Psychology Tells Us How to Improve Our Planning

We all struggle with our schedules. We don’t get done what we want to. Many things take longer than we expect. And urgent tasks regularly bump out more strategy things. The good news is, psychologists have found two predictable ways that we mess up our planning – and what to do about them.

Psychologists understand our difficulties in planning. They know why we are late to appointments. They know why we make commitments that we later regret.

Here’s what to do about it and how to plan more effectively.

We Overestimate Our Future Available Time

We know we are busy right now. Yet, we are willing to commit to tasks a month or two in the future because we think that we will have more time then.

We’ve all been there! When that commitment comes due we ask ourselves, “What was I thinking committing to this?!”

Psychologists John Lynch and Gal Zauberman did a study to find out what’s happening. “On average, an individual will be just as busy 2 weeks or a month from now as he or she is today. But that is not how it appears to be in everyday life,” they found. “People often make commitments long in advance that they would never make if the same commitments required immediate action.”

We are bad at estimating our future available time because we see our current time-crunchers as unique to right now. The reality is, you will have a whole new set of time constraints when that future commitment rolls around.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Would I commit to this activity this week or next? If not, then don’t commit to it for 3 months from now.
  • How essential is this activity to my main priorities? If it’s not essential, say no.

We Underestimate (By 50%!) How Long Something Will Take Us To Do

I travel every month. If you asked me how long it takes me to get to the airport, I would tell you, “20-25 minutes.” And I would be wrong by 50%.

It actually takes me 30 minutes to drive to the airport. That’s without traffic. And I park off-site and take a shuttle – something I didn’t factor into my estimate. The reality is it takes me 45-55 minutes to go from my home to the check-in counter.

We underestimate how long everything will take us – from driving, to writing a report, to what we can get done in a meeting. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls this tendency “Planning Fallacy.”

In one study, 37 students were asked to estimate how much time it would take them to complete their senior theses. In response to “if everything went as well as it possibly could,” their estimates averaged 27.4 days. The average went up to 48.6 days “if everything went as poorly as it possibly could.”

So, how long did it take them to finish their senior theses? 55.5 days!

I’ve tested the theory of 50% time underestimatations, and unfortunately, it holds up. The easiest way, therefore, to more accurately project the time needed for a task is to double what your gut tells you it’s going to take.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • What am I not factoring into my time estimate?
  • How “best case” is my time estimate?
  • With your new revise time estimate, double it.

This week, ask yourself these two sets of questions as you make plans. See what difference it makes to your schedule.

Question: What helps you move your planning from wishful thinking to reality? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

    Keith is President of Creative Results Management. He helps busy leaders multiply their impact. Keith is the author of several books including The COACH Model for Christian Leaders.

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