I am writing this article from an interesting position. I am literally living each of the points I’m going to discuss — as I write them. I allotted two hours today to write this. How did I choose that figure? I estimated that it takes me about thirty minutes to write 500 words. Including the required research, two hours seemed a reasonable amount of time. If anything, I thought, it was generous.
So, the first thing I do as I sit down to write is make a cup of coffee — already eating into my allotted time. But we’ll come back to procrastination!
It’s the million-dollar question: Why are projects always late? And what, if anything, can we do about it? Have you ever thought: Why did the process of searching and on boarding the candidate take so long?
The first thing I want to examine is the “planning fallacy,” first proposed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1979. Their theory considers the human tendencies toward underestimation and optimism in the face of compelling reasons for more moderated evaluations. Taken together, these inclinations result in a phenomenon that makes us outrageously terrible at accurately planning the time it will take to get things done.
It’s not an isolated condition. The planning fallacy is prevalent across all people and professions, from pharmaceutical executives to search firms. In fact, a study that asked honors students to predict how long it would take to complete their theses showed a huge 64% disparity between the number of days they thought it would take and the number of days it actually took.
Why? Research investigates this question in several ways.
Inaccurate Mental Simulations
When planning projects, our brains synthesize idealized, oversimplified scenarios based on the task at hand. Rather than looking at how long it took us to complete previous, similar projects, we tend to focus on the individual quirks of the present one. Yael Grushka-Cockayne, a teacher of project management and decision-making at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, suggests, “if you’re planning Project X that you’re about to start — ignore Project X.”
The Optimism Bias
Optimism is a good thing. It helps us live longer and improves our mental and physical health. Our brains even process positive information better than negative information. And in many ways, optimism is valuable in the professional world. Think about interviewing someone for a position in your business. Would you be more likely to hire the candidate who says “I will succeed in this role” or the one who says “I hope to succeed in this role”?
However, humans are not naturally impartial, and overconfidence is a trap we fall into easily. After all, we plan to succeed rather than fail, but our plans might not be the most accurate version of how things play out.
Procrastination is essentially poor impulse control. We want to do the things that are more instantly gratifying than the things we should do. For example, the immediate gratification I got from my cup of coffee this morning was far more enticing than sitting and thinking about writing an article Procrastination comes in many forms. Take the modern information overload, for example — the constant notifications on our cell phones, the internet that offers instantly gratifying information with just a click. This overload reportedly decreases productivity in the U.S. by over $1 trillion a year. It’s not just the distraction. Research from the University of California tells us that it takes 23 minutes to fully recover from these interruptions.
What can we do about it, aside from mastering our impulse control, fighting distraction, campaigning against procrastination, and trying to think negatively?
We can learn a lot from the weather guys here. Meteorologists constantly track and score themselves, creating data they can use for self-improvement. It’s called reference class forecasting, and it requires assessing past projects by how accurate plans were relative to their executions. The information is then used to better plan future projects.
We must be aware of our positive bias when planning so we can adjust accordingly. Governments in the U.K. and Denmark require mega-project contractors to incorporate the optimism bias into their cost estimates to ensure they keep their national budgets accurate. They estimate that they need to add up to 40% to time expectations and cost quotes.
Essentially, we need to factor in our tendencies to be optimistic, to overlook planning details, and to procrastinate, and we can do this Save by collecting and applying data from each project we conduct to continuously improve ourselves.
So, how did I fare in my planning for writing this article? It’s taken me a shade over three hours, coffee and interruptions included, which makes me a bit better at planning than the honors students and not quite as good as the Danish and British contractors.