Why you always underestimate how long stuff will take – and what to do about it

It’s so frustrating, when I make a to do list and spend time getting organised, only to discover that I majorly underestimated how long the task would take. I was surprised to learn ten years back – in this column by Oliver Burkeman – that this is a cognitive thing, and not (simply) my own personal lack of awareness about how many hours there are in a day!

From stadium builders to essay writers

Burkeman uses the example of the Sydney Opera House and Wembley Stadium. Both delivered way behind schedule, and both presumably built and project managed by people who not only knew what they were doing, but were leaders in their fields. Reading that was a jaw dropping moment, but the example he uses about the student essay writers was closer to home for me – because I’m both a tutor and a writer. To summarise, these students know that they usually finish essays a day before the deadline but estimate they’ll finish future essays 10 days before the deadline. Why?

Hofstadter’s law

Cue an intriguing concept called Hofstadter’s law, so called because it was postulated by American cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter. It seems we are programmed to underestimate how long something will take – and here’s the really annoying bit even when we know that we do it.

What to do about Hofstadter’s law?

The only way to estimate how long something will take is to record and remember accurately at how long it took you last time you did it. Tracking your time will help – this is where you deliberately interrupt yourself and record what you were doing so you can remember what you did during a day and how long it took. Do this for a week and you may go mad with all those interruptions, but at least you’ll have a pretty good idea of what you’re doing and how long for. A gentler version I suggest to my students is to leave a notebook by the kettle and take regular tea breaks! When you see the notebook, write down what you were doing before your break. Here’s a 1 min video of me explaining this technique.

Other time management tools

Here are some other time management techniques that can help combat Hofstadter’s law:

1) Note down distractions as they occur. Review the list at the end of the day and decide which of these need to become items on your to do list.

2) Use a technique such as Pomodoro to help you focus on a task, and avoid getting sucked into email or social media when you’re trying to do something else.

3) Build time into your day to deal with ‘extras’ or ‘invisible tasks’ – things that aren’t on your to do list but that form part of your regular routine.

4) Take a day a week for deep work (a concept made popular by Cal Newport).

5) Always build in contingency time, then add some more.

6) Learn to limit the number of items on your to do list. If you generally get four things done, plus the ‘invisible tasks’ then plan only four. Use a master list to capture the rest. The piece of paper trick can help.

7) Schedule regular review time to go over your goals and to see if the approaches you are taking are working for you.

8) Work out what the most important action is in each area of your life and do that first.

Good luck.

xx Louise


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