Brain Food #791: Hofstadter's Law
Burning the world as we go
Thoughts of the day
In the spirit of Friday, today’s post takes a look at Hofstadter’s Law, a dictum coined by Douglas Hofstadter which states that “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law.” If we plan for an activity to take five weeks to complete, it will take seven. If we allocate seven weeks against the same activity, it might require nine.
In some ways, Hofstadter’s Law is like the planning fallacy but takes it to a new meta-dimension, suggesting that even if we are aware of this all too human tendency, we will still fall prey to it. Like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, the more we try to own time, the more it will outrun us; even if the Rabbit, as he so often proclaimed, is also late himself.
Psychologists claim that we underestimate the amount of time things will take because we tend to imagine the best possible scenario, or just assume the continuation of the norm in an ever-changing world. But we cannot truly anticipate in what direction the world will head while there is an infinite amount of acts that are taking place by millions of others at this very moment.
This idea draws strange parallels to what Mary Oliver wrote in her poem On Traveling to Beautiful Places:
How perfect to be aboard a ship with Maybe a hundred years still in my pocket, But it's late for all of us. And in truth, the only ship there is, Is the ship we are all on, Burning the world as we go.
There is a certain form of comfort in knowing that we are all late, together. So if today you look back on the week, thinking of all the things you wanted to achieve, and seeing some incomplete items on your to-do list, congratulations, you are also human. Perhaps all the unfinished things we have to work on are just a sign of being alive, of still wanting to give more.
In the meantime, a way to tackle Hofstadter’s Law is to transfer some of the time we spend on planning, to time spent doing. But not before Monday.
Bad planning is everywhere. Although I don’t often write about business, the letter by the Stripe leaders to address why they had to lay off 14% of their staff is a reflection of how life will eventually catch us out.
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