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Hofstadter’s Law: Why It’s A Pain In My Butt (And 5 Ways To Hack It…)

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Hofstadter’s law is a pain in my butt.

I always forget the exact wording so here it is, just so we’re on the same page:

Hofstadter’s law | hoff-shtat-er | “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

It’s so true, right?

You finally sit down to a task. It could be your ONE thing or admin or emails. It seems manageable. You’re in charge. You’re ready.

And then BOOM.

Hofstadter slaps you in the face.

The task spins out of control and you fall down the rabbit hole. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel and you have no clue what happened to your day.

Here’s what it looks like on paper:

And it’s frustrating as heck.

Because when Hofstadter’s law strikes, all your best-laid plans get annihilated. And you either have to work twice as hard to catch up. Or your day ends and you feel like a failure.

And neither of those outcomes is optimal.

So what’s the solution?

I’m glad that you asked.

Because if there’s one thing I’m good at it’s setting unrealistic expectations. 🙌🤦‍♂️

So, here are my top 5 tips for hacking Hofstadter’s law (picked up through painful experience) to help you take back control of your day:

  1. Accept Hofstadter’s law;
  2. Use the 2x + 15 rule;
  3. Determine your Hofstadter multipliers;
  4. Set input goals; and
  5. Get lots of practice.

Let’s dig in…

1. Accept Hofstadter’s Law.

First up, you gotta accept Hofstadter’s law. It stems from a psychological blind spot that you simply can’t do anything about.

It’s the same reason you can’t predict compounding, understand system dynamics or get your head around vast numbers or distances or weights.

Once you realise you’re not alone and accept that there’s nothing you can do about it, you’ll set fewer unrealistic expectations around setting unrealistic expectations and you’ll start being kinder to yourself when you get less than you hoped you would done.

Don’t be so hard on yourself.

That’s the foundation.

Next up is to…

2. Use The 2x + 15 Rule.

The 2x + 15 rule is the quickest and easiest way I know to escape Hofstadter’s law.

To use it, simply double your first time estimate for any task, and then add 15 minutes.

I still remember my friend Tom teaching me this on my first day at McKinsey.

A manager asked me how long it would take to build a financial model and my first instinct was to tell her 3 hours. Then I remembered Tom’s advice and, despite my gut instinct, I doubled my estimate to just over 6 hours instead.

I was worried I’d get pushback but she just nodded and let me get on with the work.

Result?

I delivered the model in 5 hours, delighted the manager and learned three valuable lessons:

  1. Most people don’t know how long things take, so you can usually add plenty of buffer;
  2. People care much more about things taking longer than you said they would than they do about waiting a bit longer in the first place; and
  3. Being conservative (within reason) with time estimates is a GREAT way to build a good reputation for consistently over-delivering.

Tom’s timely advice turned my next three years at McKinsey from a nightmare into a relative cakewalk.

As tools go, this is a simple and blunt as it gets.

3. Determine Your Hofstadter Multipliers.

Another great way to hack Hofstadter’s law is to determine your Hofstadter multipliers.

This works kinda like the 2x + 15 rule except that it’s way more precise.

To calculate a Hofstadter multiplier:

  1. Pick a task on your to-do list;
  2. Write down how long you think it’ll take;
  3. Record how long it actually takes; and
  4. Divide your actual result by your estimate.

Let’s use this update as an example. I thought it would take me 3 hours to write. It actually took me 4.5. So my Hofstadter multiplier for this task was 4.5/3 = 1.5x

Why is that useful? Because now, when I write my next update, I can use my Hofstadter multiplier to adjust my gut estimate and set more realistic expectations for my day.

It’s a sharper and more accurate weapon than the 2x + 15 rule.

And the best thing about Hofstadter multipliers is they get more and more useful the more and more data you collect.

Using just today gives me one data point. But using estimated vs. actual data from multiplier updates would make my multiplier much more reliable. I could even use a standard deviation to see how consistent my inconsistency gets.

#nerdalert 🤓

Now, Hofstadter multipliers are awesome. You can use them informally or formally on everything from quick tasks to midsize goals to huge corporate projects.

But they also aren’t for everyone, so if I’ve lost you – not to worry, because my last two tips are my simplest and most powerful yet…

4. Set Input Goals

One of the best ways to avoid Hofstadter frustration is to stop setting time estimates entirely or to convert them into input goals.

This won’t always work. But for goals without upcoming deadlines, it’s a great way to take the pressure off expectations.

How does it work? Simple.

Stop setting output goals (e.g., I’ll write 2,000 words in 2 hours) and start setting input goals (e.g., I’ll write for 2 hours or I’ll do 3 pomodoros) instead.

Result?

You’ll procrastinate less (since you won’t feel so overwhelmed) and you’re actually more likely to get more done, faster (since you’ll keep two eyes on your feet instead of one eye on the finish line).

Anyhow, I talk a lot about this idea in Chapter 8 (“Upgrading Goals”) of TAoL’s Ultimate Productivity Primer so I won’t repeat myself here.

But if you’re interested in me showing you how to get way more done using input goals, WITHOUT your deadlines getting whacked, you should go check that out.

Which brings us to our final tip…

5. Get Lots Of Practice

Goal setting (and estimating) is exactly like throwing a football, or cooking a meal, or playing a musical instrument.

The more purposeful practice you get, the easier you’ll find it to naturally adjust for the huge number of internal and external factors that influence and contribute to success.

The problem? Most people don’t practice nearly enough.

Which is why they find the whole thing so difficult.

Anyway. The solution (as always) is simple.

Set lots of goals.

It’s the main reason I encourage people to set up to 6 main priorities every day in TAoL’s TRACKTION Planner.

It’s the main reason I coach people through setting and reflecting on weekly goals in “Execution Club” as part of TAoL’s TRACKTION Masterclass.

It’s the main reason YOU should set goals every day.

The more goals you set, the more data you collect, the more times you fail, the better you’ll become at setting manageable and realistic expectations.

Result?

You’ll work less hard. You’ll have more time for your friends and your family. You’ll be able to shut down at the end of each day and feel like your day was a success.

Hacking Hofstadter’s Law: A Quick Recap

That’s all for today!

We talked about Hofstadter’s law: “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

We covered 5 tips for hacking it:

  1. Accept Hofstadter’s law;
  2. Use the 2x + 15 rule;
  3. Determine your Hofstadter multipliers;
  4. Set input goals; and
  5. Get lots of practice.

And with any luck, you found at least something in this update to help you supercharge and lighten your day.

Practice goal-setting. Keep hacking Hofstadter’s law.

Use your failures to get 1% better.

And until next time, underpromise, overdeliver and go well.

Arthur Worsley
Arthur Worsley
Arthur is a thinker and writer who helps people who want more from their lives learn to be more productive, find more balance and live life more meaningfully. Want to know more? Take this 2-minute quiz to discover your Productivity Quotient (PQ) and learn how to get BIG things done. Take the Quiz →

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  1. Bryan E says:

    I think it’s “multipliers”, not “multiples”. Other than that, it’s a very practical approach to an ever-frustrating problem. I’m a software developer and it sometimes seems that the multiplier is “double, and change time units” to get delivery dates — that is, change “day” to “week”; “week” to “month”; “month” to “quarter”; and “quarter” to “year”.

    • Arthur says:

      Hey Bryan – great shout on “Multiples” -> “Multipliers”. I’ve updated the article accordingly. Thanks!

      And glad the approach helped. Definitely hear you on day -> week -> month. Software development is a nightmare to plan for 😅

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