When projects take longer than planned

One of my favorite time management tips is to block various activities into your schedule, knowing exactly how long they will take. Almost all recurring events in life can be estimated fairly well. Traffic seems like a force of nature, yet long distance bus lines still manage to estimate their arrivals, based on the time of day. If I’ve done the basic research for a column, I can usually crank out the draft in 2-3 hours. What’s the basic research? Well, 4-5 20-30 minute interviews should usually do. If I send 6-7 emails, I can get 4-5 people to respond. Nine out of ten weekdays, I can crank out a blog post in the time between my sitter showing up (8AM) and when I stop to say goodbye to the kids leaving for school (8:45).

Sometimes, however, you encounter one of those things in life that screws up estimation: randomness. Sometimes a project takes longer than planned for reasons you would not have imagined. Forget traffic during rush hour. We are talking true randomness here — what Donald Rumsfeld would have called “unknown unknowns.”

What do you do? There are a few ways to build in space:

  • Set your own due dates prior to real due dates. If all goes well, you can relax. If it doesn’t, you’ve got time.
  • Build in floater days to your life. These are light schedule days that can be used to catch up on things or pursue interesting projects… or can be re-deployed to cover the days you’re stuck in bed with the flu, picking up kids from school for an early closure, or realizing that only 1 in 20 prospects is calling you back.
  • Have a few available swing shifts. If I don’t finish my work by 6PM, I can spend an hour after the kids go to bed catching up, or two if something truly random is derailing a project. If all is on track, I can read a magazine instead. Nap time on weekends is also a possibility.

All of these build in space, but the most important thing, once the Project From Hell is over, is to analyze what exactly went wrong. You don’t want to spend your life leaving for the airport 3 hours early, based on that one time there was a motorcycle parade blocking the route and you missed your flight. But perhaps there is a lesson — like to check the traffic report a few hours before you plan to leave.

What do you do when projects take longer than planned?

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