Make Better Estimates Through Time Tracking

Intuitive estimates are almost always wrong. A little simple data tracking, however, and you'll be estimating like a pro.

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #288

As longtime listeners know, I sometimes run super productivity days called Do-It Days. You can learn about them at DoItDays.com. Participants check in hourly to share what they’re doing. We get a behind-the-scenes look at the wild, wild life of authors working on books, grad students slicing up brains to do research, and ministers preparing a Sunday sermon.;

Every Do-It Day, someone always says “In the next hour, I plan to write 6 pages of my novel.” My heart sinks. Six pages in one hour? I could never do that; I’m a pathetic, miserable failure.

But then, at the next hourly check-in, the once-hopeful author calls in, full of despair. “I only got through a page and a half!” I say sympathetic words. Inside, however, joy! Happiness! Schadenfreude! Who’s the pathetic, miserable failure now, eh? Then I realize that when writing my book, I averaged at most one page per hour max. Their failure is better than my crowning achievement. Great. Now I suck again.

Actually, I don’t suck. Neither does my author friend. What sucks is human nature. Specifically, the Planning Fallacy. That’s a fancy word that means everyone underestimates how long it takes to do something. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman has proven it (and it took a lot more work to run the experiments than he thought it would).

When we underestimate, we don’t schedule enough time to complete a task and we schedule too many competing commitments. We get overloaded and grumpy towards everyone around us. You owe it to yourself, your polyamorous family units, and your pet chihuahua Spunky to learn how to estimate well.

Track What You Do

Your intuition won’t estimate, so let’s turn to the thing that gave us iPhones, velcro, and Twinkies: science. Science is great at understanding the world, especially when the world doesn’t fit our intuition.

Science starts with data and measurement, so let’s get measuring. Create a tracking grid for your activities, like the one in the episode How to Deal with a Boss who Gives Too Much Work. The first column is a wide column, where you’ll write the activity you’re tracking. Then have enough small columns to track 15-minute increments throughout your workday. One column for 8am to 8:15am, one for 8:15am to 8:30am, and so on. Click here for a printable PDF of a grid.

Now measure to find out how long something really takes. Enter the task on a blank row. For example, “write 5 pages of book.” Set a timer to go off every 15 minutes. When the timer goes off, put a check in the box corresponding to the time. When you finally finish, the row of checkmarks will tell you how long it actually took to finish the task.

Voila! Now you’re using science, and confronting the cold, hard truth that it doesn’t take 5 minutes to write 5 pages, it takes 5 hours.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He 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.