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July 13th, 2020
In many human affairs, it’s not too difficult to assess how long something will take. Our vast synchronization and record keeping across all domains of life enable us to organize the timing of flights, trains, pizza deliveries, surgeries, crop yields – just about everything that occurs with any kind of recurrence. But one area of human activity stubbornly resists such mechanistic prediction: the discovery and creation of the new.
This can be something as complicated as a new gene editing technique or something as simple as a personal project to learn a song on the piano, or learning how to code or building a gazebo. If the people in question are embarking on any of these endeavors with no prior experience that bears any similarity, then we quickly fall victim to Hofstadter’s Law.
Hofstadter’s Law states that everything takes longer than you think it will, even when Hofstadter’s Law is taken into account.
We all know the annoyance of delayed flights, or drivers with our pizza lost in the wrong neighborhood, and certainly complications during surgery can prolong the procedure and amp up the surrounding stress. But such expansions of time are common, and generally expected, if not desired. While reminiscent of Hofstadter’s Law, Hofstadter’s notion is best applied to creative endeavors, and within it’s recursive truth lies another, that shields us in an incredibly important way.
When a creative project finally wraps up, it can be rather astonishing to reflect on how long it took, and how wildly incorrect our prediction in the beginning about how long the project would take. Say for example you’ve just finished a project that you projected would take a mere couple of months, but in the end it took nearly a year. Reflect for a moment and wonder: would you have still started the project if you’d known just how long it would take?
Getting something done in two months is far more preferable to a timeframe six times longer. The reality – if we had access to the future in this way – looks far less appealing than our grossly optimistic prediction.
But this gross underestimation is perhaps our saving grace. By the time we get started and make some meaningful headway, the sunk-cost fallacy can help us forge ahead, even when we begin to suspect just how much longer the project will take. Our cognitive biases here work in concert as a productive illusion that allows us to make progress in the face of a demoralizing reality. We might call this virtuous incidence of miscalculation on behalf of human psychology: Mayfer’s Law. Some better phrasing is in order.
Mayfer’s Law: The miscalculation of time required for achievement enables the undertaking of endeavors far larger than we would knowingly attempt to achieve.
It’s for this reason we start in on little projects that should only take a few minutes, half an hour at most, and to which we are still tinkering with hours and hours, days, weeks, and perhaps even months later. Psychological momentum seems to begin building the moment we start, hence the sunk-cost fallacy.
The fascinating aspect of Mayfer’s Law, is that we witness cognitive biases that often undermine our efforts, combine in a virtuous way. We end up superseding our own sense of our abilities. We grow and we learn as we work through novel problems within the project, and by the end of the endeavor, though it’s taken much longer than expected, we are now more capable than when we first set out. But this growth happens somewhat by accident, or rather almost unintentionally. We undertake ventures that we believe our skills and abilities can handle in a timely fashion, and inevitably we resolve the miscalculation and the gulf between our capabilities and what’s needed by growing. The tradeoff, of course, is that the process usually requires more time,
hence Hofstadter’s Law.