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How an American cognitive scientist can help you achieve your writing goals

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Hofstadter’s law

It’s so frustrating, when I make a to do list and spend time getting organised, only to discover that I majorly underestimated how long the task would take. I was surprised to learn years ago – in this column by Oliver Burkeman – that this is a cognitive thing, and not (simply) my own personal lack of awareness about how many hours there are in a day!

Cue an intriguing concept called Hofstadter’s law, so called because it was postulated by American cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter. It seems we are programmed to underestimate how long something will take – and here’s the really annoying bit even when we know that we do it.

From stadium builders to essay writers

Burkeman uses the example of the Sydney Opera House and Wembley Stadium. Both delivered way behind schedule, and both presumably built and project managed by people who not only knew what they were doing, but were leaders in their fields. Reading that was a jaw dropping moment, but the example he uses about the student essay writers was closer to home for me – because I’m both a tutor and a writer. To summarise, these students know that they usually finish essays a day before the deadline but estimate they’ll finish future essays 10 days before the deadline. Why?

What to do about Hofstadter’s law?

Because the only way to estimate how long something will take is to record and remember accurately at how long it took you last time you did it. Tracking your time will help – this is where you deliberately interrupt yourself and record what you were doing so you can remember what you did during a day and how long it took. Do this for a week and you may go mad with all those interruptions, but at least you’ll have a pretty good idea of what you’re doing and how long for. A gentler version I suggest to my students is to leave a notebook by the kettle and take regular tea breaks! When you see the notebook, write down what you were doing before your break. Here’s a 30 second video explaining this technique:

Other time management tools

Here are some other time management techniques that can help combat Hofstadter’s law:

  1. Note down distractions as they occur. Review the list at the end of the day and decide which of these need to become items on your to do list.
  2. Use a technique such as Pomodoro to help you focus on a task, and avoid getting sucked into email or social media when you’re trying to do something else.
  3. Build time into your day to deal with ‘extras’ or ‘invisible tasks’ – things that aren’t on your to do list but that form part of your regular routine.
  4. Take a day a week for deep work (a concept made popular by Cal Newport).
  5. Schedule regular review time to go over your goals and to see if the approaches you are taking are working for you.

Hope you find these techniques useful. Let me know in the comments below.

Until then, happy writing,

Louise xx


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