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Hofstadter’s law or the Planning Fallacy

Taking small steps

I thought I would re-share a post I wrote a while back on a frustrating phenomena, which has been referred to elsewhere as planning fallacy. But I particularly like this version because quirkily enough, it was orginially meant to refer to computer-generated chess games.

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?

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 with Hofstadter’s law – 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. I call this the Kettle Test.


  • Here’s a post I wrote on The Kettle Test (including a 30 second video explaining the technique).
  • If you’d like a deeper dive, try Find Time to Write.
  • Or 18 Minutes by Peter Bregman.

Let me know how you get on in the comments.

More soon. Until then, happy writing,

Lou xx

P.S. Find the rest of my top ten time management tips from here.

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