Why do things take longer than you expect it to be?

You’ve been procrastinating filing your taxes, and suddenly it’s down to the wire. But you’ve got this — coffee is poured, laptop is ready to go, and your form is … wait, where’d it go? Before you know it, your taxes are taking way longer than anticipated, and you even gave yourself an hour longer than last year. There’s a reason for this: We’re our own worst enemies when it comes to productivity.

Parkinson’s Law reads: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” This was the first line of Cyril Northcote Parkinson’s 1955 article in The Economist. Parkinson was a British historian and author who later included his law of productivity in the book, Parkinson’s Law: Or The Pursuit of Progress. His idea stemmed from the slow crawl of British bureaucracy, but it can really relate to anything. Have you ever been given hours to get ready, so you simply fill that time with a relaxing bath, some internet browsing, then a rushed outfit change before you’re out the door? This law proves that, psychologically speaking, you can make the same amount of progress in four hours that you can make in 30 minutes.

It’s also a good argument to not give yourself a week to complete a task when you just need a productive afternoon — you’ll likely fill most of the week with undue angst and wasted energy.So make a to-do list, then take the time slots you’ve allowed yourself for each task and slashing them in half. Instead of working harder, work “smarter” by beating the clock and avoiding time sucks (e.g., browsing your internet news feed). But there’s something else at play here. Sometimes tasks seem to take forever, even when you try to give yourself the perfect amount of time. What gives? It’s called Hofstadter’s Law.

Douglas Hofstadter is a cognitive scientist and author who first introduced his productivity law in the 1979 book “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.” His law reads: “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.” In other words, people tend to underestimate how long a task will take them, even when they’re aware of this flaw. If you gave yourself an hour to file your taxes last year, but it really took you four hours, you might peg the delay on outside forces. “If I hadn’t picked Oscars night and my kids hadn’t constantly interrupted me, it could’ve taken an hour.” Then, instead of setting a realistic timeframe, you ‘generously’ give yourself two hours. Before you know it, four hours have passed. As The Guardian notes, this “planning fallacy” could also explain construction delays, like why the Sydney Opera House opened 10 years later than scheduled.

But not all is lost! If you’re working on your time-management skills, you should try examining your own past experiences as well as those of others for more accurate time estimates. Work on the task which will have the greatest positive impact and fight that temptation to clear up the smaller, easier tasks on your list first. Good luck!

Check out my related post: How to have disciplined pursuit of less?

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