You know the type: A colleague constantly delivers at work. He exudes a sense of calm, and yet as you get to know him, you find out he’s also coaching soccer, running marathons, and taking a wine-tasting class that he’s never had to skip.
Some people appear to manufacture time. But the truth is, these superheroes actually have a different, if almost as rare, skill: they know exactly how long everything takes.
Being able to estimate time well “allows us to plan and organize our lives,” says Ray Sheen, a project management consultant. “We live in chaos often because we don’t have good estimates.” Many of us miscalculate what we can take on, and then we have to chuck things that are meaningful to us–or that would impact the bottom line.
Mark Langley, president and CEO of the Project Management Institute, reports that organizations lose or waste almost 11% of their project dollars due to poor estimates and planning. Bad estimates likely make us waste a (roughly) similar proportion of our time, too. If there are 168 hours in a week, “Wouldn’t you love to get 17 hours back?” he asks.
Here’s how to get better at estimating how long things will take, and how to use those estimates to get more done.
When it comes to time, “We have a perception of what we’re actually spending time on, but how close does it match reality?” Langley asks. If you want to estimate time better, you need to get a realistic sense of where the time goes now. I recently wrote about 10 time tracking apps that can make you more productive. If you’re a low-tech sort, here’s a spreadsheet that can serve the same function. Try logging your time for at least a week.
Now it’s time to look for patterns. How long does your commute really take? Is that 10 a.m. staff meeting done at 11 or 11:30? “Few of us take time to look back at the week,” Langley says, but if we did, we’d get a better feel for our schedules.
While some people overestimate the time tasks require, the more common curse is wild optimism. “People estimate that they will do it right on the first try. That is a fallacy of almost everything,” says Sheen. “We have a joke in our family that if we’re driving from one place to another, we build in one ‘lost.’” The Sheen family doesn’t know where they’ll go off track for 10 minutes, but they know they will somewhere.
Call it margin time or “slack” but any good estimator has “learned to anticipate that something unexpected will happen,” says Liz Pearce, CEO of LiquidPlanner, an online project management tool. “You might as well account for it in advance.”
With estimation, “The metaphor I always like to use is comparing it to cooking,” says Pearce. “If someone is coming for dinner at 7 p.m., you need to figure out what are the steps that are going to allow you to put dinner on the table at 7 p.m.” Then you count back from 7 p.m. to figure out when you should start.
Likewise, you can break any project into its constituent steps, figure out how long each step requires, and which of these steps can run simultaneously. If you’ve got three people in your house, for instance, and two showers, getting out the door will take longer than if you had four bathrooms.
Another problem with estimation is that people fail to account for all the steps of a project. With the cooking metaphor, people don’t build in time to set the table. Getting groceries doesn’t just involve driving to the store, putting stuff in your cart, and driving home. It requires taking the groceries out of your trunk and putting them away. Failing to account for that time gives you inaccurate estimates. Ask yourself “What’s inside the frame, and what’s outside the frame,” says Sheen. There’s often more inside the frame than you think.
Many things in life can’t be estimated with 100% accuracy, but that doesn’t mean they’re unknowable. To manage expectations, project managers think in ranges. You naturally do this with some tasks. Getting to the airport, you tell a visitor, takes 30 to 45 minutes, depending on traffic. Likewise, a report you write regularly may take you 60 to 180 minutes, depending on complications, but knowing an upper bound (with, say, 95% confidence) lets you build unknowns into your schedule.
The hardest things to estimate are things you do rarely or have never done at all. You want to paint your hallway. Will it take all weekend? If you start at 4 p.m. Saturday, will you have to cancel your evening plans? But just because you’ve never done something doesn’t mean no one has.
The best estimators “know who to call,” says Sheen. “They are not relying on guessing, on their own, things they don’t know.” In a case where no expert is available, try asking lots of people. “You all secretly vote on how long things will take,” says Pearce. “You round up the estimates and take the average.” The wisdom of crowds is often surprisingly accurate.
The reason to hone your estimation skills is that you can then plan your life in a more rational fashion. Here are some things that could fit in 24 hours: 8 hours of sleep, one hour of personal care, 10 hours of work (including the commute), a 90-minute trip to the gym, and two hours of TV. Here are some things that cannot simultaneously fit into those same 24 hours: grabbing drinks with a colleague, starting your taxes, fixing the leaky pipe in your basement, shoveling snow off the driveway, and going to your nephew’s basketball game.
When it comes to time, “You have an absolute ceiling to what’s available to you, so you need to make some critical decisions,” says Langley. What parts of your life portfolio are most important to pursue? If something has to give, you want to make sure it’s the right thing.
Those people who manufacture time? They always chuck the right things–and keep the right things too.