“Things always take longer than I expect!”
Have you found yourself saying that before?
If so, you’re not alone. I get asked about time estimation A LOT. Why? Well, probably because people come to me with time management issues. And maybe because I’m always talking about task realism: the idea that we should only assign ourselves what we can realistically accomplish on any given day. And something that is key to realistic planning is accurate time estimates. When you’re trying to plan your work, and time block your day, it can be frustrating to block too little time for a task or project, and then realize your whole day is off.
Here’s the good news. I’ve found that when our time estimates are off, it’s usually one of the following 3 issues. And once you’ve pinpointed the problem, it’s much easier to solve. And, in fact, I’m giving you suggestions for how I solve these issues with my clients.
Problem #1: You’re distracted
Distractions literally steal your time. One study found that when we get distracted or interrupted it takes us, on average, 23 minutes to refocus on what we were doing. The same study found that we are distracted every 11 minutes. It’s a Sisyphean problem. And I’m willing to bet that when you’re estimating how long something will take, you’re not factoring in the time required to recover from distractions. No wonder our time estimates are off!
Work to reduce as many distractions as possible. I find that distractions usually come from one of 3 buckets: technology (all those pings and dings), other people (that coworker who doesn’t have an inside voice, or a child that needs you NOW), or our own minds. Click below to get specific advice on how to reduce distractions from each bucket.
Because your current estimates likely don’t include distractions, when you work to reduce distractions, your estimates will improve. And, because you’ve reduced those distractions you’ll be able to get more done in less time. Double win!
Problem #2: You’re trying to multitask
Multitasking has been placed on a pedestal; but it’s a myth. I often see resumes that tout multitasking as a venerable skill, but I’m always skeptical. Science tells us multitasking just doesn’t work.
In fact, studies show that when we try to multitask, our productivity is reduced by 40%. When we attempt to multitask, what we’re really doing is task-switching (aka context switching). We can’t actually do more than one thing at a time, so we are context switching at a rapid clip. We think by multitasking we’ll get things done quicker, but in fact, the opposite is true: our productivity and accuracy decrease, while our stress rises.
Single task! Do one thing at a time. Make a plan for what you’ll accomplish in a given timeframe and then attack the plan one task at a time. No more bouncing between 1/2 finished tasks. For more on how to single task instead of multitask, read here.
Problem #3: Your math is just off
Most humans just aren’t great at time estimation, even in the absence of distractions and multitasking. The “planning fallacy”, coined by Daniel Kahneman, tells us that there are 2 primary reasons that humans underestimate how long things will take: optimism bias and a failure to take into consideration how long things have taken in the past.
Spend a couple of days tracking how long you think something will take vs. how long it actually takes. Most people find that on average, their time estimates are off by a pretty consistent ratio. It’s not the same ratio for everyone, but it’s pretty consistent for each person.
Take me for example: I’m a 1.5x-er. It pretty much always takes me 50% longer to do anything than I think it will. So, I just apply a multiplier of 1.5 to all my estimates and, voilà, my estimates suddenly become much more realistic. Unfortunately, I somehow never get better at actually estimating appropriately, but I know there’s an easy formula I can apply because I know my ratio.
So how do you calculate your ratio? When you begin a task, simply write down how long you think it will take, and then after you are done, how long it did take. After a few days you should notice a pattern.