Hofstadter’s Law and Realistic Planning
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.