The Laws of Projects

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In ‘celebration’ of my final semester (where every one of my classes has one or more projects), I thought I would look up Murphy’s Law as well as any other bitterly humorous law relating to projects.  Do keep in mind Stigler’s Law though: “No scientific discovery is named after its original creator”!


Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”

A classic.  Not, perhaps, quite true, but certainly true enough!

There are multiple stories telling how this law came about: in one Murphy was a hapless engineer who could not do anything right, another version paints Murphy as a supervisor having to watch out for the constant mistakes of one of his junior engineers, and a third takes a look at Murphy’s entire team in which at least one member of the team was always making mistakes.  However it came about, Murphy’s Law resonates with everyone who has ever worked on a project!


Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”

Lubarsky’s Law of Cybernetic Entomology: “There’s always one more bug.”

I see these two as going hand-in-hand: when working on projects, one usually doesn’t try to stretch out the process and fill the time allotted, something just pops up and happens to take that time.  But when a hard deadline is reached and the project still has a few small wrinkles, the majority won’t notice and the project will be labeled a success.

To myself and the other perfectionists out there: there’s always one more bug, and there will always continue to be one more bug.  Take a moment at the beginning of the project to determine the amount of time you are willing to commit, and then don’t move those goalposts.  There will always be another bug, always more time that can be sunk into a project.  Instead take a breath and move on.


Finagle’s Third Law: “In any collection of data, the figure most obviously correct, beyond all need of checking, is the mistake.”

I can vividly imagine this happening for a particular large report due at the end of the semester.  This is a bit of a “we’re all idiots at the end of the day” rule: just take a moment to doubt yourself, check yourself, and fix yourself, so that you can still look like a genius in the morning.


The Queue Principle: “The longer you wait in line, the greater the likelihood that you are in the wrong line.”

Whoever came up with this one was probably thinking about lines at grocery stores or the mall, but I find this principle interesting in terms of my school’s career fair.  Our career fair is extremely large, some two or three hundred companies, and the large companies (Google, Boeing, etc) have lines that can be over an hour long, while the naval recruiter can’t get anyone to make eye contact with him.  But… I had a friend who was cold-called by Google when they wanted to recruit him to a specialized team.  My classmates standing in line might get some cool swag, but it’s highly likely that they’re in the wrong line, since they currently have very little to distinguish themselves from the people in front and behind them.


Vierodt’s Law: “Short intervals of time tend to be overestimated, and long intervals of time tend to be underestimated.”

Golub’s Fourth Law of Computerdom: “Project teams detest weekly progress reporting because it so vividly manifests their lack of progress.”

I came across something similar to Vierodt’s Law a few days ago, and this is one that I hope to live by this semester (and beyond, but thinking too far out is scary!).  Sure, I didn’t finish my to-do list for today, but by the end of the week I’ll have accomplished the few things I missed today, plus a bunch of other things I have yet to start.  Then in a few months I’ll graduate with a bachelor’s degree: a project I’ve been working on for several years now.  We can all agree that it’s ludicrous to put “bachelor’s degree” on a daily to-do list, but by spending years working towards a goal, we can accomplish something much larger than the effort put forth on any particular day.

I suspect the second quote is going to be more immediately applicable, as I have weekly check-ins in at least one class.  A week still falls in Vierodt’s “short intervals”, and so people overestimate what they can get done and are frustrated when they can’t cram a month’s worth of work into one week.  But a long-term project is not a week, or even a month: a long-term project is several months or several years and the project will be the sum of each week’s work, not the average.


So there are a few laws which I feel provide insight into the semester I have before me, and I hope you also find some of these helpful for school, work, or personal projects.

Further Reading:

A personal collection of humorous laws

Wikipedia’s “List of Eponymous Laws”

Another personal collection of humorous laws

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