So why does everything take longer than you think? It’s called the planning fallacy – the tendency to underestimate the time it will take to complete a task.
The tendency to underestimate the time it takes to complete a task can result in over-commitment, stress, and aggravation. But research by Markus Brunnermeier and colleagues suggests that people may suffer from planning fallacy because they actually enjoy thinking that the task ahead will be easy, even more than they dislike rushing and panicking to get a job done. Interestingly, this underestimation doesn’t happen with fun and easy tasks.
Paralysed by optimism?
When planning for the future, it’s hard not to hope for the best. And simply knowing about the planning fallacy thinking trap might not be enough to overcome it. This is summed up by Hofstader’s Law: “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstader’s Law.”
Here are some things you can do to make sure you set realistic timelines for yourself.
1. Take the outside view
The most common and effective remedy is to try and be more objective – take more of an “outsider” view. One way of doing this is by using an idea originally developed by Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and peer Amos Tversky called reference class forecasting.
Essentially, this means comparing what happened in similar cases in the past, and making an estimate based on that. For example, ask a few people who have done similar tasks. They may say “it only takes a few minutes” or tell you that “it’s a great hassle”. Adjust your plan accordingly. It may also mean thinking about more unpredictable events such as illness or other personal problems, lack of funding, or problems coordinating different parts of a task.
2. Make accurate planning pay
Reward yourself for planning well, rather than completing a task quickly. Although this doesn’t necessarily reduce the time it takes to complete the task, it does improve how realistic the expected timings are.
3. Use backward planning
Why not start with the goal or completion time in mind and work back towards the present? Outline the steps towards your goal, in reverse-chronological order. Research by Jessica Wiese and colleagues found that this strategy – also known as backward planning – improves our ability to work out how long something will take – boosting while not necessarily affecting the speed of the work needed to accomplish the goal. According to the authors, backward planning helps people consider external factors such as competing demands, obstacles and interruptions which might interfere with getting a task done.
But what about once a deadline is set? How do you meet it then?
4. Have interim deadlines
Breaking tasks into smaller parts and completing them one by one is another powerful trick. Brunnermeier, in the paper mentioned earlier, writes that some people may choose to impose deadlines. The reason is that this commits them to smoothing out their workload, delaying the tendency to procrastinate until the very end.
Other research has found that giving yourself an amount of time to complete part of a task – setting interim deadlines – not only helps but also may improve the quality of what you do too.
5. Use a commitment device
A self-imposed arrangement can be another useful way to hit a deadline. Commonly known as a commitment device, they can help a person stick to a commitment by either constraining future choices or imposing financial or psychological rewards and penalties. For example, setting up a direct debit into a restricted-access savings account can help you reach concrete financial goals like saving for a wedding.
Similarly, telling friends and family about your plans and goals so they can encourage you can also act as a commitment device. Research shows simple prompts to be mindful of your goal can be valuable tools to change your behaviour.
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