Simplicity, Happiness and Parkinson’s Law

Simplicity, happiness, Parkinson's law

Guest post by Cameron Plommer

A dude named Parkinson came up with the following law:

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

Parkinson’s Law can also be put in the context of time:

The amount of time in which one has to perform a task is the amount of time it will take to complete that said task.

You with me so far? Good. Put another way, if you give yourself a month to do a project it will take a month. If you give yourself a week, it will take a week.

Essentially Parkinson’s Law is about constraints. When you are constrained by a time limit to finish something, you will finish within the limit. It’s strange, but this really does work, when you are held to that limit. This is usually best achieved by being accountable to someone else for finishing your task.

The guys at 37 Signals are fellow preachers of the benefits of constraints, which is evident from their blog and book. They preach building a bootstrapped company as opposed to venture funded. Bootstrapped companies are forced to make money, or they die. These companies have to sell product, make money and keep costs low. Just like nature, only the strong survive.

In terms of Parkinson’s law a bootstrapped company will be more likely to effectively utilize revenue because they are constrained by how much they sell and how frugal they can be.

David Heinemeier Hansson Embracing Constraints

David Heinemeier Hansson on Venture Captial

Parkinson’s Law and Minimalism

The reason I like the idea of minimalism is because:

Less stuff you buy => Less money you need => Less you have to work => More free time

I want to avoid the rat race at all costs: creating a lifestyle that requires constant funds to support the buying of more stuff and maintaining the stuff I have.

I’m not talking about not going out to eat, not owning a car, never buying real estate and foregoing material things I enjoy. I’m talking about creating a sustainable lifestyle based on happiness and not stuff. The happiness I’m talking about comes from simplifying life so it’s manageable and beautiful, not an overwhelming mess.

Keeping Parkinson’s Law and the importance of constraints in mind, there is one thing you can do to create a simpler life:

Live in a small home

This statement is different for everybody and depends on your family’s size. But there are a few principles that can be applied to any sized family.

  1. You will be happy with the space you have. No matter how big.
  2. You will be happy with a smaller space because it simplifies life.
  3. Small spaces restrains how much stuff you can store and buy.
  4. You will save money because small spaces are cheaper and you can’t buy as much stuff.

I firmly believe that a small home will create a simpler and a happier life. I concede that there is a point where a space is so small that it significantly affects happiness. What I’m pushing for is having enough space to live comfortably with the things you need. For most middle and upper class people it’s more likely that they will buy too much space, thus forcing them to buy more stuff, and continue working for a long, long time.

Let me leave you with this story from Don Miller’s tremendous book “A Million Miles In A Thousand Years.”

I saw a documentary once about a group of families who transplanted from their suburban lives into rural Montana, where they lived on the open prairie for a solid year. Each family had to build their own cabin and live off the land. The family I remembered most had come from the coast of California where they had a multimillion-dollar mansion on a cliff overlooking the ocean. The father had signed the family up for the adventure because his marriage wasn’t doing well, and the conflict was affecting the kids. And so, they went from a thirty-room mansion to a single room in a field, without electricity, without running water. There was a father and mother with two teenagers, a son and a daughter. The men had to work the field, even though neither father nor son had any experience in farming. And the girls spend what seemed like all day preparing food for three simple meals. But the interesting this is that they bonded. Without all the trappings of modern life, and without the gadgets we use to make life simple, the family cam together.

I was saddened at the end of the documentary when, after a year, the filmmakers went back to visit each family. They interviewed the young girl who was sitting in the hot tub behind the mansion, looking down over the beach. The interviewer asked if she was glad to be home. And the girl sat and thought for a moment and then said no. She said her mother and father were fighting again, and she never saw her brother. There was a tear coming down her cheek as she said this. She said she wished they could go back to Montana where everything was easier.

Makes you rethink things, huh?

Cameron Plommer is passionate about organization, productivity and most of all growing better everyday. As a new graduate he is developing a few entrepreneurial pursuits and figuring out how the real world operates. He writes at How to Be Extraordinary and is always reachable via Twitter.

Photo Credit: Clearly Ambiguous

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  1. Robin Dickinson October 20, 2010 at 11:10 am - Reply

    Appreciating the space around you – no matter how big or small – is effortless once we learn how to honour and inhabit the present moment!

    Thank you Cameron.

