Planning fallacy

How does your brain miss deadlines and what can you do about it
No matter how intelligent and well-planning people we consider ourselves to be, any brain gets into traps — cognitive distortions. One of these harmful distortions is the planning fallacy.

What is the planning fallacy and how does it work

It was proposed and named by the psychologists-researchers Kahneman and Tversky back in 1979. The idea of the planning fallacy is that people tend to underestimate the amount of time it takes to complete a task.

An inaccurate forecast on the timing launches the delay mechanism. Why would something need to be done for weeks when you can manage to do it in two days? The brain saves energy and prioritizes, occupying you with other tasks at that time, because the deadline is still so far away, and it seems to be nothing to be done.

At the same time, the past experience does not help. Even if a month ago a similar task took you three times longer, now it seems to be different.

Remembering how you completed things in the past, you lose sight of the most difficult parts of this path, concentrating on the result. You still managed to meet the deadline, and this means that the previous approach works quite well. For some reason, it seems to you that this time you will do everything faster and no obstacles will interfere.
As a result, a planning fallacy leads to overdue deadlines and lack of time — you have to rush through tasks to finish work at the last night or postpone the deadlines several times. As you can see, not always a "positive" assessment of yourself turns out to be useful. You think that with each completed project you gain some experience that will allow you to act faster next time. This is partly true, you really get the knack of it, but this does not affect the speed as dramatically as you might imagine.

For better or worse, we always evaluate our future self a little better than our past or present one. "I'm from the future" is a real "mom's friend's son", who does not need deadlines with a margin and other safety nets, because for him completing tasks is as easy as shelling peas.

How to deal with planning fallacy

A realistic evaluation of the speed of work is a real super-ability that not many people have. But almost everyone gets into the trap of planning. It may seem that this is a feature of only unorganized people with "creative disorder" in their heads and lives, but in fact even very responsible specialists are a subject to it.

You can blame procrastination or your own laziness on it or you can try to get around the planning trap with the help of our tips.

1. Divide the project into small segments and evaluate them,

but not the whole task. By dividing the task into stages, you actually understand that it cannot fit in an unrealistically short time due to its multi-component nature.

Let’s sketch in the planner a task list that the author needs to close in order to finish this article:
At the sight of such an impressive checklist, there is no desire to think that it will be possible to do all in a single day or at the last night.

2. Find a way to measure the result.

Once a task has been broken down into milestones, you can still be tempting to estimate the time for each stage unrealistically, for example, imagining that it can be fit in an hour.

In this case, try to measure the completed result and divide it into the time you predict.

If it seems that an article can be written in a day, then estimate how many pages it should have, and then estimate how much you can give out in an hour / day. This method helps to find wrong predictions in the early stages.

3. Keep track of time spent.

A great way to soberly estimate your performance in the future is to turn on the timer during the current typical tasks. Find out how many periods of 20−30 minutes it usually takes to draft, to collect information, to proofread.
Turn on the timer right inside the planner to measure the task "in Pomodoros"
Having measured and recorded the result several times, you will be estimating these figures in the future without additional measurements. The main thing is not to think that this time in some magical way it will be possible to do everything faster. Rely on the past data and believe only in numbers, but not your own feelings.

4. Add artificially 20−30% of the time to the deadline.

This can cause almost physical resistance in you — "why should I extend the term if I am sure I will do everything in this length of time"?

But with this approach, there are no losers: if you don’t fit into the pre-planned time frame, you will get a margin of time. And if you meet the deadline, you will pleasantly surprise the managers or simply be able to relax in the remaining period time before the deadline. It is worth using this technique not only for estimating the deadlines yourself, but also if you already have a clear deadline and you need to distribute time to meet it. If it seems that you can complete the task in three days, add one more day in case and start beforehand.

5. Ask others to evaluate the task.

If you don’t trust yourself any longer and have become the victim of a planning fallacy too many times, then it’s time to ask for a peer review. In this case the onlooker really sees most of the game. Just don’t ask for the manager’s estimate — he obviously wants to get the result faster :)

6. Look at the task from three positions.

A realistic, optimistic, and pessimistic view of the task will help to evaluate the task more objectively.
  • Take a positive approach first (that is usually where the planning fallacy is): estimate how long the task will take at best. For example, a positive person suggests that it will take only two days.
  • Now we turn to s pessimist — how long will it take you if everything goes wrong and drags on to the limit? Let’s say 10 days.
  • Then we look at everything realistically, with an emphasis on the data and numbers. The plan is about 5 days.
Sum up the three and take the average as a basis: if rounded up, we get 6 days. Having such a term you can work now.
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