How Long Will It Take? Part I

Note: I like to write blog posts that take between three to four minutes to read. In that spirit, since this week’s topic is so vast and fascinating, I've decided to make it a two-part series. So, stay tuned for next week's Part II! I hope you enjoy reading both of them as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them.

Now back to business. Do you have that friend who's always late? Who says "yes" to every invitation only to realize too late that she cannot make it to most of them? What about you? How accurate are you at estimating how long will it take to complete a task? Good time allocation helps you better plan your tasks. It’s hard to come up with a realistic schedule when you're unable to assess how much time you need to allocate to each of the activities on your list.

Good planning means accurately estimating the completion time of every project.

We tend to underestimate the time necessary to complete a project because we often fail to take into account the factors that affect our performance. For instance, if we depend on other people to deliver crucial information for the report we're working on, we expect they'll be on time; usually, they are not. We estimate the time we’ll need to drive from point A to point B yet rarely take into account red lights, potential detours or road work that slows us down. The bottom line is that we rarely plan for eventualities that affect our delivery time. And as the well-known Murphy's Law states, everything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Why don't we take into account all those factors when we plan? Because we believe we are immune to them.

You and I are not the exception. Hofstadter’s Law states that it always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law. The statement refers to the difficulty we have to accurately estimate who long a particular task will take to complete. The more complex the task, the worse we do. Even for repetitive tasks, we run the risk to underestimate its completion time. Why? Because we forget about the factors that negatively impacted our delivery time in the past and believe that whatever happened before won't happen again, or that whatever delayed other people won't affect us. This way of thinking is known as Planning Fallacy bias.

In trying to figure out how I could minimize the impact of Hofstadter's Law in my own life, I came across another rule that I found interesting: the Segmentation Effect. The research was an eye-opener for me. The Segmentation Effect states that the time allocated for a task is significantly smaller than the sum of the time allocated to individual smaller sub-tasks of the task. So, there you have it. We calculate less time to complete the whole project than we calculate to complete the different steps necessary to complete the full project.

What contributes to the Segmentation Effect? The abovementioned Planning Fallacy bias, of course. The Planning Fallacy bias is the phenomenon in which predictions about how much time will be needed to complete a future task display an optimism bias and underestimates the time required. If you're interested in this topic, there is an engaging read about the Planning Fallacy bias in Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Thus, from all these laws and rules, we may feel tempted to giving up and thinking that these forces act against our best efforts to manage our time. The fact is that underestimating the time to complete a task is human yet can be minimized. So, don't go out now using this as an excuse for poor time management!

Now that you know, how can you turn this knowledge in your favor and improve your time optimization skills? Well, by mindfully taking these laws and rules into account when planning your schedule. Make them your friends. Start by focusing on the Segmentation Effect. Before committing to completing a project in a specific amount of time, unpack all the sub-tasks of the project. How long each of those smaller tasks will take? Be realistic! Don't allow the Planning Fallacy bias to override your judgment. Once you have a clear picture of those sub-tasks and how long it will take you to complete each of them, you're ready to estimate the total time it will take you to complete the full project.

Unpack the small tasks of your project.

Doesn’t it all seem more straightforward now? One more example. If you're in charge of carpooling for next week, gather all the facts beforehand. How many kids? Where do they live? How far are they from each other? Is there a kid who usually needs extra time to get in the car? What's the distance to the baseball field? Highway or back roads with lights and stop signs? Break down and organize all the pertinent information, and you'll get a pretty accurate estimation of when you need to leave the house, how long the whole drive will take, and when you’ll be back home. This process will provide the big picture and prevent stressful situations. Let's be clear here, this will take some time to plan, but once you do it once, you'll have the information you need for future carpools.

Realistic planning will translate into better control of your time. After reading this post, you learned about Hofstadter's Law, the Segmentation Effect, and the Planning Fallacy bias. Use these tools to help you better plan your schedule and stop arriving late to your appointments once and for all!

Did you like what you read? Please comment, like and share this post. I'm always looking for new ways to make us more productive and able to do more of what's important to us. Feel free to share your ideas below!

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