Planning Fallacy: a phenomenon in which predictions about how much time will be needed to complete a future task display an optimism bias and underestimate the time needed. This phenomenon sometimes occurs regardless of the individual’s knowledge that past tasks of a similar nature have taken longer to complete than generally planned. source
The planning fallacy is a problem we all face. It can be a huge problem if you work on numerous different projects. Overcommitting ourselves is the surest means of bringing additional stress into your life and work. This article describes how I use a simple tool to help myself acknowledge and correct the effects of the planning fallacy on my own decision making.
The first step in addressing how the planning fallacy affects your life is accepting that you are not great at predicting how long it will take you to complete a task. Let the ego go and do your best to rely on existing data to inform your decisions. In order to have existing data on how long a project has taken, you need to track how you spend your time.
I think the easiest way to start developing that habit is to utilize a Pomodoro timer, basically a count down timer. You set it and then spend the time slot, generally 25 minutes, working on a single task. When the time is up, take a quick break and if you continue with the task, do it for another iteration of the Pomodoro.
Working in these time blocks means you now have a reference for what you accomplished in a set amount of time on a single project. For this to be meaningful data, it is essential that you only work on the task at hand. Doing only a single thing at a time might be the best generic productivity advice out there, so following the Pomodoro technique can help with overall productivity as well.
The Pomodoro timer helps you build a feel of the relative nature of time based on your interest in the project at hand. There will be tasks where 25 minutes seems to drag on forever and others where it is over far too soon. This personal feedback can become a tool for prioritizing the kind of work you wish to pursue in the future. Follow the work that absorbs your attention and allows time to pass unnoticed. That is the path to acknowledging your passions.
Using Pomodoro counts from previous projects to determine the expected time needed for a new, slightly different task is not a perfect tool for generating estimates. The Pomodoro shows you how long something can take. You have the experience that writing this blog post took five twenty five minute Pomodoro sessions over three days. That experience helps you check your enthusiasm when a new project comes to the table. It gives you a bit of pause and makes you question how exactly can you fit this into your existing production requirements. It can help you set a value to the process by appreciating how much of your time it could require.
Daphne Gray-Gran, the author behind www.publicationcoach.com, provides five tips for helping yourself take a stand against the planning fallacy in her blog, please check it out.
I believe that utilizing the Pomodoro timer can contribute to all of these five elements. 5-Make future plans based on your past performance
- You can track your work on a task through the number of Pomodoro sessions it took you to complete it. This is real data, not an estimate. When a new similar task comes to the table, referencing these past measurements can give you a baseline for predicting the time commitment of future work. 4-Resist the tyranny of the urgent
- When you are utilizing a Pomodoro, you have to focus on a single task. This can be challenging but is far more approachable because you know there is a transition away from the task soon. I need to work on this for 25 minutes then I can move on to that urgent email. It gives you a plan and that can be all you need to keep the urgent task out of your mind in the moment. 3-Always break big tasks into much smaller pieces
- As the Pomodoro timer is generally short, 25 minutes is the standard; you can not plan on doing everything in that amount of time. You need to be specific about what you are trying to accomplish in that time frame because it goes by quickly. That means breaking down a big task into something manageable and working on it. Breaking big tasks into small tasks is an essential tool in negating the effects of procrastination as well. 2-Visualize HOW you are going to do the work
- You will finish this project one twenty-five minute chuck at a time. Being able to block that time out in your mind gives you something to tie the ideas too. I’ll work on this element now and edit it during my second session. It can be a massive project, but if you can see yourself committing four Pomodoro sessions a day to the work, that means you will accumulate around eight hours of work to the goal within a given workweek. Amazing things can happen in that amount of focused time. 1-Don’t let yourself be too __anchored__ to your original plan:
- Plans are very product oriented. This deliverable needs to be sent off by this date. When you utilize the Pomodoro, you are focusing on a process, not a product. Your twenty-five minutes is about putting some effort into a specific task. Focusing on the process allows you to get a sense of the development of the work. What new directions are coming up? What am I spending time on? What is falling off the radar? This reflection will help you evaluate the original idea and be comfortable in adjusting it.
The stress associated with overcommitting your time has adverse effects on your work and well being. Getting a handle on this may be more about planning better than working harder. Utilizing the Pomodoro timer is a means to understanding how you spend your time. You can implement it today.