My not-so-positive time management trait

Yesterday, two events had me mulling my own time management skills.

1. Fast Company published a piece I wrote on “How To Manufacture More Time In Your Day,” which covers the skill of time estimation. I interviewed several project management experts on how one learns to figure out how long things actually take.

2. I had budgeted much of the day for editing an article I’d turned in 3 months ago down from its 2900 word length to the 1500 words I was more recently allotted. I’d done a lot of reporting for that piece and I despise seeing good stuff on the cutting room floor. It was going to be painful…except that I was able to hack the piece roughly in half in less than 2 hours.

I realized, looking at these two events, that I have a pretty strong tendency to overestimate how long things will take. This is rare. Most people wildly underestimate, thinking everything will go right on the first try, there will be no snow days or traffic at 5 p.m. in the rain on Fridays, and so forth.

In my universe, not only is traffic slow on Friday afternoons, I’m quite likely to encounter a 50-car pile-up that will force me to re-route to the airport at 2 p.m. on Saturday on a sunny, 70-degree day.

I’m not sure why I’m so risk-averse. I do know that when it comes to time management, my problem is generally preferable to the alternative. When people underestimate time, they try to pack too much into their days and then something has to give. It’s usually something they’d really like to do (exercise, sleep, hang out with friends and family), or something that impacts the bottom line, like reaching out to new clients.

The downsides of over-estimating time are more subtle. I’m sometimes comically early to meetings and even more comically early to social gatherings. But the bigger downside is I may risk doing less than I can actually take on. Having a better sense of how long things take might allow me to aim for bigger things.

Do you overestimate or underestimate how long things take?



22 Responses to My not-so-positive time management trait


  1. I’m really not too sure about myself. I mean, I do like to be early to things and so I try to always overestimate the amount of time it will take me to get somewhere (because then even if I leave late, I’m still good!), but I don’t think this is a pattern that carries over into all of my life.

    For instance, I usually underestimate how long it will take me to make dinner, which means that if I want dinner on the table at 6:00, I should aim to have it ready by 5:30, and then we’ll actually eat at 6:00!

    • Laura says:

      @The Frugal Girl – dinner falls under the “100% rule” problem — there’s always some step that doesn’t come naturally to mind. You build in time to cook, but not to set the table, or dish things up, or pour drinks or…

  2. Leslie H says:

    I regularly overestimate the time it takes to do tasks I do not like. If I was more realistic in my time estimate, I would realize that I would only be “miserable” for a quarter of an hour…and happy the rest of the day because it is done.
    I regularly underestimate the time an added task will take when I am ready too early for an appointment — and then I am late.

    • Laura says:

      @Leslie H – dread definitely makes a task feel like it will take longer. It’s like we add psychic energy to the cost.

    • ARC says:

      Oh, heck yeah! This is me too. Especially with chores. And then if I decide I’m just going to do 10 min’ worth, it turns out that’s enough to finish the damn thing anyway.

      • Laura says:

        @ARC – I am feeling that way about my taxes right now…

  3. Rachel says:

    Ha! I definitely overestimate how long it will take me to complete tasks. I’m almost always early places (professional and social). I have far too often put things off because I think they’ll take more time than they will only to find that I’d overestimated and should have tackled it far earlier! On the other hand on Monday I completed everything I needed to do that day only to think that maybe I hadn’t decided to do enough.

    • Laura says:

      @Rachel- it’s always a tough call because space and “slack” in the schedule is good. It means you can take on stuff that comes to you. But stuff doesn’t always come to you. I’ve been thinking about how I can brainstorm big long term projects and start working at some of those when I’ve overestimated stuff.

  4. Ana says:

    Yes! i just realized I also do this, and it is one of the barriers to my productivity. I”ll plan out my day, and then be done with everything well before my day is through…and then flounder the rest of the afternoon. I was wondering why I did this, when everyone else seems to do the opposite, but “risk averse” definitely nails it.

    • Laura says:

      @Ana – me too. I love sailing through stuff in the AM, but I hate feeling like I’m wasting time in the afternoons. I want to make better use of open time that exists. But if I plan it, that risks things not getting done, and I don’t like that.

  5. Charmaine says:

    Oh, I definitely underestimate. My husband gives me a very tired look whenever I say something like, “It won’t take long!” :)

  6. I find that I have the tendency to do the same thing that results in me arriving to events chronically early – even with three children in tow.

    Except, of course, when I’m late :)

  7. I used to under-estimate all the time. Then I started putting time estimates next to each item on my daily to-do list. I could then check how long things really took against the estimate. After doing this (sporadically) for several years, I am way better at estimating how long things will take. I have noticed, though, that some tasks that I put off for a long time end up taking up much more time than I had estimated. Somewhere in my subconscious I must have known the task was going to be a biggee!

  8. I tend to give myself deadlines before the deadline. I also tend to work based on time rather than project because my projects are never ending, so I’ll spend an hour on writing, two hours on the D project, etc. I also have an additional to-do list for when I have extra time during the work day. I don’t know if I over or under estimate more often. I’m constantly re-evaluating. I am not early to social gatherings because I always aim to be a little late, which generally gets me there on time or at least as one of the first people to arrive. Nobody gets to social events early in this part of the country once they have kids.

  9. Cloud says:

    I’m actually eerily good at estimating. This may be because I practice it a lot at work, or it may be an innate thing that explains why I gravitated towards project management. Hard to say. But- even though I can usually estimate correctly, I prefer to pad and arrive places early. The advent of smart phones are a real boon for me- I use my early time to catch up on social media. I HATE being late. I feel like it is disrespecting other people and the demands on their time, particularly when they are people who are junior to me at work. I am usually fairly forgiving of other people who keep me waiting, though- except I strongly dislike the trait in senior management. I think it sends a signal that they think they are more important than the rest of us, which just annoys me. That is not how I view management at all.

  10. Cloud says:

    Oh, and sign me up for the “comically early for social events” club. I’m early even when I am trying to be late.

  11. Joyce says:

    Your comments about traffic reminded me of a time when something came up with my car and I called the mechanic to see if they could fit me in. They asked how long it would take to get there and I said about 15 minutes. They were utterly shocked when I pulled up 16 minutes later, fully expecting me to be much later because most people underestimate traffic and travel times. Being a traffic engineer does give me some advantages in estimating travel times. My problem is in the kids expanding the time required to get ready in accordance with the amount of extra time I allot to get them ready. If I give my daughter 10 minutes to get ready, she will take 12. If I respond the next day by planning 15 minutes, she will take 18. It’s the never-ending struggle in our house. For estimating tasks, my husband loves Fogbugz. It is written as a programmer’s tool, but it can be used as a task manager for other purposes. When entering a task to be done, you enter a time estimate. When you complete a task, you record that. Over time, the program will begin to predict how much time you need for tasks.

    • Ana says:

      That app sounds cool…I may try that! My overestimation increases proportional to how loathsome the task feels to me…hard data might help that.

    • Laura says:

      @Joyce – the one issue with an app like that is that time estimation is partly a personality thing as much as an observational thing. With chronic underestimators, you could show them that the app says that 90% of the time their commute takes an hour, but they know that one day it took 40 minutes, and today they feel lucky!

  12. I’m often comically early for things too. In fact, often I try to force myself to be on time or even a little late in order to “fit in” better!

  13. oil_garlic says:

    I’m a chronic over-estimator while my husband is an under-estimator (though over-estimates any dreaded tasks!). I think over-estimator is better in general as I feel less rushed in general; however, sometimes I stress myself out thinking I won’t get somewhere or do something on time when I actually do have time.

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