AS LAWS go, the dictum devised by C. Northcote Parkinson, a naval historian, was admirably succinct: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” His essay, first published in The Economist in 1955, has stood the test of time, in the sense that people still refer to “Parkinson’s law”. But the experience of working life during the pandemic [necessitates] three corollaries to the theorem.
When it comes to office work, the incentives to dawdle are pretty clear. Finish an assignment quickly, and the employee will just be given another. That second task may be even more unpleasant than the first. Workers may end up like a hamster on a treadmill, stuck in an endless cycle of needless effort.
Office workers know, however, that the mission itself is not the only thing. It is important to be seen to be working. This leads to “presenteeism”—being at your desk for long enough to impress the boss (and even turning up while sick). In the pre-internet era this would involve endless redrafting of memos, long phone calls, or staring meaningfully at documents. Thanks to the pioneering work of Tim Berners-Lee, presenteeism now requires less effort: many hours can be wasted on the world wide web.
When working at home, the boss is out of sight but not out of mind. Broadly speaking, the result is to divide workers into two factions. The first group, the slackers, has spent the lockdown working out the minimum level of effort they can get away with. They have no need to drag out each task; they do what is required and spend the rest of the day at leisure, submitting the work just before deadline. For this group, Parkinson’s law can be amended as follows: “For the unconcerned, when unobserved, work shrinks to fill the time required.”
The second group takes the opposite approach. Consumed by guilt, anxiety about their job security or ambition, they work even harder than before. Being at home, they find no clear demarcation between work time and leisure time. They require their own amendment: “For anxious home workers, work expands to fill all their waking hours.” Like their staff, managers also want to appear useful. In the office, they can seem busy by walking around and talking to their teams. At home, this is more difficult; a phone call is more intrusive than a casual chat. The answer is to organize more Zoom meetings. Hence the third amendment to his law: “In lockdown, Zoom expands to fill all of the manager’s available time.”
The immersion of the individual in the routine of life causes him to be seriously disturbed by the sudden experience of death, particularly when it takes away someone who has been near and dear to him. When the sight of death becomes too frequent, as in times of war or during an epidemic, the individual’s mind tends to protect itself by retiring within a shell of habit and routine. Familiar actions, faces and surroundings, which require no thoughts or adjustment, become at such times a buttress to his emotional balance. But even this wall of cultivated indifference crumbles when the hand of death snatches away someone who has entered deeply into his inner life—someone who perhaps acted as a pivotal point upon which his emotions turned. At such a time, his unquestioning attitude towards life is disturbed and his mind becomes deeply preoccupied with an intensive search for lasting values. As the tale of life is told it pauses frequently to contemplate the gaping holes left by death. There is no way to avoid the thought-provoking impact of that inescapable presence. When a sensitive individual is first faced by a death of deep significance in his circle of close friends, he is usually struck by the transitory nature of all forms of life. Confronted by the undeniable impermanence of the body, yet unfortified by knowledge of some sustaining permanent principle, he often falls into a mood of deep despair or supercilious cynicism.
Vanishing existence, permanent extinction
If life is inexorably doomed to extinction, he reasons, there can be little meaning in frantic efforts to achieve. In turn, this thought leaves him in a vacuum of purpose which may lead him either to a state of supine inaction or may precipitate him into reckless rebellion. To him, existence seems to be conditional, intermittent and vanishing, while extinction appears to be unqualified, inescapable and permanent. In short, if death is looked upon as mere extinction, man tends to lose his balance and is plunged into perpetual gloom. All his dreams of the enduring reality of truth, beauty and love are refuted and seem by hindsight to have been a blind groping after illusion. His previous ideal of eternal and inexhaustible sweetness, instead of filling him with hope and enthusiasm, now reproaches him with the utter senselessness of all earthly values. Thus death, when not understood, vitiates the whole of life, and the first impulsive answer of inaction or cynicism, which the individual usually forges to meet the question, strands him in a thoroughly desiccated universe of unrelieved weariness. Nevertheless, this gradually prepares him for another attempt to find a more vital answer to the inescapable query. The human mind cannot endure such a stalemate for long, as there is an internal force which insists that the inner nature be in motion. Eventually, the pressure for such motion breaks through the rigidity of such a negative concept of death, a great flood of new interrogation and discovery often breaks out, and in it the key question now posed by death becomes “What is life?”
To understand death, understand life
The answers supplied are countless, and depend upon the passing moods which spring from the deeply rooted ignorance of the interrogator. The first instinctive answer is “Life is that which is terminated by death.” This answer is still completely inadequate, as it involves no positive principle on which a fruitful life can be based, nor can the individual’s need for development be met. Such an answer explains neither life nor death. The individual is driven to try to understand life and death along new lines. Instead of looking upon death as the opposite of life, he now inevitably comes to look upon it as the handmaiden of life. He begins to affirm intuitively the reality and the eternality of life. Instead of interpreting life in terms of death, man seeks to interpret death in terms of life. Slowly, event by event, he learns to take life again in all earnestness, with a deeper affirming consciousness. As he does so, he is able to give a more constructive response to the recurring site of death. The challenge of death is now not only accepted and absorbed by life, but is met by a counter-challenge: ”What is death?” It is now death’s turn to submit itself to critical scrutiny. The most unsophisticated answer to this counter-question is, “Death is only an incident in life”. This simple and profoundly true declaration terminates the unendurable chaos precipitated by regarding death as the extinction of life. Soon, it is clearly seen that it is futile to try to understand death without first understanding life. As consciousness gradually settles into this balanced approach to the problem, it takes on a healthy tone which makes it receptive to the truth concerning both life and death. Direct, undimmed knowledge of such truth is available only to spiritually advanced souls. The seers of all times have had direct access to the truth about life and death, and they have repeatedly given a suffering and groping humanity useful information on this point. Their explanations are important because they protect man’s mind from erroneous and harmful attitudes towards life and death, and prepare him for perception of the truth. Although direct knowledge of truth requires considerable spiritual perception, nevertheless even correct intellectual understanding of the relationships of life and death plays an important part in restoring mankind to a healthy outlook.