Everything Takes Longer Than Anticipated: Hofstadter’s Law [Mental Models]

Think of your weekend days. You typically wake up and think of all the free time at hand. You plan a day of leisure. You intend to run some errands and get a few things done around the house. Yet, at the end of the day, you’ve done barely half of what you originally set out to do.

People Habitually Underestimate the Time Tasks Take

Almost everything that humankind has ever wished for—from renewing a driver’s license to achieving peace between countries at war—seems to have not completed within the time originally planned.

As the following case studies will illustrate, interruptions, deferrals, and delays characteristically result in cost overruns, benefit shortfalls, and disputes.

  • Sydney’s Opera House was originally forecast in 1957 to be completed in 1963. The magnificent performing arts complex formally opened only in 1973 and cost 15 times the original budget.
  • Hofstadter's Law: Boeing 787 Dreamliner Delays and LossesWhen Boeing first launched its 787 Dreamliner aircraft in 2004, it ambitiously planned for first flight in September 2007. After six delays in the design and prototype phases, the 787 first flew only in December 2009. First aircraft delivery was scheduled for 2008, but didn’t happen until September 2011, more than three years behind schedule. Then, after a series of early in-service technical and operational problems, Boeing embarked on serious drawn-out repairs on 787s. Following yet more production delays, the 787 started flying full-fledged only in 2013. The innumerable delays and cost overruns associated with the 787 program became a financial nightmare for Boeing’s investors. Boeing took nine years to get the Dreamliner off the drawing board and into mature service at a total development cost of $32 billion—twice as long as the company’s original estimation and more than five times more expensive.
  • Less than 50 days before the start of last year’s Summer Olympic Games in Brazil, the state of Rio de Janeiro declared a “state of public calamity” citing severe delays and acute cost overruns. The New York Times reported, “The city is a huge construction site. Bricks and pipes are piled everywhere; a few workers lazily push wheelbarrows as if the Games were scheduled for 2017.”

Hofstadter’s Law: We Chronically Underestimate the Time Things Take

Hofstadter's Law: We Chronically Underestimate the Time Things TakeThe American cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter conceived an ironic and recursive rule to characterize the observation that everything takes longer than planned.

Hofstadter’s Law states, “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s law”

Hofstadter first discussed this law in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a book popular among American computer programmers.

Underestimating Task-Time Means Constantly Rushing to Finish Things

According to planning fallacy, when people predict the time it takes to complete a task, they make their estimations by considering the various steps they have to take, but fail to imagine the pessimistic conditions where things could go wrong.

Project Delays: Hofstadter's Law, Planning Fallacy and Optimism BiasIn other words, thanks to optimism bias, people are generally too optimistic about the time it takes for them to complete a task, even when they are explicitly asked to think about potential obstacles.

Hofstadter’s Law also alludes to,

  • Superiority Bias where people overrate their own positive qualities and abilities—and underrate their negative qualities—when compared with others. “This takes three hours for the average Joe, but I am smarter, and I can do it in two hours.”
  • Beneffectance Bias where people perceive themselves as selectively accountable for the desired—but not the undesired—outcomes. “Last week, this took me 45 minutes, but the delay was because of conditions beyond my control. Today, I have full control; so I should take just 20 minutes.”

Idea for Impact: The problem with unforeseen delays is that you can’t foresee them, no matter how comprehensively you plan

Though somewhat silly in its recursive character, Hofstadter’s Law observes that, irrespective of how carefully you plan, every project will be prone to something unanticipated that will hinder its timely completion. The law’s recursiveness affirms that, even if you know a project may overrun and build that expectation into your planning, the project will overrun even your new estimated finish time.

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