How to estimate your time better

In productivity, getting things done by neville

How far is 10 yards (or meters)? What about 100? Can you accurately judge how far away one mile is, or one kilometre?

We’ve all been on long car rides, or road trips, and one of the games we play is to judge just how far away something is. How far is that car? That turn-off? That high tree?

It turns out that it is notoriously difficult to estimate distance, especially when you’re moving. One of the few ways in which you can improve your estimation skills is to look for signs with distances on them, for example the distance to the next turnoff. By learning through example (next turnoff in 1/2 a mile or 800 meters) we can get a little better at estimating distance.

But we still grossly underestimate the time it takes to do stuff.

What’s the problem with estimating time?

es·ti·mate (verb): 1. roughly calculate or judge the value, number, quantity, or extent of.
“the aim is to estimate the effects of macroeconomic policy on the economy”
synonyms: calculate roughly, approximate, guess

As you probably know by now, a central theme in the Tornado Method is how to deal with overwhelm. This is another way of saying that we need to get really good at how we manage our time – or rather, how we manage what we get done within the time we have.

We can not actually manage time – we have no control over how fast it goes. But what we can do is manage how much we get done over time; whether it is the next hour or the next week.

To manage what we can get done, we obviously have to estimate how long things are going to take to do. But for most of us, somehow, things take a lot longer to do that we estimated. The result: it takes longer, the work we planned to get done doesn’t get finished, work piles up and suddenly we’re overwhelmed.

I’ve been a student of productivity all my life. But even with my geeky obsession about planning and productivity, I get it wrong. Badly.

Why are we so bad at estimating how long it will take to get something done?

We may not be as bad we think we are. There are only a few types of things that make us “bad at estimating time”. Here’s the deal:

1: Distraction
When you’re familiar with a task you know more or less how long it’s going to take to do it. You’ve done it before, you know the things that can go wrong and you’re pretty good at doing it within a specific amount of time.

But often you will look back at a task and it took you twice as much time to get it done. Very often, it’s not your estimating skills that let you down. Rather, it’s the fact that you didn’t do only one thing; you did 10 or 20 things. You let yourself be interrupted, got distracted by notifications on your phone and got sidetracked when you quickly went to research something on the Internet, and ohmigawd look at what she looks like now I have to take a look at this clickbait… And before you know it you’ve wasted 10 minutes, or 20 or an hour.

So on the one hand, we don’t get done what we thought we could because we got distracted.

2: Sh*t happens – or happened
The second reason it takes way longer to get stuff done is because of unexpected problems. A task that normally takes us a couple of hours to complete can take twice as long because there was something wrong we didn’t know about when we started out.

We’re so used to dishwashers that we know it’s only going to take 10 minutes to clean up the kitchen. But when they break down (a real first-world problem) it suddenly takes 30 minutes because we have to wash the dishes by hand.

3: Bad habits
Mowing my lawn usually takes me about an hour (not because there’s so much of it, but mainly because it’s my meditation time – weird, I know). But if I don’t have fuel for the mower I have to add at least 20 minutes to go and get some. And if I need to trim the edges I have to add another 10 to 15 minutes. And of course I’ve just run out of nylon string for the trimmer so off to Home Depot I go – another 30 to 40 minutes gone.

And do you think that I discovered all the things I needed at the same time so that I could just make one run to Home Depot and the gas station? Of course not.

The bad habit at the heart of this? Not making a note to buy something when I run out of it.

4: We just don’t know
The last reason it takes way longer to do stuff is because we just don’t know how to do something, and what we feel should be right (this is how long it takes the experts to do it) is not just wrong – we’re also not experts and there’s a ton of stuff we still need to learn.

The first time I did a video presentation I budgeted 30 minutes for a 3-5 minute section. It took me 4 hours. But I learnt a lot. And now I can do it in about an hour. I still need to learn a lot.

5: We just don’t believe it
And finally, we often just can’t believe that something will take that long to get done. Or we can’t afford to believe it, because if we did we would realise we would have to work 112 hours this week and next week and the week after that.

So we fool ourselves into thinking we can get something done faster than we know it will take because we have to get the work done and if we only give ourselves this much time we should be able to get it done in that time…

And inevitably we slip and stuff doesn’t get done and we’re disappointed in ourselves. And we have to apologise to our clients because we couldn’t deliver what we said we would.

How can we get better at estimating how long it will take us to do stuff?

Once you understand what makes us bad at estimating, the fixes are not that difficult to devise and put in place. Here we go:

1: Distraction
One of my pet peeves. Turn off the distractions, folks! Turn off all notifications of email messages or Facebook or Twitter or whatever else pops up to distract you. Only first responders and customer service folks need to be notified of stuff; the rest of us can deal with most things later.

Then, when you start working on a task, clear the decks. Only the stuff you need to do that task should be visible; everything should be hidden. Your desk is not a filing cabinet. Or a holding pen.

2: Sh*t happens – or happened
The bad news is that when the unexpected happens, it happens and you have to deal with it. There’s no way around it. The good news is that the more you do something, the more you will realise what can go wrong and you will check for those things before you start out.

This is where experience counts. The guys (and girls) with the scars (or wrinkles) are the ones who know.

3: Bad habits
Get over it. Seriously. You’re an adult.

The next time you see something running low add it to your shopping list. Invest in a decent task manager. Learn to use it diligently.

4: We just don’t know
Getting good at anything takes time. While it may not have to take you 10,000 hours to become an expert, when you start out you’re going to fumble and learn and have to re-do stuff. That’s how you learn, and if you keep at it long enough you will get very fast at it.

And be wary – if you ever see something advertised that will “help you make professional-looking presentation in just 30 minutes” know that it is hype. It’s probably also a lie, or at best the over-promise will be followed by under-delivery.

5: We just don’t believe it
I feel for you – honestly I do. I’ve been there and done that and saying no is one of the hardest things to do.

But you have to learn to say no. You have to learn to make room for chaos (never allocate more than 80% of your calendar in any one week) and you have to learn to stop trying to please everyone all the time.

Because when you do, you will start delivering higher quality, on time and you will be under way less stress. You will be a happier human being, and it will show in your work and in your personal relationships.

Summary

So let’s pull all this together. There are 5 types of things that make us bad at estimating, and once you know what they are – and which ones you have to work on – you will make a lot of progress in a short amount of time:

1: Distraction: Turn off all notifications. Put your phone on silent. Clear the decks and focus on just that one thing.

2: Sh*t happens – or happened: It’s going to happen, and this is how you learn. The more you learn the less sh*t will surprise you.

3: Bad habits: Get over it. Seriously. You’re an adult.

4: We just don’t know: If you’re really new at something, don’t even try to estimate how long it’s going to take. Allocate an hour and start doing it. The another and another, and you’ll start learning how long it takes to do stuff.

5: We just don’t believe it: As hard as it is, learn to say no and make room for chaos. Start small and be prepared to be pleasantly surprised.

How far is that tree?

One technique you can use to get better at estimating how far something is, is to start learning how far 100 metres is (or 100 yards). This is not too difficult to do; find an athletics track or a road sign. Look at what’s supposed to be 100m away and make a mental picture.

Now use your mental picture of 100m (or yards) and add the same distance on at the end. Repeat until you reach the tree.

As simple and non-scientific as this sounds, with a little bit of practice you can get quite good at it. Just like with estimating how long it will take to do something.

What you can do now

If getting better at estimating things is close to your heart, you should also take a look at these articles:

And as always, drop me a note if you have any comments or questions!