    Best, Robin :)

  2. Catherine White October 20, 2010 at 11:21 am - Reply

    Since I downsized from a humongous home, with pool and the works, to an apartment, space took on a new dimension.

    For ten years I’ve been living in apartments, which I LOVE. However, since I let my apartment go, put my bare essentials in storage, gave up my goods and chattels to my children. to travel, space has taken on another dimension.

    Space now is not a place, but a space within. I’ve never been free-er, or more content.

    Challenges abound, and my life is not for an unprepared soul. But, I LOVE MY SPACE TRAVEL, and Space aware life.

    My life feels like a Dr Who Tardis, on the outside appears so contained, but internally is full of rooms, and all manner of magic.


    • Robin Dickinson October 20, 2010 at 11:38 am - Reply

      That’s excellent, Catherine. An inspiring lesson for us all! :)

      • Annabel Candy October 20, 2010 at 12:06 pm

        Thank you both. It sounds amazing Catherine. I love being liberated from all the stuff that ties us down too. It’s amazing how it all piles up when you settle in one place for a while. Moving around is a great reason to let it all go:) Robin are you tempted?!

    • cameron plommer October 21, 2010 at 2:27 am - Reply

      Beautifully said Catherine!

      Sounds like you’ve found the sweet spot for you.

  3. Sandra Lee October 20, 2010 at 2:27 pm - Reply


    A very moving story about the families living in Montana. Thank you for sharing it. Having lived in tiny spaces all my life, I’m very happy to have more space now but I still strive to live simply. Not just for my own happiness, but for the happiness of this beautiful planet which is stressed at the seams.

    Thanks for the inspiration.

    • cameron plommer October 21, 2010 at 2:29 am - Reply

      You brought up a great point about the environmental implications of our living space Sandra. That is a whole other topic I could go off on, being an environmental studies minor and all.

  4. Linda October 20, 2010 at 9:42 pm - Reply

    Its so true about your filling whatever time you have –
    The nice thing about a deadline is that it cuts out all the fluff!
    I find a trade fair with rock solid, set in stone dates, works a treat –
    With an absolutely rigid time-frame it can’t fail to bring any project to fruition ;)

    • cameron plommer October 21, 2010 at 2:31 am - Reply

      You are so right. Deadlines give us the necessary kick in the ass we need to get things done.

      For me personally I have so many projects and things I want to do, but they will never get done without some kind of deadline or stressor (real or artificial) to motivate me.

  5. cameron plommer October 21, 2010 at 2:31 am - Reply

    You are so right. Deadlines give us the necessary kick in the ass we need to get things done.

    For me personally I have so many projects and things I want to do, but they will never get done without some kind of deadline or stressor (real or artificial) to motivate me.

  6. Barbara October 21, 2010 at 2:52 am - Reply

    Having moved all my life I have to admit it puts limits on your ‘stuff’. After staying in one place for 8 years, (the record so far), we were overwhelmed at the prospect of packing to move. What we found was a lot of ‘stuff’ we’d forgotten we had and never used. Moral to the story… use it or get rid of it. We don’t need huge homes, just enough space for what we truly need and use.
    Great post! thanks.

    • Cameron Plommer October 21, 2010 at 2:22 pm - Reply

      It’s amazing how much STUFF you can really accumulate even in small spaces.

      You said it though, “We don’t need huge homes, just enough space for what we truly need and use.”

  7. Molly Kelash October 21, 2010 at 4:37 am - Reply

    There is a movement here in the US a few years ago by a woman who wrote “The Not So Big House.” I think it may be coming back into vogue because I saw an article about people downsizing in our local paper. One can only hope the McMansions are a thing of the past…

    • Cameron Plommer October 21, 2010 at 2:24 pm - Reply

      I hope you are right Molly!

      I think McMansions are a big problem for communities in general too. When people are so far apart their is no cohesion and the social fabric starts to fray. It contributes to the lack of accountability to each other.

