The United States Congress averted a major tax hike and expenditure cut – the so-called “fiscal cliff” – by reaching a compromise deal just before the deadline of January 1, 2013. “Just before” practically was the start of January 1.
It was a tough milestone considering there was a divided Congress and political polarization on economic issues. However, the deadline was known for ever, practically built into the system and the backdoor negotiations for the compromise deal were in full swing for many weeks. Yet, the deal was reached at the eleventh hour – only when the hard deadline was at the door. Interestingly, there have been similar eleventh hour deals on fiscal deadlines over the last few years.
This is an example of Parkinson’s law in real life – famously known as Work Expands to Fill the Time Available. Everyone involved kept on negotiating and trying to get their way in the deal until they could do that no more. Usually, we expand the work required to achieve some goal based on how much time we have. We adjust our focus and plans accordingly. We define the complexity and scope of the task if we can based on how much time we have.
There are many other real-life examples. Cricket matches finish in the last over. Projects end at the last minute. All news in the world magically fits into the same 16 pages of a newspaper. Meetings consume all their allotted time. We reach office just in the nick of time. Deals are reached at the last minute. Storage requirements increase to fill the storage capacity. Our expenses adjust to fit our income. Given any deadline or constraint, we carve an execution path in such a way that we finish right at the end. Not before, not after.
There are two very interesting corollaries for Parkinson’s Law.
Remember the university days with long lectures in even longer afternoons? Somehow a metric of being attentive was taking notes – lots and lots of notes. You looked busy and felt smarter. The more your scribbled the better you felt. You used to take notes with a propensity that could make a journalist who forgot his recorder at home envy you.
As the semester progressed, your notebook grew fatter and you happier. You felt confident that this mountain of text just needs a cursory glance at any time and the entire lecture would replay in your mind. After all you wrote it and there is so much of it. Heck, you can even give the notebook back to the professor as a souvenir. So you wade through the semester and slept in comfort with the knowledge that you have your savior.
The only problem was that when you actually reviewed your notes later they did not make much sense. You can recognize your handwriting – after all who can write that awfully bad. But you cannot understand it. You seem to be gazing at this mass of text that is coming out of the page and simply caressing those areas of your brain that deal with solving cryptographic puzzles.
Apart from many other things that can be contributing to this unsavory situation, a major one is the lack of structure in your notes. Your focus was on recording the words spoken – and that too as much as possible. More the better. While it started neatly left to right, top to bottom but soon you were patching white spaces – as if any white space left would mean something missed. You did not realize that your scribble speed was far less than the professor’s delivery, so there may be pieces of the lecture that you may have completely missed in your enthusiasm to fill the notebook. You are neither here nor there.