A Simple Tracking Form to Better Estimate Your Time

You can't manage your time if you don't know how long things will take. A simple tracking form will help you estimate better than a pro. 

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #377

We've learned that our four-hour estimate was really 40 hours' worth of work. We were off by a factor of ten. Some of that work was one-time setup, but some wasn't. Our fantasies still say "four hours," but reality claims that's shenanigans. It's time to track time.

Getting estimates right is the difference between having a successful business, and dying alone in a gutter, reeking of despair.

Estimate Using Graph Paper

Many people estimate by writing down the time they start and finish a task, calculating the length, and putting it in a journal. That's too much work! It also involves remembering to use the log at the start and end of each activity. That's way too much work! As with many things, a little extra setup will make the tracking process itself an unobtrusive as the monster that used to hide under your bed when you were a child ... and just might still be there.

Grab a piece of lined paper and divide it into four columns. Label the columns Task, Estimate, Actual, and Tracking. Each row will be a task you're tracking. Tasks can be at any level of detail. Our Ideas Unleashed project included tasks like, "Create webinar landing page," "Configure shopping cart," and "Write webinar announcement."

Estimate how long you think each task will take and write it in column two. Now choose a time interval. Five or ten minutes works well, depending on the task. At the top of column four, write "One tick mark equals five minutes" (or whatever number you choose).

Use a Timer ... But Not the Way You Think

Now start a recurring countdown timer that goes off every five minutes and immediately restarts counting down. I use the iPhone app "i-Qi clock." Keep your tracking sheet within arm's reach. Jump into your task. Every time the counter goes off, just make a little tick mark in column four of the row corresponding to the task you've been doing since the last bell.

Use this same sheet until you've completed the tasks. Then count up the tick marks in each row, multiply by the interval you were using, and you know how long it took to complete the task. Write it in the "actual" column. If your estimates and actuals are far apart, reflect, identify what took longer (or shorter) than you thought, and factor that into the next time you have to estimate how long that task will take.

This is the easiest form of tracking I've ever used. You don't have to do any thinking. When the bell goes off, you just make a quick tick mark. It only takes a brief second, you can keep your attention quite focused, and at the end of a work session, you know how you used your time down to the five minute interval. Not only is this the easiest system I've used, it produces great results.

My intern and I have come to realize that we think it will take 15 minutes to write and send an outbound email. But writing can take an hour or more, especially when we include a substantive article. And sending an email, which should take moments, takes half an hour, because the email message composer mangles fonts, requiring reformatting multiple times. Then just sending and verifying a test message and all its links can take fifteen minutes to do right. Our fantasies say "15 minutes." Our tracking sheet says "2 hours."

Getting estimates right is the difference between having a successful, profitable business, and dying alone in a gutter reeking of despair. Get your estimates right by making a simple tick mark by the task you're working on at regular intervals. Record your estimate in advance, and compare it with your actual work done when you're done. You can download the estimation tracking form I use in PDF, Microsoft Word, iWork Pages, and Excel formats. Pretty soon, you'll be estimating better than the pros!

I'm Stever Robbins. I run webinars and other programs to help people build extraordinary careers, with extraordinary productivity. If you want to know more, visit SteverRobbins.com

Work Less, Do More, and Have a Great Life!

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT. 

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