5 Tips to Help you Estimate how Much Time a Project Will Take

Written by Chase Reeves

I had just had a good run of projects, doing good work I was proud of in the right amount of time… and then, a couple weeks ago, disaster struck.

Here, let me tell you about it in this little video I made:

I had a string of projects to do. So, I did my best estimate on how long each project was going to take. For example:

I did a good amount of project planning, breaking up the steps, etc., to determine how long each would take.

Regardless, I messed up (pretty big) on how long the first project was going to take me, and it messed up our schedule, messed up my attitude, messed up our team plans, messed up my email inbox (because I wasn’t taking any time to maintain that while rushing on the late project), and ultimately spun me down into anxiety and depression.

All because I slipped up on how long I thought it would take me to finish a project.

The Planning Fallacy

So I looked into project time estimation, and, as it happens, I’m not the only one who has a hard time with it.

There’s actually a bunch of studies out there about, what researchers call, the Planning Fallacy. The gist is this: we are all over-optimistic about our time estimates.

“We chronically underestimate the time things take: that’s why Sydney Opera House opened 10 years later than scheduled, and why the new Wembley stadium opened last year, not in 2003, 2005 or 2006, each of which had been, at various points, the predicted completion date. It’s also why the list-makers among us get up each day and make to-do lists that by the same evening will seem laughable, even insane.”

The Planning Fallacy, this over-optimism we have about plans, seems to effect all of us, regardless of culture or age. So, if you’ve ever been late on a project, you’re not alone.

But I don’t want to spend the rest of my life late on some deadline. If we can make more accurate estimates about how long something’s going to take, we’re going to spend more time doing GOOD work and less time doing stressed out crappy, rushed work.

So here are 5 tips to help you estimate how much time a project will take:

5 Time Estimation Tips

1. Double Your Estimation.

Now, this is kind of a band aid. A lot of the researchers poo poo this option, but it’s easy and quick and may help you a bunch right off the bat.

Simply make your best estimation for how long this project will take, and then double it.

If you estimate it’ll take you 3 hours to write a blog post, double that to 6.

You see, when we estimate we’re not foreseeing the unforeseen complications — that’s why they’re called unforeseen — and when we double our estimation we’re hoping account for some of those invisibles.

It’s a brute force option and won’t fix everything, but, if you only have time for a band aid you can give this one a try.

2. Plan With an Accountability Partner.

Talking through your project with someone else pulls out assumptions you didn’t know you were making.

One of the trends in the research here is the difference between an INNER view on project planning and an OUTER view on project planning.

We get stuck on the inner view, where we’re very optimistic and where we don’t tend to interact with REALITY very often.

When you talk with someone, communicating what you’re working on, how you’re going to do it, etc. — even if the person you’re talking to doesn’t know anything about your project — you will start seeing what was invisible before. The OUTER view starts infiltrating the INNER view.

But this one’s hard to start. If you’re anything like me you’ll resist it. However, if you can schedule a weekly call with a friend and get’r done you’re going to save yourself so much pain in the end.

3. Reverse Engineer a Truly Minimum Viable Product.

I wrote about this on an article here before but the gist is this: do you really know what it is you’re trying to do? Are you concrete about this project? Do you know what it will look like when it’s finished?

Maybe what you’re working on is ACTUALLY version 2.0 or 3.0 and you need to get back to a ruthlessly focused version 1.0 where you can be 100% clear on what the project is and how to do it.

I lay out steps for how to do that in this article: How to Deconstruct A Truly Minimum Viable Product

4. Keep a Daily Productivity Journal.

On episode 99 of our podcast, I interviewed two writers about how they do their daily productivity journals. What they do is so simple, getting started with it is so easy, but the results are massive.

For myself, this has made the biggest impact on my time estimates — bar none — because it helps my inner planner see the reality every single day. With all the interruptions and unforeseen circumstances, the blog I wrote actually DID take me 7 hours to write, instead of the 3 hours I thought it would take.

You can learn exactly how to do this here: 2 Experts Share Exactly How to Use a Productivity Journal (& Increase Productivity by 23%) FS099

5. Rediscover Why You’re Doing This Project

When you forget the point of the project you’re working on, it can flatline, stagnate, and feel really heavy.

I’ve had projects stall out for months and months, growing dust and weeds as I distract myself from it.

Often times it’s interacting with my audience — the people I’m making that project for — that helps me rediscover the purpose for my projects.

At Fizzle we have these forums where we’re always talking with one another, and when I read Fizzlers’ stories about building their company, how hard it is, how sweet the victories, how fragile the balance of staying motivated, it reconnects me to the mission, the purpose for my work, reminding me that there are people out there struggling with something I CAN HELP THEM WITH, and that’s when I discover if this project is important or not.

Who do you serve? What mission are they on that you can help them with? How can you reconnect with them?

And if you don’t know the answers to those questions you need to go through the Defining Your Audience course inside Fizzle.

Better Work

Use these 5 methods to plan your projects more realistically. My hope is that we can all stave off anxiety and set better expectations for ourselves.

From what I’ve seen working with loads of indie entrepreneurs, and from being an indie entrepreneur myself, if we set better expectations for ourselves, we’ll create more space to do better work.

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