One of the hardest parts of time management can be figuring out how long something will take so you can plan accordingly. The good news is it’s a skill anyone can get better at with some awareness and practice.
The first thing to be aware of is people have a tendency to underestimate how long it will take to do something they’ve done many times, and overestimate how long it will take to do something they’ve never done. Things we do all the time blend into our lives, whereas unfamiliar tasks can be daunting.
One of the most common things people forget about when planning their time is transitions. Here are a few examples of frequently overlooked transitions:
All of these things usually take longer than one minute, but many people seldom plan much longer than that for transitions.
One last thing to be aware of is sometimes we make time guesses based on how long we want something to take, rather than how long it realistically takes. The road to unhappiness is paved with unrealistic expectations, so do your best to make time estimates based on experience rather than wishes.
Even if you think you have poor time management skills, there is probably at least one area in your life where you are already correctly estimating how long something takes. Getting to work is often one of these things.
It’s important to most people to be on time to work, so many people figure out how long it takes to get to work through a combination of planning and trial and error. The first day of work people usually guess how long it will take them based on some kind of similar experience, or look up their path online and maybe consider factors like how long they might have to wait for the bus and how bad traffic might be. After seeing how late or early they were on the first day, they plan accordingly for the next day. By the time they’ve had the job for a week or so, they know they must leave their home by a certain time to avoid being late.
Applying this same concept consciously and methodically will show you how long any task will take. Here’s how:
For a simple task that doesn’t vary much, such as taking a shower or unloading the dishwasher, timing it 1-3 times will be sufficient.
For something more complicated like getting a research paper done, first break it down into smaller tasks like deciding the specific topic, finding books at the library, assembling an outline, writing the first draft, and editing it into a final draft. Guess and time each of the parts separately. The details of what happens during a trip to the library or sitting down to write a paper can vary a lot, so these are the kinds of tasks that I recommend timing three or more times. The more variable a task is, the more times you need to time how long it took.
Like any skill, practice is the key to getting better. The data you collect by logging how long things take will help you plan for the tasks you’ve logged, and it will bring to light your unique patterns around guessing time and how long it actually takes you to do things. This awareness will help you more accurately estimate familiar and unfamiliar tasks in the future.
I’d love to hear about your time estimating challenges and successes. Please share your stories in the comments. Your experiences and ideas can help other readers improve their skills and overcome obstacles.
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Based in Madison, Wisconsin, Dane County, and serving clients around the world virtually.
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