We’ve all been there: You expected to finish a work project by 5 p.m., but the sun is setting and you’re still toiling away at the office, or you’re rushing out the door (once again) even though you woke up early so you’d “have plenty of time to get things done.” Yeah, yeah. All too familiar.
Well, turns out, you’re definitely not alone when it comes to not meeting the deadlines you set for yourself. In fact, you’re far from alone, and there’s even a scientific theory about why things always take longer than we think they will. It’s called the planning fallacy, and it means that a sense of optimism causes people to underestimate how long it will take them to complete a task.
In other words, we’re too busy thinking of the best-case scenario to consider how the project could go wrong or where we might hit a snag and need more time.
Researchers have found that the planning fallacy also has something to do with the fact that “our intuitions aren’t very good at thinking about compound probabilities.”
This means that people tend to estimate how long it will take to complete a task based on how long it typically takes when nothing goes wrong (“If I make lunches while the kids finish breakfast, we can be out of the house in 20 minutes!”).
The problem is that life is often atypical—meaning things can and will go wrong (the kids reject the cereal you served for breakfast and you end up making eggs, for instance). And the more steps there are in any process, the more likely something is to go wrong, causing it to take longer than you planned.
So, in the future, it’s good to keep in mind that if your project has a lot of steps, plan for snags. Overestimate how long it may take to complete the task and see how that works for you. Did you meet the deadline this time around?
There are, of course, many other ways you can ensure you meet your deadlines. Time management, focusing on one task at a time, trying not to stress and stopping to take a break every once in a while can all help you efficiently plow through your to-do list.
OK, enough stalling—you’ve got some work you should be doing, don’t you?