Today’s To Do List: 1. Write To Do List 2. Lunch…

For someone who probably got on and did a little too much at times, Margaret Thatcher, was nothing if not determined.

“Look at a day when you are supremely satisfied at the end,” said the former Iron Lady. “It’s not a day when you lounge around doing nothing; it’s when you’ve had everything to do, and you’ve done it.”

So why do so many of us end us with a longer task list at the end of the day than at the start? Perhaps our days are blighted by Hofstadter’s Law. Presumably thought up on a particularly productive day by the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, the law says: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

This paradoxical ideal was initially discussed in connection with chess-playing computers. Hofstadter wrote: “In the early days of computer chess, people used to estimate that it would be ten years until a computer (or program) was world champion. But after ten years had passed, it seemed that the day a computer would become world champion was still more than ten years away”.

If this sounds like your organisation, don’t despair, you’re in good company. Concorde’s first test flight took place 7 years before it finally entered service. Wembley Stadium should have opened in 2003, but ‘slightly’ over ran by just 5 years and £471.5m. Sydney Opera House cost $95m more than planned and opened ten years later than scheduled, although even that seems sprightly next to the New English Dictionary, forerunner to the OED. It was estimated that the project would be finished in approximately ten years. Five years down the road, the compilers had reached as far as the word ‘ant’. It took almost 50 years to publish the first complete four volumes.

So how best to avoid the pitfalls of the overrun? Plan for the unforeseen? Split the plan into sections? Pick a number and double it?! Well, how about planning less, as artificial intelligence researcher, Eliezer Yudkowsky, suggests:

“… ask an experienced outsider how long similar projects have taken. You’ll get back an answer that sounds hideously long…this answer is true. Deal with it.”

If that sounds a little troublesome, how about planning as you go along, sometimes called ‘Ready? Fire! Aim.’  “Over time, I have become a bit surprised at the number of people who are almost boasting about being part of a ready, fire, aim culture,” says Steve Coats of International Leadership Associates. “…sometimes the decision not to act in the moment is the best thing to do.”

Hmm, now as we seem further way from getting our tasks done than ever! Perhaps best to ditch a few. Not a bad idea if former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower is to be believed, His Eisenhower box divided tasks up into Urgent/Not Urgent, Important/Not Important, with the tasks in unimportant/not urgent being dropped, tasks in important/urgent done immediately, tasks in unimportant/urgent delegated and jobs in important/not urgent put off until they can be done personally. “What is important is seldom urgent,” said Eisenhower, “and what is urgent is seldom important.”

Even Mrs T would have appreciated that one.

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