writing, planning and beating Hofstadter!

Oh, okay, not THAT one...
         Oh, okay, not that one…

You may not have heard of Hofstadter’s Law; I hadn’t until, as I sat, staring wretchedly at the expanse of white on my computer screen, I fell back into one of my favourite, if not most useful, writer’s block activities – namely, mashing my keyboard, trying to shake answers to life’s great questions out of my search engine:


Oh, come on, you’ve all done it……right?

Anyway, it turns out that my last, carefully constructed, insightful query hit the nail on the head. Google threw up the rather marvellous Hofstadter’s Law, which – disappointingly – has nothing to do with Leonard Hofstadter or The Big Bang Theory (theme song self-indulgently included because, frankly, the Barenaked Ladies are  amazing, and if you can’t be self-indulgent in a blog, when can you?).

Hofstadter’s Law says that, when undertaking a complex task, It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law. This ‘law’ is often used about computer programming, but I think it’s pretty applicable to writing, too. Of course, taken to extremes, every task would take an infinite amount of time, but I’d be lying if  said that writing some articles and reports hasn’t felt a bit on the infinite side…

I have mentored several doctoral researchers during the writing-up period of their PhD; all very different people, working in different areas, but they all had one thing in common: over-ambitious ideas for how much they could write in a week,even when they had previous experience of how long it actually took. I could look at their schedules and spot that they’d been overly optimistic about the time it would take to write a chapter, and yet, in my head, I can still knock out 5000 words a day, if I need to. Obviously, I can’t. I know I can’t. More to the point, I know I haven’t.

So, why do I and lots of other people repeat this over-optimism time and again? The Planning Fallacy – not us – is to blame! The planning fallacy, proposed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, states  that we are overly optimistic when planning how long any task will take us, even if we have previous experience of undertaking a similar task and know how long it took. Conversely, if we are estimating how long a task will take somebody else, we tend to be pessimistic, allowing them more time than they need to finish it. In a  1994 study, students were asked to estimate how long it would take them to finish their thesis; the average estimate was 33.9 days, but the average actual completion was 55.5 days – nearly a third longer! And that, for me, is the thing that I now try to keep in mind whenever I write.

I actually try to  give myself double the amount of time I think I need, since work and life have the uncanny knack of dropping all kinds of surprises, as Daniel Kahneman talks about here.

The fantastic Douglas Adams famously said: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they go by.” Well, for me, a missed deadline is rotten. I can’t say I always have the discipline to carve out the extra time I need; I don’t always meet my writing deadlines, but I do think that planning what should be too much extra time into the process has started to help.

Obviously, I’d like to give you all The One True Answer to beating Hofstadter and the Planning Fallacy, but I under-estimated how long this blog would take to write and now need to post it… I, therefore, throw it open to you; how do you manage your writing deadlines? Have you found a sure-fire way to avoid under-estimating how long your writing takes? Please do share your tips and advice in the comments below.

Image credit: here

Further reading: Buehler, R., Griffin, D., & Ross, M. (1994). Exploring the “planning fallacy”: Why people underestimate their task completion times. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 366-381


  1. I planned to submit my PhD in September…2014 and I am still here trying to submit it for the next week! Plus, i do love to indulge in procrastination. With such premises, there is not much of an advice or tips here… However, there is something that makes me feel better: awareness. I plan a lot. I made a very detailed and tight plan for me and my PhD supervisors the last year, but I was aware that things were not going to be done in the way I planned. Simply because we are human beings and we love distractions. So, why making a plan, you’ll ask. Two reasons. First, it makes you fill better: a plan boosts your confidence to actually perform the activity you are planning to do. If you start thinking you can do, you will actually do. Second, I believe that higher is the goal to achieve, higher will be the result. So, does not matter if your planning is very optimistic (or unrealistic as my supervisor will say), you are going to achieve at least half of your goals. And, this is very important, you need to be aware that you are not a failure for that. You are not a machine, you are a human being and as every human being to be productive needs stimuli, distractions, other-things-to-do-which-is-not-my-work. I do write better after a day-off from my computer. Was it in the plan? No. And it was not delaying to write my presentation in order to write this post. But, does it really matter?As far as I am aware, not.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Roberta, this is Sarah – I wrote this post. Thanks for taking the time to comment. 🙂
    I think you’re absolutely right that planning makes you realise that you can achieve the task you need to undertake; breaking it down can be really helpful and make it much more manageable. I also think you make a good point about not being a failure if you go “off plan” occasionally, but building extra slack into the process might help to alleviate any pressure that might result from that. Good luck with submission!


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