How the planning fallacy stops you from being productive

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Time management strategies

When I wrote my productivity book, The First 2 Hours, I became aware of something called the planning fallacy.  In a nutshell, we underestimate how long things will take because of optimism bias.   

Last weekend when reading the book Scale by Geoffrey West, I discovered another interesting nuance to this involving the measurement of large scale objects, for example the British Coastline.  (Please don’t @ me for reference to Britain/England etc, it’s really just a metaphor!).

West referred to the work on fractals by Lewis Fry Richardson, a mathematician, physicist and meteorologist with a degree in psychology.  

What Richardson discovered was that changing the units of measurement, changed the overall result when calculating length.  Particularly of larger objects.

For example, in the picture above,

  • A was measured in units of 200km resulting in a length of approximately 2,400km
  • B was measured in units of 100km resulting in a length of approximately 2,800km
  • C was measured in unites of 50km which resulted in a length of 3,400km

This is a significant difference of approximately 1000km!

This got me thinking about how we estimate the time it will take to get a task done and it may not be only because of the planning fallacy. 

When we are thinking about things at the largest level, for example, I need to create a newsletter (this one), we might estimate about an hour.  The actual time, however was a little different: 

  • finding and editing images (30 mins),
  • researching definitions (15 mins),
  • links to authors and books (10 mins),
  • writing the article itself (45 mins),
  • proof reading (5 mins),
  • processing it for publication (15 mins),

It actually took me closer to 2 hours and I haven’t included the time for posts to social media.

Upshot?  When estimating the time it takes for you, or anyone, to complete a task, it’s useful to break things down to small units so we get a more accurate time frame that avoids both the planning fallacy and the Richardson effect.

By my estimations (shall we call it McGeorge’s Law?) it’s useful to double the amount of time you think things will take when thinking about tasks at the higher level.  Worst case scenario is that you end up some spare time in your world.  Who wouldn’t want more of that!?

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