Hofstadter’s Law: Why Projects Are Always Delayed

“How long will this project take?”

It’s a dangerous question.

Anyone with any management experience will know things rarely go according to schedule. Why does it happen? There are many reasons but Hofstatder’s law provides some great insights.

A sketchnote showing hofstadter's law which states: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law.

The image shows someone predicting how long something will take, how long it will take accounting for hofstadter's law and then a final longer timeline showing how long it actually takes.

What is Hofstadter’s law?

Hofstadter’s law is a mental model that states:

It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

Douglas Hofstadter

In fact, it seems that a project may even take longer when you take the law into account. If you had set your deadlines without considering the rule, you might have finished earlier.

But why?

Why Hofstadter’s law applies

There are some natural reasons.

We all suffer from cognitive biases which make us overestimate our productivity. The psychologist and author of Thinking Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman conducted an insightful experiment.

He asked a group to predict how long a project would take for them to complete. Then he asked them what their best and average competition time for a task was.

Guess what.

The time estimate they gave was closer to their best time than their average.

But even Daniel Kahneman isn’t immune to this affliction.

He and his colleagues worked on creating a textbook. They knew that textbooks often overran and took years to complete. And yet, they all predicted they would complete it in a year.

They were wrong.

They believed they were exceptional and wouldn’t fall into the same traps as everyone else; which, ironically caused them to make the same mistakes as everyone else.

Even knowing the law isn’t a cure

By accounting for Hofstadter’s law, we may actually spend more time on a project! By having a later deadline, we take more time to complete the project (that’s Parkinson’s law for you!).

When we set a tighter deadline, there’s greater pressure to complete it on time. We might not create as good work, but we will finish sooner.

How to deliver projects on time

There’s no complete or easy solution, but there are some actions you can take when you manage a project to be more effective.

  • Use your worst case to make your predictions
  • Set deadlines for your team but allow for a buffer
  • Remember that even with all that in place, there will still be some delays

There’s no easy cure to Hofstadter’s law, but hopefully, these tips will help you reduce its impact.

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