‘resort’ of sorts in southern England, popular with seniors—when I lived in the UK, we used to call it ‘the last resort’—clearly they’re still struggling with that today (the sidebars on that site kind of say it all).

Parkinson’s more general point is that administration expands and fills its own space without increasing its efficiency. There are two axioms of his law that can immediately be stated.

(1) “An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals” and (2) “Officials make work for each other.”

Uncle Cyril then provides us a rambling, nonsensical, but highly amusing example of such a situation—my familiarity with both the public and private sector tells me this has the golden ring of truth. His narrative begins with an overworked civil servant called A.

For this real or imagined overwork there are three possible remedies. He may resign; he may ask to halve the work with a colleague called B; he may demand the assistance of two subordinates called C and D. There is probably no instance in history of A choosing any but the third alternative. By resignation he would lose his pension rights. By having B appointed, on his own level in the hierarchy, he would merely bring in a rival for promotion to W’s vacancy when W retires. So A would rather have C and D, junior men, below him. They will add to his consequence and, by dividing the work into two categories, as between C and D, he will have the merit of being the only man who comprehends them both. It is essential to realize at this point that C and D are, as it were, inseparable. To appoint C alone would have been impossible, because C, if by himself, would divide the work with A and so assume almost the equal status that has been refused in the first instance to B; a status the more emphasized if C is A’s only possible successor. Subordinates must thus number two or more, each being thus kept in order by fear of the other’s promotion. When C complains in turn of being overworked (as he certainly will) A will, with the concurrence of C, advise the appointment of two assistants to help C. But he can then avert internal friction only by advising the appointment of two more assistants to help D, whose position is much the same. With this recruitment of E, F, G, and H the promotion of A is now practically certain. Seven officials are now doing what one did before. This is where Factor 2 comes into operation. For these seven make so much work for each other that all are fully occupied and A is actually working harder than ever. An incoming document may well come before each of them in turn… finally A reads through the draft with care, deletes the fussy paragraphs added by C and H, and restores the thing back to the form preferred in the first instance by F. He corrects the English and finally produces the same reply he would have written if officials C to H had never been born. Far more people have taken far longer to produce the same result. No one has been idle. All have done their best.

Believe me, I condensed the quote for brevity—I expect Cyril’s text expanded into the time available.

During the last few months of COVID lockdown, an entirely different pattern evolved. Folks who previously spent their time looking busy in the office because they had to, discovered a different way. Apart from the obligatory, occasional Zoom, they lurk in the shadows, hidden from the boss.

As a result, they reversed the law. In lockdown, it can be restated as: work compresses into the time required. This is how I work, even at play. Unless unscheduled drama is afoot, I know I need about three hours every week to write these articles—if I don’t have a topic, it’s worse, but this week I had three to choose from—one about a Jimi Hendrix roadie turned porn impresario (he ran a company with the tasteful name of Fuck Factory in New York), and one about the US conventionfest.

If I can write what I want in less time, great. But usually, that’s the way it rolls.

So, after you’ve finished your work at home (or on the beach) spending only the time it really takes, you’re free to walk the dog, netflix ‘n chill, or even read my blog. At the office, you can never let on you’ve done the work because then they’ll give you more—but not pay you more.

Then there’s a third class of folks, who feel they must fill that whole working time—there’s a guilt trip there, like phoning in sick to the office when you’re really okay.

I sit somewhere in that category, because I like to do stuff pretty much all the time. But, the line between work and play is fuzzy for me—hacking a few lines of code to get an editable version of Parkinson’s book is fun for me (too lazy to type an uneditable pdf), as is writing this blog or my new book, putting in two hours of blues practice on a guitar, or analyzing the sustainability of oyster farming in Texas—it’s a broad church.

We all have our own laws, and one of mine is to try anything that looks like fun, and stop doing anything when it stops being fun—hang on, that’s two laws.

A second (or is that a third) is the two-thirds law. This law has a broad application. You can apply it to dieting by cutting your intake of food and drink by one third. And you can apply it to life.

If you’re happy two-thirds of the time, don’t change horse. It won’t get any better.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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