What was the last goal you set?
Perhaps you wanted to get promoted by the end of the year or get your side-hustle off the ground.
Whatever it was, I’m sure you’re planning went something like this:
You set the goal, contemplated what you need to do to get there, then drew out a plan, and set your deadline.
While you were planning, you took into consideration some of the setbacks that could happen. You even added 5 days to the deadline to make up for the days that you would inevitably slack off.
Still, your deadline came and went, and you were miles away from where you expected to be.
Why is it so hard to meet the deadlines you set yourself—even though you’re working your socks off every single day?
The Planning Fallacy: Hofstadter’s Law
Chances are you’re familiar with Hofstadter’s law even though you didn’t know the name before today.
This law states that “a task always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s law.”
This law rings true for many things in life. How many times have you allocated an hour to a task that ended up taking 4 hours?
It’s really frustrating to have to find 3 extra hours in your schedule for a one-hour task.
What does this mean for you?
You could leave your projects open-ended, but then you risk falling prey to Parkinson’s law—the law that states that tasks expand to fill the time you give them.
There is a better way to overcome Hofstadter’s law, yet first, you need to understand why it happens.
Why Does Everything Take Longer Than Expected?
When planning, you consider all the factors. You predict disasters and leave room for unexpected sick days or emergencies.
Why are you still so far off when planning?
The fact is we are a little too optimistic when planning. We plan based on best-case scenarios. In fact, psychologists found we can only take a more pessimistic approach when the project is not our own. (source)
Moreover, we can’t predicate unpredictable delays. There’s a law for that too: Murphy’s law which states that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. How could we possibly come up with every worst-case scenario?
Douglas Hofstadter, the cognitive scientist who coined Hofstadter law, jokingly proposed a better approach to predicting completion times. He suggested calculating an approximate time, then doubling the number and stepping up to the next higher units.
If you think your task will take 2 hours, double it, and step up to the next unit (days). Based on this, you’ll complete the project in 4 days.
This is not a very realistic solution, but it shows our estimates are usually way off.
Luckily, it is possible to get better at predicting how long it will take to achieve your goals.
How Long Will It Really Take?
When planning the journey to your goal, you need to have an end date. It motivates you to keep going and gives you something to look forward to.
At the same time, an unrealistic deadline brings nothing but frustration. There’s nothing more discouraging than watching your deadline fly by with nothing to show for it. Thus, it pays off to get the best time estimate for your projects.
Here are 3 ways you can get the best time estimate for your projects:
1. Let Experience Guide You
There’s no better teacher than experience. Chances are you’ve done something like the goal you’re planning in the past.
The best way to estimate how long a goal will take is to look at how long it has taken to do similar things in the past.
You may think it’ll take 3 days to build a shed. But, if it took 3 weeks the last time you tried, you might want to revisit your plans.
If you haven’t done anything similar, then ask someone else who has.
The timeline you set based on previous attempts will seem much longer than you initially guessed, but it will also be much more realistic.
2. Time Management Is Key
Unexpected setbacks are one thing, but bad time management is yet another destroyer of plans.
Wasting 5 minutes here and 15 there might not seem too bad today, but down the line, repeatedly pushing off tasks can set you days behind schedule.
When I was preparing for a licensing exam, I made a detailed schedule to finish studying within 6 months. Some days, I would justify slacking off, telling myself I would make up for it the next day. However, fitting two days’ worth of work into one isn’t easy. I ended up falling behind, having to put in extra hours to catch up.
You can give yourself all the time in the world to complete a project, but if you prioritize the wrong tasks, procrastinate, and check emails instead of doing real work, you’ll never meet your deadline.
3. The Habit of Stepping Back and Checking In
All the hours you put in have one purpose: to make progress.
Throughout your journey to success, take moments to reflect on the work you do. Ask yourself questions, like:
- Am I still headed in the right direction?
- What actions are bringing me the most pay-off?
- What should I do more of and what should I stop doing?
- Am I still on schedule? If so, what should I do next? If not, how can I do better?
Start Planning the Right Way
Bad planning does you more harm than good. You start with your hopes high to succeed, but as your deadline creeps nearer and nearer, you’re left with stress and disappointment that you’re not where you wanted to be.
Now that you know about Hofstadter’s law and how to better estimate your goal timeline, you can start making realistic plans that motivate you to keep going.
Your success lies at the end of a good plan.