Parkinson’s Law says that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. This law seems to apply to translation extremely well because of its project-based nature. Unless a translator plans a project or doesn’t stick to the plan, the project will likely expand to fill the entire time allotted. And the next thing you know, you have to work in a rush or even end up missing a deadline. Many even come to like the stress and energy boost associated with the urgency. Perhaps, by realizing that a universal law is at work here, we can admit this is a problem, which is the first step to recovery.
What are Some of the Consequences of Parkinson’s Law?
- I can relate to the problem stated in PL very well. Early in my career, after moving from an in-house position to a freelance translator, making the deadlines was a challenge for at least a year. It took me years to improve my planning skills and concentration. Today, it’s no longer a problem, but it’s difficult nonetheless. Our planning at Velior is quite good on most projects, but we’ve noticed that each time there is a planning error, the project virtually always tends to fill the time allotted. Without creating and following a schedule, a project manager can simply forget about a project due to other urgent tasks. A translator unaware of the schedule is likely to spend more time on translation than they would otherwise. An editor can underestimate the time required for the translator to check the suggested changes to the translation. And before you know it, the deadline is around the corner.
- Perhaps, an even better example of how Parkinson’s Law applies to translation is proofreading. I’ve seen a proofreader take as much time as 6 hours to proofread 10,000 words, but then, a day later, take just 2 hours to proofread 14,000. Because a proofreader knows they can double or even triple productivity under pressure, it might be tempting to start on a proofreading task in a more relaxed way.
- A more sinister consequence of PL is pure procrastination. The longer the deadline, the higher is the risk that you’ll procrastinate due to unproductive distractions. In a translation team setting like ours, this problem is often non-existent because of the great levels of accountability—everyone knows that any delay on their part of a project will make things more difficult for others downstream. For a translator who works from home and isn’t part of a team, this can be a bigger problem, though. Translators often admit this in their blogs. And our experience confirms this, too: about 50% of freelance translators we worked with missed deadlines occasionally.
It’s a Law, But You Can Beat It
- Project planning is key to beating Parkinson’s Law. Even with our relatively simple, single-language projects (we mainly translate from English into Russian or from German into Russian), planning makes a huge difference. Depending on a project scope, we schedule three to seven steps. Each project includes at least translation, editing, and review of the suggested edits. Taking the time to work out and communicate a schedule upfront helps everyone to be on the same page, stay focused, and plan their personal schedule more efficiently. A plan also provides a bigger picture of all projects in the pipeline, making you fully aware of your current capacity. For instance, without a plan for Tuesday, you may not recognize that you need to spend the entire Tuesday on your current project, or else you won’t be able to complete it. As a result, you may accept another job for delivery on Tuesday only to realize later that you don’t have time to do this new job at all.
- Another valuable tool is establishing your performance criteria and making a habit of meeting them in each project. For example, as an editor, I edit about 500 translated words per hour. I found that having this kind of a productivity standard makes it much easier to avoid delays. I track my progress and avoid distractions almost unconsciously. It works because I know that staying within the limit is the only way I can do my best job. Anything below that will translate into lower quality, which, being a quality fan, I can’t tolerate.
- General self-improvement principles can be very helpful, too. I find these three principles most useful in fighting Parkinson’s Law:
- Begin with the most unpleasant task.
- Focus single-mindedly on the task at hand.
- Start earlier, work harder, stay later so that you always have a cushion of time.
Understanding that your natural tendency to work in a more relaxed way or postpone translation until the very last minute is actually a universal law can help you take a hard look at your work ethic and then develop self-discipline to improve it through planning, having clear performance criteria, and concentrating on one task at a time. Working as a part of a virtual translation team or a translation agency is another great way professional translators can beat Parkinson’s Law.