How is it that some caffeine-fuelled, sleep-deprived medical students can turn over dissertations in a single night? Thank Parkinson’s Law.
We all know that cramming is a poor way to learn. Squeezing in a last minute revision session before a deadline is certainly not an effective way to encode your brain with data, but there is a method to the madness and it’s what helps some of you turn out impressive work in such small time frames.
Parkinson’s law is a beautiful study hack. Flipping it on its head can serve you in turning over projects fast, and helping you to never miss a deadline again. It can help you with studying, writing research papers, and juggling side hustles or extracurricular activities on the side of university. Let’s dig in.
Whether you THINK you can or you THINK you can’t cover content in a particular time frame, you’re probably right.
🥜Article in a nutshell
- What is Parkinson’s law?
- Why medical students need to know about it
- How to use Parkinson’s law to get more done in less time
In case you didn’t know, this blog is a part of my Study Hacks series – my top tips on HOW to study at medical school to study smarter and unlock your time.
As MedEd is turning more and more digital, there are probably plenty of online resources you didn’t know about – I’ve collated all my top recommendations on WHAT to study in the MedEd Vault.
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🤔What is Parkinson’s Law
If you were knocking around in the 1930s, you were at a higher chance of bumping into no other than Cyril Northcote Parkinson, who coined the term Parkinson’s Law.
Parkinson’s Law states that work (and money) expands to fill the void available for it. This is often translated to mean that if we have more time, we’ll tend to spend it procrastinating rather than getting the job done. A key reason being that when we have more free time, we feel less pressure to accomplish things quickly.
You must have plenty of examples that have circulated your hippocampus from where you’ve procrastinated on a particular task and then got started when you simply couldn’t delay any longer.
Let’s go back to the dissertation example that we all know and love. Students are typically given a year to do their dissertations. Many will leave it up to the last few weeks to complete. Some will even leave it to the last few days – but surprisingly enough, such students can still get the dissertation done on time.
What if instead of turning it out in the last 24 hours, you turned it over in a 24 hour period earlier, in daylight hours, and with a lower blood level of Red Bull*
*awaiting sponsorship requests
✌️Why all medical students need to know about Parkinson’s Law
Knowledge of Parkinson’s law is invaluable for medical students. If this is the first time you’re hearing about it, then I hope you’re flooded with the memories of the times where you’ve kept delaying things before.
Have you ever noticed though, that when when you’ve finally persuaded yourself to get started, the task didn’t even take long to do when you got around to doing it? – it’s the resistance to getting started that takes so long.
Its not your fault though – we’re pretty much all a victim to Parkinson’s Law. You will however need to intentionally amend your approach to deadlines if you want to get more done.
Medical students are particularly guilty of letting Parkinson’s Law take hold when it comes to revision. Without the right revision strategy, you may find yourself delaying and delaying and delaying and delaying the start of your revision sessions.
Another typical example is when getting involved in audits and research papers – It’s so easy to keep putting off writing that first draft or completing that dataset, especially if it’s not a task that you find enjoyable.
Luckily though Parkinson’s law can be flipped on its head and work in your favour, to help you get more done.
We’re about to go into how this works, but why does it work?
Well, if you’re blazing through a particular task you’re going to be more focused. You’ll read faster, you’ll focus on what you struggle with more and you’ll drop the parts that matter less. You’ll remove any dead space and procrastination and fill it with forward momentum.
They say pressure makes diamonds right? Though of course, this is a double-edged sword – you’ll want to find the right pressure to keep you moving forwards, but not so much that you create the recipe for burnout.
🖐️Five steps to making Parkinson’s law work for you.
1. Revising to tighter deadlines will help you cover content faster
To take advantage of this law, it is important to revise to deadlines and stick to them as closely as possible. Doing so will not only help you cover more content in a given amount of time, but it will also help you avoid unnecessary stress and frustration.
Have the plan of covering content as many times as possible between now and the exams. What is the MINIMUM amount of time you think it would take you to cover all your core learning materials for one of your modules at university?
For example, let’s say you’ve got an exam coming up that’ll include both cardiology and respiratory medicine content. Perhaps you could cover 1 week of cardiology content and then 1 week of respiratory content. Your plan could then be to keep going over them until your exam date – this is what I did.
2. Compartmentalise the task
Generally speaking, the amount of time we spend on a task is inversely proportional to the enjoyment we derive from it.
Thence forth, the more we divide our tasks into smaller, more manageable parts, the more efficiently we can complete them and the more happier we may be doing so.
The next step is to compartmentalise your task down. Separate your goals into bite-sized chunks. Lets say maybe 1-4 tomatoes worth – if you have no idea what i’m talking out, then check out my article on The Pomodoro Method 🍅 .
Going back to the revision timetabling as an example, I would divide my time into:
- Covering 20 questions/day on a question bank
- Reading about 10 conditions in the Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine
- Cover 4 lecture notes
This would be my goal on a daily basis to meet my larger goal of covering as much of a module as possible in 7 days.
By compartmentalising your tasks, you’ll be able to better control your workflow and stay focused on your goals.
3. Put the pressure on
Next, put the pressure on. Reduce the timeline by at least 10%. Parkinson’s law states you’ll get it done if you focus your attention on it. For example, you may initially give yourself 1 week to cover as much as you can of an entire module, but how about making it 5/6 days instead?
The aim here is to convince yourself of a pressing need to focus on one area.
Be sure to stick to it.
4. Have a means of accountability
To increase your chances of sticking to what you set out to do, you’ll need help from some means of accountability.
Now, this could be someone who will check in with you regularly to see how you’re doing and make sure that you’re staying on track… but that’s unlikely. Alternatively, you can keep your plans in full view. I liked to use a calendar app where I would outline the general gist of content I wanted to cover on a particular day/week – timings weren’t important to me, but I’d atleast want to have a sense of a target for each day.
You could also set up a daily or weekly tracking sheet to keep you accountable. Various apps can be used for those of you who have no friends- I highly recommend Streaks on IOS.
5. Have a strong reason to keep pushing forward
As well as accountability, there’s another trick to resisting Parkinson’s alluring demise of procrastination. Make sure you have a strong reason WHY. Why are you doing this to yourself? What’s the intended goal? What will it mean to you when you complete it? You’ll need to remind yourself as times will get tough and the temptation to procrastinate will be ever present.
For me, knowing that I wanted to study efficiently over the long term, and trusting that I would find recall easier and easier each time I would re-cover content, made me keep on pushing forwards with my daily/weekly revision/project targets.
Parkinson’s Law is a blessing and a curse, but if dealt with correctly, it’ll form a powerful study hack for you to get more done!
In essence, compartmentalising your tasks, having a daily/weekly (or similar) target, putting the pressure on and holding yourself accountable will keep you on the move.
Moving forwards is the key to turning over tasks quicker. Instead of pulling an all-nighter the day before a deadline, why not try pretending the deadline is closer?
Good luck putting this study hack into action! For the latest releases, be sure to sign up to MedEd Mondays for more study hacks and recommended resources in MedEd that you may not have known existed.
I hope this helps!