the power of Hofstadter’s principle

Those who know me, know that I am a fan of Hofstadter’s principle, also know as Hofstadter’s law, which states that the task at hand will always take longer than you think, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s principle.

Part of the power of Hofstadter’s principle is its self referential nature.  Part of its power is the way it feeds on itself, and I want to take a moment to reflect on that.  If we were to phrase the principle as saying, the task at hand will always take twice as long as you think, even if you take into account Hofstadter’s principle, then twice becomes four times, four times becomes eight times, and very very soon, every task takes infinite time.

Now, I have projects that seem to be taking infinite time to complete, but that is merely a subjective illusion that comes from how I feel the passage of time.  We as humans have a very poor relationship with infinity, but that’s a story for another time.

But every iteration taking a bit longer than the previous iteration, this is something we can hold in our heads.

One reason I like Hofstadter’s principle is that it can be so easily recast for the situation in which we find ourselves.  The task at hand will always be harder than you think, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s principle.  And the task at hand will always be more complicated than you think, even when you take into Hofstadter’s principle.

In this, Hofstadter’s principle is akin to Parkinson’s Law, which (loosely) states that work will expand to fill the available time.  I think the two, Hofstadter’s principle and Parkinson’s law, march hand in hand, and together they have a significant impact on the way in which we work.  The way in which I work.

And so I find myself engaged in constant combat, against the self referential nature of Hofstadter’s principle, and against the expansionist principle of Parkinson’s law.  My daily hope is that awareness of Hofstadter and Parkinson will be part of my toolkit in, if not defeating them, at least moderating their effects.

~ by Jim Anderson on 27 November 2017.

4 Responses to “the power of Hofstadter’s principle”

  1. Ah, also:
    When you are in the middle of a complicated job, an emergency will always occur, which has nothing to do with the job in hand, but needs dealing with immediately.
    I think that might be Sod’s Law!

  2. It’s not so much Hofstadter’s principle that bugs me. It’s the feeling that whatever I am actually doing, there is a nebulous (or sometimes, a specific, but more often a nebulous) Something Else that I *ought* to be doing, that is More Important than whatever it is I am currently doing…

  3. Mmm. Actually, Hofstadter’s principle is approaching a Zeno’s-paradox, isn’t it. You can never get there, because the space between where you are (here) and where you want to be (finished!) is impossible to cross. In fact, Hofstadter says it gets BIGGER…

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