What is the Planning Fallacy (and How Can It Derail Your Time Management Efforts)?
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How often do you find yourself racing at the last minute to meet a deadline? Do you often find that you end up finishing projects after you had promised they would be complete?
Have you let people down because you didn’t have enough time to fulfill your obligations?
If these questions sound familiar, then you may have fallen victim to the planning fallacy mindset without even knowing it!
In this article, we’ll define the planning fallacy, show you how to recognize it, and detail the specific things you can do to overcome it and reach your goals.
What Is Planning Fallacy?
Planning fallacy is one of the most universal and consistently demonstrated cognitive biases that people have. If you’ve ever underestimated how much time you would need to complete a project you’re working on or finish packing before going on a trip, then you have been subject to the planning fallacy.
This common misconception refers to one's tendency to underestimate the time, cost, and risk it will take them to do something, even if they already have the past knowledge of exactly what the task entails. It represents overly optimistic plans that are unreasonably close to the best-case scenario.
This phenomenon was first proposed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1977. In their paper, the pair explains that the planning fallacy results from the inclination to ignore distributional data, and instead predict the outcome of a project only on the specific elements of one’s plan. This internal approach to evaluating one's plans tends to result in underestimation.
For example, a house can only be built on time if there are no delivery delays, no employee absences, no hazardous weather conditions, etc. Even if each hurdle is unlikely, there is a high probability that at least one will occur. But people rarely consider the what ifs, which is why they underestimate their task completion times.
A more reasonable approach to setting a schedule for a project is to ask yourself, "How long have these types of projects taken in the past?"
How the Planning Fallacy Impacts Your Time Management Efforts
Underestimating the time it takes to complete certain tasks influences the way we manage our time — which, if not done correctly, can negatively affect plans. This can easily begin to compound with each small task.
If you have seven smaller tasks that you have to complete in order to finish a project, and you underestimate the amount of time each one will take, the completion of your project will be greatly delayed.
Optimism is a great quality to have most of the time, but when you're estimating the amount of time it will take to finish a task, optimistic estimates lead to trouble. People often overestimate the amount of time they have to complete a task, and underestimate the amount of time it will take to do so.
People also tend to procrastinate when they think that they have more than enough time to finish assignments or projects, and then end up making excuses. It is a pretty standard habit for people to put off things they have to do until the very last minute. This may be due to distractions or the result of resisting something that may feel like a chore.
Either way, if you're trying to manage your time effectively, it is important to stay on schedule. Allowing for unplanned contingencies and recognizing our optimism bias when considering timeframes can help stop us from procrastinating.
How to Avoid the Planning Fallacy Mindset
1. Recognize that everyone is susceptible to the planning fallacy—even you.
Everyone falls into the trap of the planning fallacy at one point or another. Making predictions about future tasks is something people have to do every day.
You have to estimate everything from finishing routine things around the house to predicting when a large project might be finished for a client. Take this into account when prioritizing and planning your tasks and scheduling activities.
2. Take an “outsider” view and think about how long it took you last time to complete a similar task. Be honest about it.
We often do not like remembering past difficulties, but if you don't want to make the same mistakes, you have to. Think about some obstacles you have run into in the past when trying to do the task at hand. How far did those obstacles set you back?
For the future, it is a good idea to start tracking your time when doing things you know you will have to do again. This will help you get a more realistic idea of how long specific tasks take you. That will help keep your optimism in check, and help you manage your expectations for your productivity.
3. Consider the specific time and place in which you will complete the activity.
Doing this will help you define your activity. You can then incorporate all of the information you know into your planning process. Think about obstacles that have been presented in the time and place you have decided on.
For example, maybe you are meeting with a group to complete a project at a university library. Due to the large number of people who are also in that space, you will have to allot time for parking, finding an area within the library to work without distractions, and the possibility of people being late due to traffic.
4. Consider unexpected obstacles or complications.
Unexpected obstacles do not mean that your project will necessarily be completely derailed. But you may have to change your strategy or alter your plan in some way to accommodate this obstacle.
Brainstorm at least three potential obstacles before giving a time frame. Factor some time into your projected deadline for these obstacles to occur.
5. Unpack tasks.
When you are making predictions, pay attention to the steps you need to take, and not just the outcome. Think of each component that is involved in the process, and allot time for it to be completed.
This will help you become aware of everything you have to do for this project, including seemingly small things that take time in the early stages that you may forget to consider.
6. For longer and bigger projects, estimate your completion time in weeks, rather than days.
Doing this will help you have more of a cushion for those unexpected things that will come up. If you estimate your time in days and you are out just one day, your whole plan may be pushed back.
But if you are able to give yourself an entire week to complete one or two components of your project, you will have much more leniency if something comes up.
7. Keep some factors in mind that amplify the planning fallacy.
Incentives - You promise to finish something fast because there is a reward. Let's say you are offered a financial bonus if you can finish this project in an unreasonably short amount of time.
With the financial motivation, you are more likely to agree to the short deadline, thinking that you will just figure it out and get it done. But this is a false assumption because you are not thinking about each step of the process.
Social - You may be trying to impress your boss or a client by doing a project relatively quickly, causing you to give an overly optimistic deadline. This can be tempting to do, but will cause more trouble than it is worth in the long run.
8. When giving instructions to yourself or others, use time motion words instead of ego motion words.
For example, use “You only have three hours to complete this assignment” instead of “You still have three hours to complete this assignment.”
Do you see how the former statement creates a sense of urgency? Rather than making it sound like time is limitless, make the deadline sound finite and impending.
As another example, use “As the holidays approach…” instead of “As we approach the holidays…”
This takes the idea of having control out of the equation. While you may feel like you can control how you are approaching the holidays, if you think about it in terms of the holidays approaching you, it becomes something that you cannot stop or slow down.
9. Use a time management technique that keeps you focused, such as the Pomodoro Technique.
Finding a time management technique that works for you will help you be more productive, which will increase your likelihood of hitting any deadline. The Pomodoro Technique, for example, suggests that you work very attentively for short amounts of time, and then take breaks. So, after working for 25 minutes and focusing completely on the task at hand, you get up for 5 minutes and stretch out.
Having these sessions of deep work will help you stay focused, especially because you know in the back of your mind that you have a short break coming up to address anything that may be happening while you're working.
10. Use technology and programs to your advantage.
If you can increase the speed of doing something without sacrificing quality, go for it.
While technology is sometimes known to slow people down because it can be a distraction, there are some great tools technology has to offer when it comes to helping you get your work done.
1. Social media scheduling tools.
There are tools you can download to help you organize your social media in a way that will help you get through it quickly. You can have your comments managed easily, or save important things to read for later. You can even download an app to help you sort posts by topic so you can be discerning in what you read.
2. Learn faster with Blinkist.
This app gives you quick summaries of non-fiction books so you don't have to take the time to read the entire thing. You can read "blinks" that only include the most valuable insights that the book provides, which can save you both time and money.
Is the planning fallacy slowing you down?
In conclusion, falling into the planning fallacy mindset can slow your progress towards achieving your personal or career goals. If you are able to recognize and address this issue before it gets out of hand, you will be less likely to allow it to impact your success.
The truth is, nobody wants to be known as the person who’s constantly late, or someone who keeps breaking his promises.
While it really is important to be confident in yourself and your abilities, it is also critical to be realistic. Stay optimistic about your work, but don't go overboard by trying to spread yourself too thin.
Next time you’re asked how long it will take you to do something, try the 10 strategies mentioned above before giving your answer so you can provide an accurate prediction of how long the task will take.