Estimate time more accurately by admitting you don’t


The first thing I did when I sat down to work today was do the easy stuff on my list that does not need to be done until the end of the week. Then, when I should have been going to bed, I started working on the stuff that has to be done today.

I know that I do this a lot, so I have started implementing tricks to stop myself. Like, I categorize everything on my list as an A, B or C, and I have to do all the A’s first. Sometimes I’ll give myself a little gift and do an easy C for a break. Steve Pavlina has written a treatise-length blog entry on the perils of doing the unimportant tasks first. I am hoping that will inspire me.

But research shows that we procrastinate because we are hard-wired to be time optimists; we overestimate the amount of time we have left to do a project. According to Gal Zauberman and John G. Lynch in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, we think we’ll have more time in the future because each day is different, so the nature of time fools us. But in fact, the amount of time we have today is probably the amount we have in the future. If you’re busy today, you’ll be busy then.

Alex Williams in the New York Times points out that this is such a big problem that we are frequently relieved and even euphoric when someone cancels on us: “In the Age of the Overwhelmed the cancelled date is a luxury gift.”

People also overestimate how much money they’ll have in the future, but the problem is not nearly as bad with money as with time. Our expenses are more often set in stone than our time commitments, so there is less room for us to poorly estimate the variables.

So recognize when you are looking at your to do list that you have less time than you think you do. And maybe you should only accept invitations for something you’d be willing to do that day, even if it isn’t scheduled for that day in reality.

But Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert gives us encouraging news in his book Stumbling on Happiness: The people who overestimate how much better the future will be are actually the happiest people. So maybe being realistic about our time is not so great after all.

15 replies
  1. Fran
    Fran says:

    I also categorize the things needed to be done in a day. I make sure of it that I finish important ones first before doing to the easy ones. This way, I can avoid all the tension when the day is almost done.

  2. MarilynJean
    MarilynJean says:

    Regarding how to approach tasks: I admit that I am a horrible at time management. Horrible. I am not a morning person, so at my 9 to 5ish job, I don’t feel up to tackling big projects (mostly writing) until 1 in the afternoon. If I could, I would work 12 to 8 most days, since my Noon is like most people’s 9:30.

    I spend my morning reading this blog (!) and doing the smaller tasks. I tend to stress about that fax or email I have to send more than finishing a proposal that is due for review. I also think that because my committments outside of work are limited, I can stay as long as I want to finish something; so to me, I do have all day. And surprisingly, I meet all my deadlines. I accept that there is a better way to do this, but it works for me (for now).

    I think when talking about time management, we need to look at how we function throughout the day and when our peak performance times are. If you’re not ready to get to a more important project until later, then you have to make calls, respond to emails or the sort first so that you can keep up with the majority of the working world’s schedule.

  3. Rae
    Rae says:

    The best compliment I ever received (from one IT person): Yours are the worst helpdesks because I know you’ve already done everything you could to resolve it on your own.

    The reality: his partner for IT support for the main program we use – she ALWAYS does what’s easiest.

    Unfortunately, the other has been put on another project so I’m left with HER. She typically calls me late in the afternoon and wants to START working on one of my problems.

    Lately I find that I’m not even reporting everything especially if there’s a work-around. I’d much rather live with a work-around than having to deal with her.

    She knows she does this and knows she shouldn’t but she apparently cannot help herself.

    I typically do things in order of importance or in order received.

    Nike: Just do it.

  4. Recruiting Animal
    Recruiting Animal says:

    I enjoy your time postings (if only because you taught me the term, “time optimist”) but you probably know that doing the easy things first is also touted as a time effiency technique.

    Rather than do nothing while you put off the hard stuff you can ease yourself into action slowly. Like splashing your body with water before you dive into a cold lake.

  5. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    I think the issue of money and time are similar. One can spend (waste?) time/money and/or invest time/money. One has a return the other doesn’t. There are purposeful ways of dealing with both.

    My coaching clients who are time challenged commit to playing their day backward most nights, starting with the last task and working toward the first, with a focus on time involved in each task.

    When we work “forward”, well, everything can seem important and/or urgent at the time, or at least we can rationalize that’s so. On the other hand, when working backward, after the fact, there is often another sense of what honestly demanded time and what honestly did not.

    For example, moving forward, perhaps watching TV for 3 hours seems right, justifiable, etc. Working backwards and seeing, hmmm, getting ready for bed (20 minutes), preceded by three hours of TV, preceded by having dinner with the kids (45 minutes) may seem a bit “off” in the way one is spending vs. investing one’s time.

