How to Make Better Time Estimates

You can make better time estimates

Do you ever plan for a task to take an hour, but it takes four hours? Or maybe you allotted an hour to finish a job that only took 10 minutes, if this has ever happened to you, perhaps you need to think about how you can make better time estimates. How can you get better at making time estimates? Like anything else, there are several ways to improve.

Make better time estimates with these four tips.

1. Measure where you are right now. The first step in being able to make better time estimates is to start by estimating how long you think it will take you to complete various tasks every day. Then record how long it actually takes. Finally, to get your “time factor,” or how much difference there was between the two, divide your estimate by the actual amount of time used.

  • Say you decide to change the oil in your car. You believe that the oil change will take 45 minutes, but it requires 60 minutes. Your time factor would be 1.33 (the task took you 33% longer than planned).
  • You’re likely to see a wide variety of time factors. But if you total everything over a week (such as 55 hours actual versus 38 hours planned), you’re likely to see similar time factor numbers from week to week.
  • You can then apply that time factor to large groups of tasks, such as all those you’d do in a day or a week. And although your time factor won’t be accurate for single tasks, it does provide a good starting point. You get a better idea of whether you usually overestimate or underestimate time.

2. Recognize the level of detail. Break down tasks to appropriate levels. Tasks that are too big will result in overlooking too many details, which each take time. On the other hand, if you break things down too far, you’ll get swallowed up in the minutiae. Experience and practice will help you determine an accurate level of detail.

For more accurate estimating, avoid letting your blocks of time be too big. For most people, a task that takes one to two hours is about right. Also keep in mind that if you’re off by 25% for a one-hour task, you’re only 15 minutes off your schedule. If you’re off by 25% for an 8-hour task, you’re 2 hours off schedule.

3. Set specific goals. If you can’t be certain of the point at which the task is complete, you can’t expect to make a good time estimate.

Some examples:

  • “Make sales calls.” – Too non-specific.
  • “Make five sales calls.” – Now you’re very clear about when the task is complete.
  • One trick to know you’re on the right track: you should be able to easily verbalize the first and last actions that need to be taken. If you know exactly how to start and how to finish, you’ll know exactly when you’ve completed the task.
  • Remember to include any clean-up time. It might only take you 15 minutes to change the oil in your car, but what about putting everything away, disposing of the used oil, and washing up?

4. Keep track of past results. If you vacuumed the entire house last week and it took 72 minutes, then that’s probably a pretty good estimate to use the next time you do it. Much of our lives consist of tasks that we do over and over. If you measure yourself, you can use that information in the future.

  • Having this information also makes it a lot easier to plan for the day. You’ll be far less likely to over-plan or under-plan.

Being able to make better time estimates is a valuable skill. With this skill, you can be much more productive and reliable. Plus, your boss will be thrilled if you start getting everything done when you claim it will be done! Although effective time management takes some practice, it’s certainly worth the effort.

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Till next Time

Mike Gardner is The Time Doctor

Mike Gardner aka ‘The Time Doctor’ and is highly regarded as one of the UK’s leading Time Management and productivity specialists. As well as being regularly featured in both online and off-line media outlets around the world, he is the author of the best selling time management book, Business Owners: Your Family Misses You. He regularly speaks on topics that are congruent with his mission of helping small business owners, entrepreneurs and independent professionals to be incredibly productive, whilst still balancing their business and family commitments in a way that enables them to feel fulfilled and guilt-free. He is an avid Aston Villa fan, a Dad to Neil & Emma, a hubby to Wendy and in his role as an Officer with the reserve forces, he has completed operational tours of Iraq and Afghanistan.

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26 thoughts on “How to Make Better Time Estimates

  1. This is brilliant – I’ll share this with my husband who forever thinks that job that takes 60 minutes can be done in 20. He is usually wrong and this will be great to help him to plan better.

  2. Practical and on point advice – who would have thought to time doing the cleaning but it is something that I start and wonder why I am still doing it an hour or so later.

  3. I really like the idea of timing myself doing a task. I always say I will do a task by a certain time, but never do the task and time it, if you know what I mean Mike. Definitely going to try that! Thanks

  4. I love this breakdown and need to apply it to my business. I’m working on putting service packages together, so this can help me better estimate and price my packages accordingly. Thanks!

  5. I suppose that no.2 is my real problem. I usually correctly estimate the level of details. But… most of the times, I find myself digging too much and this increases the time spent on a project. Moreover, it opens too many gates to new ideas. Sometimes it’s good but when you have deadlines, it is not.
    Great article, Doc!

    • Hi MC, if you get new ideas coming through, have a perking place for them, maybe write them in a small notebook, mine go on a post it note and onto a flipchart which is Imaginatively called an “ideas parking place”.

  6. Really helpful Mike – I need to learn to be kinder to myself and allow myself enough time to do a job well without feeling bad that it’s taken me so long

  7. I am getting much better at time management, thanks to your tips. I really struggle with good estimates–example: organizing my office! When I get back from my vacation, I’m definitely going to look at #1 very carefully, and start recording how long it takes me to accomplish routine tasks, as well as the ‘odd’ ones. I’ve also improved on my estimates of how long it will take me to finish writing a blog post, but then again, I’m breaking it up now into smaller tasks, which helps tremendously!

    • Really chuffed you find the hints and tips useful Michele, I have just written another post for the future and thought of you when i used an example of tidying and office 🙂