You’ve probably heard of Murphy’s Law—”if anything can go wrong, it will.” But Murphy has a kindred spirit in author Douglas Hofstadter.

Hofstadter’s Law, if you’ve never heard it, states: “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.”

Computer programmers say Hofstadter’s Law rings true to their work on complex projects that take years to complete.

We’ve all experienced how a project expands to fit the time available. But why do we tend to underestimate the length of any given task? By the evening, the goals on our morning’s to-do list seem laughable.

This may be because we tend to set too many goals: In addition to wanting to get a project done, we also want to keep up with our favorite TV program, cook nice meals and stay in touch with friends. But to successfully reach any goal, we need a reason to place it higher than our other goals and desires. Then we can allocate our resources more efficiently.

It sounds easy enough, but perfectionists, procrastinators and those under tight deadline pressure all have unique problems giving themselves enough time.

Problems often arise because of unforeseen delays such as illness. Vacations may have been planned and nonrefundable tickets bought long before a project—with a due date in the middle of the vacation, of course—even came into being. A team member may unexpectedly accept a new job with another company before the project can be completed.

One approach is to avoid planning altogether, and just change course as needed based on real-time feedback. Some people advise, “take your best guess as to when you’ll be done, then double it.”Perhaps you can remember how long similar tasks have taken previously. If nothing you have done before is comparable, ask an experienced person how long similar projects have taken them. It may not be the response you’re hoping for, but it will be accurate.

Psychologists working in the area of human planning decisions have found that our plans are typically based on best-case scenarios and “yield overly-optimistic predictions of completion times.” When study participants were asked to come up with more pessimistic scenarios, they could do so when predicting someone else’s completion times, but not their own. The researchers in this study concluded that “pessimistic-scenario generation is not an effective de-biasing technique for personal predictions.”

Nevertheless, good time-management skills can help. There are many such tools for daily use, such as checklists, Post-it notes, diaries, calendars, personal or electronic organizers and appointment books.

Time often is lost because of disorganized filing systems, lack of an “in-tray” system, or unnecessary paperwork. It also helps to keep meetings focused, minimize (as much as possible) the number of phone calls you make and the number of times you check your email, and regularly back up your work.

Crucially, check at regular intervals that you are working on the most important task, that is, the one which will have the greatest positive impact on your project. There is a temptation to clear up the smaller, easier tasks on your list first. Fight it. If you are stuck, try to predict the consequences of doing or not doing each possible task. This “long-term perspective” is essential because it means you will get the highest possible return for your effort. Stepping back to take this point of view, and acting on it, soon will become a new habit. To motivate yourself, imagine the satisfaction and pride you will feel after completing the task.

Decide exactly what you want to achieve. Then gather necessary resources, become familiar with the subject matter, and acquire core skills to achieve it. Question why you haven’t achieved the goals already. What is holding you back? This “limiting factor” needs consideration.

As you progress, identify the times of day when you seem to be working best, and use these times for the most demanding tasks. Think “how can I be more productive?” Refuse to let setbacks knock your optimism and confidence in reaching your goal. After all, the only way to eat an elephant is “one bite at a time”!

References and other resources

Hofstadter, Douglas. March 2000. Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, 20th anniversary ed. (Penguin).

Newby-Clark, I. R. et al. People focus on optimistic scenarios and disregard pessimistic scenarios while predicting task completion times. The Journal of Experimental Psychology, Applied, Vol. 6, September 2000, pp. 171-82.

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