How to Make Better Time Estimates

Poor time estimates lie at the heart of poor time management

Make better time estimatesDo 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.

The ability to make better time estimates can be the difference between good and lousy time management. Over estimate and you will get all your tasks done early, not always a bad thing as long as it is planned, undersestimate and you are straight away putting in place a time management strategy that will lead to overburden, stress and procrastination.

For many people, making poor time estimates lies at the heart of their poor time management, but like anything else, there are several ways to improve. Use these four tips and you’ll be well on your way to making better time estimates and mastering your time.

  1. Measure where you are right now. 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 write a blog. You believe that it 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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?
  1. Keep track of past results. If you your office 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 to make better time estimates  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.

Making more accurate time estimates is a valuable skill. With this skill, you can be much more productive and reliable. Plus, your boss, clients and spouse will be thrilled if you start getting everything done when you claim it will be done! Although making better time estimates 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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14 thoughts on “How to Make Better Time Estimates

  1. My hubby seems to always underestimate how much time a task will take. That can throw off the whole day’s schedule. I on the other hand sometimes add a bit too much buffer time into my schedule, but it keeps me sane. I’d rather over estimate than fall behind by under estimating the time for my tasks.
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  2. Great tips, Mike. I particularly like your recommendation to block out times in smaller chunks. I think that’s going to make a big difference. Thank you!

  3. Thanks for this useful post, Mike.
    It’s maddening how everything takes longer than planned – I read somewhere there’s a law about this and that we tend to underestimate the time needed to complete a particular task even though we know that we tend to do it.
    In addition to the above, I find it useful to track my progress every 30 minutes to make sure I’m on track and on target.
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  4. Wonderful blog post Mike. One of the projects that we did in the incubator that I am a part of was to document everything you did for 3 days. It was tedious but at the end, it gave a crystal clear map of where I was wasting time and what tasks I needed to be more diligent about. I make a to do list daily now so I can have a path for the day!