  8. Molly Kelash October 21, 2010 at 4:38 am - Reply

    There is a movement started here in the US a few years ago by a woman who wrote “The Not So Big House.” I think it may be coming back into vogue because I saw an article about people downsizing in our local paper. One can only hope the McMansions are a thing of the past…

  9. Caitlin @ Roaming Tales October 21, 2010 at 2:25 pm - Reply

    I shared tiny one-bedroom apartments with my husband in London and felt cramped the entire time. Now I have a two-bedroom apartment, which is just about fine, but I’d prefer a little more space, especially if we ever have a family. I don’t find smaller spaces freeing. I find them claustrophobic because they get cluttered so easily. I hate clutter! It’s not really that I own too much stuff or that my stuff expands to fill the space. I’ve been pretty good at paring down, every time I move, especially when I move continents. It’s just that the space is too small to enclose my life.

    • Cameron Plommer October 22, 2010 at 2:16 pm - Reply

      Great point. I totally agree with you and I’m actually feeling a bit cramped with my girlfriend and cat in a one bedroom apartment. I think there is an optimal amount of space that is different for everybody. My point in this post is that it’s a problem when you obviously have too much space.

  10. Gabriele Maidecchi October 21, 2010 at 7:56 pm - Reply

    I wasn’t aware of Parkinson’s law but it really much make sense, even in my everyday business life. People under time constrains are naturally inclined to “deliver”, as opposed to other approaches.
    And working in a bootstrapped company I totally agree with the rest as well ;)

    • Cameron Plommer October 22, 2010 at 2:17 pm - Reply

      You really can apply Parkinson’s Law to almost anything. The trick is to make it practical and real: setting deadline and spurring action.

  11. Cherry Hanz October 22, 2010 at 2:30 am - Reply

    I loved this post. I have made 5 corporate moves from 2000 to 2008. This last one I told my husband I was nailing the furniture to the walls and I literally did, in my daughter’s bedroom! (Another story) The realtors would just freak out that I wanted a small old house on a large lot with trees, not some new McMansion with a 100 rooms smack dab against my neighbor, where that old Bell commercial was a reality, i.e. Reach Out and Touch Someone! And it made it easier to sell, until the last move. Nothing makes it easier to sell, when there is no financing.

    • Cameron Plommer October 22, 2010 at 2:19 pm - Reply

      That’s awesome! It is somewhat counter-intuitive to people that anyone would want less space. For instance, I don’t want a 2,000 square foot house in the future. I would be happy with 1,500, 1,200 or even 1000 or 900.

  12. Suzanne Vara October 22, 2010 at 3:10 pm - Reply


    So true. We look for bigger as the perceived notion is that bigger is better but when we break it down, bigger is just more space and more space to spread out as we saw with the CA family. I fell into the more space trap for years as, as a single mom, I wanted enough space so me and my son (who is only 5 now mind you) would not feel cramped. Cramped? Geez how cramped can a lil boy feel? Last year we moved into the smallest house we had lived in and we absolutely loved it. The reality was that we really only spent time in certain rooms and with the bigger house we were more constricted as I always had to have him near me so I could see him. In the smaller house, I could always see him and we used more rooms in that house then we ever had.

    The same holds true with deadlines, less is more as we get so much more done effectively with less, or at least I do.

    Thank you for such a great piece that is so well said.


  13. Anne Galivan October 22, 2010 at 3:32 pm - Reply

    I have a different take on that family described in the documentary. I don’t think the problem was they had too much “stuff.” The problem was the priority the parents placed – or rather didn’t place – on marriage and family. Why did it work when they were in the documentary? Because people were watching.

    I do agree though, that the pursuit of more stuff can get in the way of having a fulfilling life. I remember years ago a friend telling me that she and her husband had made a conscious decision not to continually “upgrade their lifestyle.” That was a new concept to me.

    My husband and I literally built our house (my husband is a building contractor; I designed the house). We made it large enough to fit our lifestyle as a home-schooling family. Because there is someone home almost all the time, our house, though large, is well-used. In addition, we had three children when we moved in 13 years ago, but had another child a few years later, and our guest room suddenly turned into a bedroom for my oldest son!

    I have no desire to move until my kids have all grown and moved out (which will still be a number of years from now) – I hate moving and our house works for us. When we do move I want to downsize to a little house near the beach. I think, for many of us, as we get older we realize that a big house equals a lot more time and expense spent on maintenance – and I don’t intend to live my golden years spending all my times on repairs and mowing a huge lawn!

  14. Gene Jennings November 1, 2010 at 12:29 pm - Reply

    Great post! I love this line. So true!

    Less stuff you buy => Less money you need => Less you have to work => More free time

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