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  • Timothy Iseler

Money, Snacks, & Time: Parkinson's Law

I’m a snacker, there’s no way around it. I like crunchy snacks, savory over sweet, and I have my whole life. Compounding the issue, my focus and discipline decrease throughout the day. In the mornings, I am determined, focused, and make deliberate decisions. By the evening, though, the ability to resist a crunchy snack while watching a movie or reading a book is slim to none.

The only solution that I have found to consistently avoid unnecessary snacking is to remove crunchy snacks from my periphery. If they are not available – if my options are celery and apples instead of chips and salsa – I no longer feel compelled to make an afternoon or evening snack. I make healthier decisions because the choices available are limited.

I noticed a similar thing with my spending habits. When my checking account is flush with cash, I spend freely and without worry. However, when my account dips below a certain comfort threshold, my spending suddenly becomes very disciplined. Intentionally moving excess money out of my checking account makes me more thoughtful in my spending habits.

What’s more – after a relatively short adjustment period, I find that I hardly notice the missing snacks or money. My quality of life is not diminished and, by virtue of acting more responsibly, it actually improves.

This is what I call an “inverse approach to Parkinson’s Law”. Some history:

Cyril Northcote Parkinson (what a name!) first published his theories about the swelling of bureaucracies in a 1955 essay for The Economist. Parkinson's Law, as it came to be known, states that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. Parkinson was primarily writing about his extensive experience in the British Civil Service. He noted that the size of the Colonial Office grew even though the British Empire was in decline, reaching its greatest number of employees as the number of colonies approached zero. 

The ‘evidence’ for Parkinson’s Law is almost purely anecdotal. However, much like Pareto’s 80-20 Principle, what Parkinson’s Law lacks in scientific rigor is made up for in practical observations.

Since the publication of the original essay and subsequent 1958 book “Parkinson's Law: The Pursuit of Progress”, the central theme has been expanded into other areas such as computing (storage expands to fill capacity), traffic congestion (traffic expands to meet the available road space), and money (expenditure rises to meet income, coined by none other than Parkinson himself).

Some common examples:

While annual payroll and tax documents are required to be sent to employees in February, many people wait until the second week of April to start preparing income tax filings. A 6+ weeks window of available tax prep time shrinks to a few remaining days.

The amount of data storage space available is magnitudes greater than at any previous time in history – if cloud storage is included, the amount is nearly infinite – yet people frequently run out of computer, phone, and online storage capacity.

A substantial increase in income rarely results in saving all – or even half – of the additional money. Instead, new expenses are added to match the increased income.

Like my snack avoidance and responsible spending tactics, I find the most practical applications of Parkinson’s Law by inverting the premise: in order to use time/money/resources more productively, restrict the amount available that might be wasted.

As an experiment, place limits on one or two of the daily activities or expenses that tend to get out of hand.

For example, the amount of time spent reading and replying to email can expand to every waking hour in our constantly connected, smartphone world. Try limiting time available for email to 1 or 2 specific hours each day. Out of necessity, you will address the most important messages first and give little or no attention to the least important.

Similarly, the ease of ordering just about anything on online and having it arrive days later makes shopping a breeze – and potentially excessive. Before placing your next online order, move exactly the cost of the purchase into a savings account and wait one week. The extra time combined with less money in your checking account will help ensure that your purchase is not driven by impulse.

Timothy Iseler, CFP®

Founder & Lead Advisor

Iseler Financial, LLC | Durham NC | (919) 666-7604

Iseler Financial helps creative professionals remove stress while taking control of their financial futures. As both advisor and accountability partner, we help identify current strengths and weaknesses, clarify and refine your long-term goals, and prioritize understandable, manageable, and repeatable actions to bring long-term financial well-being. Reach out today to take the first step.

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