    This playing-my-day-backwards strategy can be useful when we wonder “where did my time go?” or am I “spending” vs “investing” my time appropriately. It provides a very different context (often insightful but maybe not always pleasant) with which to explore how one uses one’s time.

  6. Denis
    Denis says:

    “But Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert gives us encouraging news in his book Stumbling on Happiness: The people who overestimate how much better the future will be are actually the happiest people. So maybe being realistic about our time is not so great after all.”

    Penelope, after reading your blog for a while, I got interested in the two books that you frequently cite: the Gilbert’s one and Seligman’s “Learned Optimism”. Seligman actually cites research that shows that generally pessimistic people are the ones who are much more realistic than the optimists. At the same time, pessimists get ill and depressed more often, achieve less in life etc.

    Obviously, both optimistic outlook and realistic estimates are useful at different times. I haven’t finished Seligman’s book yet but, as I understand, his solution is the idea of “flexible optimism” when the (typically optimistic) individual is aware of human nature to make faulty estimates (especially in the optimistic state) and turns optimism off from time to time to make realistic judgements.

    I think we need realism when we do our daily planning and when we choose a task to do right now from our daily to-do list. When we are actually in the process of doing then it’s better to put on a huge hat of optimism.

    (On a side note, I found Gilbert’s book rather depressing with research after research showing how pathetic we humans are at making predictions about our feelings after particular events in the future. His style is entertaining but I’d rather read Seligman’s book who is actually trying to show the way out of the thinking style that each of us develops by the time we reach adulthood.)

    * * * * * * * *

    Oh, this is a great comment. A great summary of the positive psychology movment.

    Seligman tells everyone, you can do it, you can do it, you can be happy. And Gilbert is always complaining the the positive pscychology movment feels like a feel-good cult and he doesn’t feel comfortable associated with something that feels like that; sometimes he strikes me as Mr. Pessimism wrapped up in a chirpy sense of humor. 

    I think I agree more with Seligman, but only because I’m as optimistic as he is, and the research Gilbert spews is so interesting, but at it’s core, so sad. To be honest, though, although Seligman says that you can alter your optimism set point, I’ve never seen anyone do it.


  7. Potres
    Potres says:

    If I plan to leave myself some extra time to finish time consuming tasks, it usually leads to procrastinating, a lack of focus, and even lower quality of work. That helped me realize that the only way I can be not only productive, but also able to produce a good quality of work is when I am under a lot of time pressure.

    As you can imagine that kind of approach results in long work days, a lot of stress and a jealousy for people that can just go home and relax after their workday is over.

    I've been trying to change my work habits for years, but I am starting to believe that how I go about planning my week/month has more to do with personality attributes than time management skills.

  8. Prashant
    Prashant says:

    Most of the time I’ve done the easier things first, procrastinating the rest. And more often than not, it has created problems.. In a recent training session in my organization (I also read this in ‘7 Habits…’), we were informed about the quadrant for importance and urgency – every task can be classified as low or high on both counts.

    The beauty of it is that if you manage to consistently do the “Important but Not Urgent” tasks on time, you will rarely have “Important and Urgent” tasks on your table.

    The hard part, of course, is implementing this…

  9. Alan
    Alan says:

    That is a great way of looking at our tasks. Sometimes, the problem is that I underestimate the task and I end up having not enought time to finish that specific task. I guess it’s a common mistake we all make.

    * * * * * *

    I think you’re right, that it is a common mistake. But sometimes what we need in order to see something clearly is for someone to put it into words for us. I think, actually, that this is why productivity is such a popular topic on the Internet (your web site, for example). Because productivity works sort of like Alcoholics Anonymous (although with obvious differences) in that if  you name the problem and talk about it all the time, you have to face it.–Penelope

  10. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    This is good advice. I tend to do the small things first and let the big things go last. I think I’m pretty good at prioritizing my schedule, but I still need adjustments to what should be done today vs what is due at the end of the week.

  11. Mandla
    Mandla says:

    Here’s a little trick I use to get over the procrastination over big tasks. I tell myself I’ll do just 10 minutes of it (e.g. write the headings and table of contents), after which I’ll get coffee or water. Something interesting usually happens: 10 mins turns into 30, 60 …
    Try it. Problem is I forget to employ this trick half the time.

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