Overestimating, dread, and psychic time

photo-132I spent a few hours today working on my taxes. Actually, I spent 2.5 hours, and I’m about 95 percent finished. In my mind it was an all-day activity. I knew, rationally, this wasn’t true; I timed myself 2 years ago and found it took 5 hours as an upper bound. And yet because it seemed like a huge and awful thing it still loomed large in my mental accounting.

In my post last week on overestimating vs. underestimating time, I found that even people who underestimate time tend to overestimate things they don’t want to do. This is likely one reason that people think they spend 5 hours a week doing dishes. Few people like to do dishes, and since we do them for a few minutes at a time, multiple times through the week, it becomes this large thing we feel like we are always doing.

This can happen at work too. A difficult conversation becomes a full day undertaking — except it may take a few minutes at most. I once set a goal to get a certain public figure on the phone, figuring the hassle might take much of the week. When I talked to him on Monday morning, that kind of let the air out of the sails for the next 168 hours.

Psychic time is a funny thing. We assign additional weight to dreaded tasks until they seem to take longer than they actually do. Then, because they seem to require a lot of time, we don’t fit them in, waiting until a large (and likely mythical) opening appears in the schedule.

So how can we fight this?

One reason I tell people to keep track of their time is that I really do think the truth sets us free. If I know I spend a mere hour per week doing dishes, this keeps me from telling myself some sad story that I’m always loading and unloading the dishwasher. The fact that I knew my taxes took me 5 hours a few years ago gave me the courage to schedule it in amidst various calls and such today. Even if I could only find 2.5 hours, it would be half done. And as it turned out, it’s now pretty much all done.

What dreaded task do you think takes the most time?

Photo: A task you don’t want to do becomes a lion in your schedule — seeming to take more space than it actually does. Or maybe I’m reaching for metaphors in my iPhone camera roll.

12 thoughts on “Overestimating, dread, and psychic time

  1. Writing, addressing, and mailing the holiday cards. It really doesn’t take THAT much time but I think of it as a whole day affair. Other people must feel that way too because I received a number of holiday cards in February! I think I tend to overestimate projects that have a series of steps. First we need to find an appropriate photo, then we need to get the cards made, wait for the cards, go get the right stamps, address the cards, take them to the mail. The taxes are similar– gathering the stuff, etc. is somewhat separate from doing it, and one is always at risk of discovering that one does not have all of the parts.

    1. @J- oh yes, the card addressing is definitely one of those tasks that seem to expand in the mind. Some Christmas present shopping winds up feeling that way too.

  2. In no particular order:
    1) taxes (and this is just preparing it for the accountant!)
    2) making calls to insurance/cable/hospitals etc.. regarding billing/money
    3) scrubbing the tub/mopping the floor/laundry!

    1. @oil_garlic – oh yes, #2 — partly because it’s hard to know how many steps it will take, and how long each step will take. It seems like a huge black hole of time. You could be on hold for 20 minutes only to find out you need to call someone else… At least the laundry takes a pretty set amount of time.

  3. My time estimation for distasteful tasks includes all the time spent procrastinating during said task. Because I am going to suddenly find myself more thirsty than usual, which means I’m more likely to have to use the restroom than usual, not to mention easier distractability and the needed breaks to complain about what I’m doing to whoever will listen. Cloud wouldn’t count those in the time allocation, but they are part and parcel with the process and cannot be eliminated. (And if I procrastinate productively instead of unproductively, that drags out the process even longer because it’s easier to be all, oh, this thing that I’m distracting myself with has to get done and it’s so important [even if it really isn’t] maybe I’ll just do it instead.)

  4. I agree that really knowing how long something takes can make it easier to schedule it in and get it done as opposed to procrastinating until the deadline is looming. I dreaded doing my parents farm taxes and really it took about the same – five hours or so to complete. That and doing daycare drop-off and pick-up (especially in winter). Really it takes about 15 minutes to do each so that is only 2.5 hours per week (which my husband does some). Somehow I can’t reframe that. Maybe just knowing that as the kids get older it won’t be so draining.

  5. Cleaning the high chair and area around it. It has to be done after each meal (which is 1 – 4 / day depending on if it was a daycare day or not). I hate doing it because it’s gross and because I know it’s only going to get messy again, but I hate when it’s not done because then it’s 3-hour-old gross, which is even worse and harder to clean.

  6. I get this way about weekly house cleaning. I know in theory that it doesn’t take much time, and I even know that I won’t hate it once I get started, but I still dread it. Thank you for coining the term “psychic time.” I’ve never come up with a good way to describe that feeling. I’ll be stealing that phrase, thank you 🙂

  7. Yes I am that way re: taxes, too! It usually takes us under 2 hours (simple W2 one-employer stuff). Also really anything involving “phone calls” for work or home, stretches out in my mind to fill hours, rather than the actual minutes they take, because of the stress/social anxiety aspect of it. Emptying the dishwasher still gets me sometimes, I KNOW its only a 5 minute task but it seems like an hour, and folding laundry. Even 3 loads can be done in under 30 minutes, but it seems like it’ll take the ENTIRE evening.
    Ever since I noticed I was doing this at work, I’ve been trying to time things better so I don’t schedule a 10 minute task into an hour time slot and end up wasting (or just not making the best use of) the other 50 minutes…

  8. This isn’t exactly what you are talking about, but your description reminds me that when I was running the C25K way, running took up every waking hour of every day EXCEPT for the hours between my run (on running days) and when I went to bed. Other than those, I was dreading needing to run again and finding ways to postpone it. Eventually I gave up running, as I decided it was not worth the, let’s say, 24 out of 32 waking hours, being miserable about either (a) running or (b) needing to run soon.

    Then I discovered running the Doctor Mama way (which, ironically, looks suspiciously close to running the C25K way — but, for me, it’s not) and now I enjoy running (er, jogging). Who’da thunk?

    Sometimes how you do it, matters.

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