Commonplace Indeed

It is a commonplace observation
that work expands
so as to fill the time available for its completion.

So wrote Cyril Northcote Parkinson in 1955, slamming the tendency of British bureaucracies to do less with more, not that Canadians have any point of contact with that complaint. This first essay was published with similar essays in Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress.

[The book] was translated into many languages
as the law seemed to apply in other countries too.

Seemed, schmeemed: It *does* apply in other countries, including the Soviet Union (per Mikhail Gorbachev). Happily (or not), Parkinson’s Law describes a bug in the human condition, not just bureaucracies or late-stage-capitalism conglomerates.

Since 1955, our collective editing impulses have gotten at Parkinson’s Law, wearing it down to the pithy version I learned.

Work expands to fill the time available.

Computer wonks have gotten at it too, expanding its scope.

Data expands to fill the space available for storage.

This data-storage variant of Parkinson’s Law is the one closest to my reality this week. As I listed memorabilia of potential family interest so that I could determine whether there was, you know, any *actual* family interest, I realized yet again that stuff has somehow expanded to fill the space available in our home. To over-fill that space, perhaps.

In a career dominated by editing, I often felt that driving out extra words was unrelenting work: shovelling water with a fork as it sometimes seemed. But compared to getting rid of extra stuff, driving out extra words was easy.

It turns out that everything is easier than getting rid of extra stuff: as one example, expanding the scope of behavioural laws is so easy it’s commonplace. In this case the expansions strike me as particularly poetic justice. Herewith, Gibson’s variant of Parkinson’s Law . . .

Meaning expands to fill the metaphors available.

At least all those extra applications don’t take up any shelf space.


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20 Responses to Commonplace Indeed

  1. John Whitman says:

    Isabel – here are some hard learned truths about getting rid of extra stuff.
    A. If you forgot you had it, you won’t need it in the future, so out it goes.
    B. If you haven’t seen or looked at it during the last five years, it is highly unlikely you will need to see it or want to look at it again in the next five years, so out it goes.
    C. Resist the temptation to fill space created by decluttering with new stuff you just can’t do without.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – Thanks for these. My problem is no longer so much on the acquisition side but on the “finding a good home” for any dispositions. At some point, that criterion is going to be relaxed . . .

  2. Barbara Carlson says:

    Stuff rules. We serve.
    Was there a soul so parched who didn’t have a junk drawer?

    I spent a year “editing” my possessions. You remember the Pitch Journal… anyway, I liberated several shelves, absolutely bare.
    (It was unnerving, so I spread stuff around to even things out.)

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – Stuff rules, indeed. After my mother moved to her final living place (and downsized accordingly), people kept bringing her stuff. Lovely stuff, thoughtful stuff, but stuff.

  3. Danielle Wawryk says:

    Getting rid of stuff is on my list as we become empty nesters this fall and look at downsizing on our next move. Will I keep the decorations for every holiday? Probably, but will force myself to only save my favourite pieces. For the last few years, I’ve resisted the temptation to add to my holiday decorations which is difficult when living in America where there’s a Target, Home Goods, or TJ Max in every shopping area taunting me.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Danielle – I’ll be thinking of you…. The trick, maybe, is to hit this stage before others in your circle do. πŸ™‚

  4. Ian Hepher says:

    Exactly! Like popcorn in a popcorn popper!

  5. Judith Umbach says:

    The only escape from getting rid of stuff is death. Then your relatives have to do it. I have friends who have chosen this option. Not my way, as I am an editor, too. Finding suitable homes is the part that really slows the process.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Judith – I remember saying (in jest) to Mom and Dad that if they didn’t clean out their basement we’d burn the house down when they died. I don’t *think* that was the motivation for them to finally start in on a lifetime of accumulation . . . Maybe every item should come with a warning tag: “Consider how easy this will be to get rid of.”

  6. Tom Watson says:

    I have found that the number of books I’d like to read expands far more rapidly than the time I have available to read them.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – Ah. The Watson variant of Parkinson’s Law: Book lists expand to exceed the time available for reading.

  7. My sister was a hoarder. A year and some months following her death, I am still throwing out a lifetime of her various collections and haven’t even started on the books. In about a month, the house is slated for a reno prior to sale, which makes it increasingly easy to say, “Nope. It has to go.” My difficulty is not in recognizing junk as garbage but in separating myself from my awareness of “her wishes.” She knew it would come to this, but I still feel like a traitor.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – Yes, that makes it harder. It sounds odd, but I’m glad you have an external deadline. In my experience, that helps a lot.

  8. Alison Uhrbach says:

    We’re at this stage as well – although maybe it would have been easier if we’d started sooner? For a long time, we moved about every 7 years, and that was a considerable help. But then my parents died, and we acquired many more items, some with history which makes them that much harder to get rid of. It’s true that finding a “good home” slows down the process. I struggled greatly with that when I was alone emptying my mom’s last apartment – it was like emotional overload – at one point, I was trying to find a “good home” for tins of sockeye salmon??

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Alison – An earlier start seems like it would be easier, but I suspect that having some deadline or driver is even better. certainly in my proposal work, I found that the need to deliver a document in the next few days had a way of clearing the mind enormously! Tricky trade-offs suddenly got simple. To everything its season, maybe.

  9. Barry Jewell says:

    A Place For My Stuff (1986) – George Carlin – YouTube

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