Because researchers have proven that everything takes longer than you think it does.
My college roommate pulled a lot of all-nighters.
She was (and is) a brilliant person, fun and funny.
But she could never figure out how long it would take her to write a paper.
She was a Public Policy major, which meant writing a lot of papers. (I was a Chemistry major. So my paper writing was limited to the one English Literature class I could squeeze into my schedule each semester).
She had to write several big papers per semester for several different classes. They were of varying lengths and required a fair bit of research that had to be done in the library. This was the early 1990’s. Our computer use was limited to typing, Zork, and the occasional email.
But by junior year, you would think she would understand how long it would take to write a paper. All the little tasks that went into it. Drafting the paper. Doing a certain amount of research. She usually talked with her study group too, before she wrote the final draft. And back then, going to the computer lab to wait for a printer to print out a final copy was a task in itself.
And yet, the night before the paper was due, we’d head out to dinner and she’d be calm and confident. I’m almost done, she’d say. It should only take another hour or two. So we’d take our time, chat with the friends that we’d bump into at the dining hall.
And then later that night, I’d find myself trying to sleep in our room with the lights on. Because she was still working through everything she needed to get done. She had assumed that it would take a certain amount of time, and she had underestimated. Again.
Almost every time, she would get the paper done with hardly a minute to spare. Then she’d claim that she was never going to do that again. That she would plan better, give herself more leeway. Until, a week or two later, I’d find myself sleeping in the room with the lights on as she pulled an all-nighter.
In 1979, psychology professors Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky first proposed the idea of planning fallacy. (I can’t find the original reference online but it is: Kahneman, Daniel; Tversky, Amos (1979). “Intuitive prediction: biases and corrective procedures”. TIMS Studies in Management Science. 12: 313–327.)
Planning fallacy is a phenomenon that almost everyone experiences. And it basically means that we’re all optimistic about how long something will take. And we all underestimate the true amount of time to complete a project or task. The kicker is that we do this even if we’ve done that task in the past.
So, great. We all know that we have a problem. We all underestimate how long things will take. And that can have an impact on our school work, our businesses, our personal lives. It can make us late for meetings and miss deadlines.
I hope acknowledging that this is universal does keep some of us from beating ourselves up. To quiet that inner monologue of “what’s wrong with me?” when we miss a deadline. Because almost everyone else does the same thing.
But beyond that, is there anything we can do? Any way we can counteract this phenomenon? We know we have a problem, but what is the solution?
Of course, no solution is perfect. But researchers have come up with a few specific actions that can help reduce planning fallacy. And bring us closer to understanding the real timeframe for projects, goals, and tasks.
Write down every sub-task related to your to-do
This is a common slip. You write down “finish the Brodsky report.” as a to-do. You think, how long could that take? I’ve already started it. I could finish it this morning.
But you don’t realize that finishing the report means that you have to do two different product analyses. And set a meeting with the marketing team to talk about their inputs. And they are out of town for the next 2 days.
So it might feel like “finish the Brodsky report” won’t take much time at all, because you already started it. But the truth is that you still have several hours of work left that might have to take place over several days.
When you underestimate the number of tasks, you underestimate the amount of time the whole project will take.
Forsyth & Burt did a study on this in 2008. Their work showed that breaking down a project into sub-tasks and estimating how long each individual part takes can help counteract planning fallacy. They call it the segmentation effect.
segmentation effect appears to be one way by which allocated task time can be increased signficantly, and thus…reducing the possibility of planning fallacy…
Aside from the results of the study, they noticed another interesting phenomenon. Most planners and time management systems recommend breaking down projects into smaller tasks. But few people actually do it.
Breaking projects down into small tasks can make your timelines much more accurate. To either set realistic deadlines or make you more aware of how much time a project will actually take. And give you an edge over all the other people who know that they should be doing this, but don’t.
Keep track of how long things take to make more realistic estimates in the future
A lot of research has focused on how to look back to help people predict when future tasks will be finished.
But it’s not as straightforward as psychologists would hope.
It turns out, we aren’t so accurate with our future plans, and we don’t have a great memory for how long things took in the past, either.
So we need to rely on unbiased information. Not our optimistic recollections.
A study by Roy, Mitten, and Christenfeld in 2008 gave a possible fix. The psychologists looked at providing tangible guidance. To see if it would improve people’s ability to predict how long something would take.
Giving real feedback — writing a paper takes 2 hours, or counting this jar of beans takes 20 minutes, improved people’s ability to predict. From the Roy, et al paper:
results indicate that, when predicting duration, people do well when they rely not on memory of past task duration but instead on measures of actual duration, whether their own or that of others.
We need to objectively measure how long things take.
To set a timer and keep track of how long it takes to write a paper. Or do our taxes. Or finish a TPS report. Keep track as accurately as possible and then write it down for future reference.
So when it’s time to write another paper or do our taxes, we don’t have to rely on memory to tell us how long it will take. We can view the actual amount of time it took. And use that to figure out how long it will take the next time.
Understand how much time you actually have in your day
Before you commit to doing any kind of work, project, or task in a day. Figure out how much time you actually have to do the work.
At the end of the day on Tuesday, you could tell yourself that you will get the Brodsky report done tomorrow, no sweat. And then you get to work on Wednesday and realize that you are in meetings for most of the day.
This is another version of planning fallacy — believing that you have more time in your day than you do.
So if you are working toward or creating a deadline for a project, look at your calendar and see how much time in your day is filled with non-negotiables. A meeting with your boss. Commuting time. A doctor’s appointment that you had to schedule 2 months in advance.
There will usually be chunks of time in your day that need to be devoted to other activities. Figure out what and when those are. From there you can determine how much time you actually have to work on your project or task. And create a more realistic plan to get stuff done.
There is some comfort in knowing that almost everyone is optimistic about time. That we are not alone in the struggle with deadlines.
But there are some tricks to help us get closer to getting it done on time.
We can keep track of all the sub-tasks and how long things actually took in the past. And then see how much time we have in a day or a week. And try to plan a more realistic path toward completion.
It won’t be exactly right. There will be missteps. But it can bring us closer.
Progress not perfection in all things.