First Published: May 26, 2021 | Last Updated: May 26, 2021

The gist: Why are we so bad at estimating how long things will take and sticking to our schedules? It has to do with time optimism and the planning fallacy, and here's how you can avoid them.

Once there was a girl who couldn't decide whether she wanted to dance on her school's official team or her studio's, so she did both.

Because TECHNICALLY there was enough time in the day to do so.

The same thing happened when that girl was a young woman, who couldn't decide between serving on the board of the public relations student society or one of the college's magazines.

Again, she did both.

And as an adult, when she found herself with two side hustles and the opportunity for one more, she jumped at it.

Because, again, "technically it could work." 🙈

But then months into juggling her multiple commitments, she'd inevitably burn out, drop balls, let people down, and compromise her health.

And dear reader, as you might have guessed, that little girl was me.

My Past as a Time Optimist

For most of my life (up until maybe 5 years ago), I was chronically overcommitted and overscheduled.

And unlike most discussions about overcommitment, it had nothing to do with an inability to say "no" to other people.

I get myself into this trouble all on my own. 🙃

If I was overcommitting to anyone, it was to myself and my day planner.

It's a phenomenon I'm calling time optimism.

definition of time optimism - when we think we can make time for everything, if we're just well planned or organized enough

Time optimism is what I call this particular way the planning fallacy impacts some of us. Where when placed with the planning fallacy, we think we can make time for everything if we're just well planned or organized enough.

About the Planning Fallacy

So, what is the planning fallacy mentioned in the section above?

The planning fallacy was first observed and coined by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in a 1977 paper.

a phenomenon where humans - like all of us, a lot of the time - underestimate or are overly optimistic about how long things take when planning. first observed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1977

It's a phenomenon where humans—like all of us, a lot of the time—underestimate or are overly optimistic about how long things take when planning, no matter how much experience we have doing them before, how much research proves otherwise, or how many other people are warning us, "that sounds too fast." 🤣

As The Decision Lab defines it:

"The planning fallacy describes our tendency to underestimate the amount of time it will take to complete a task, as well as the costs and risks associated with that task—even if it contradicts our experiences."

Our brains naturally have a bias for optimism (aptly known as optimism bias). And planning for the future, like anything is, can be impacted by that bias.

optimism bias chart comparing expectation to reality via decision lab

(Image via The Decision Lab)

Combine that with other factors going on, and you can start to understand how so many plans don't go according to plan.

First, there are other cognitive biases, such as self-serving bias (our tendency to take responsibility for things that go well—such as a project go according to plan, but place blame on others for things that don't), and recency bias (remembering more recent things impacts our ability to remember how long something takes if we don't do it often).

Plus the fact that our "educated guesses" around time management usually aren't as educated as we think. 🙈

And for those of us that are neurodivergent or mentally ill, time blindness can also compound the effects of the planning fallacy. In addition to our natural optimism bias and other parts of the planning fallacy, we can have even more difficulty estimating time durations.

Add all this together, and you have a pretty big obstacle most plans need to overcome.

(So if you've EVER followed through on one plan on time, just one, give yourself a little cheer. You deserve it. 🎉)

Understand how you really spend your time

You can't manage your time better if you don't even know how you manage it now. That's why improving your productivity needs to start with a time audit. Try our free worksheet to help guide you through a time audit of your own!

Examples of the Planning Fallacy at Play

So what does the planning fallacy actually look like? If any of the below has ever happened to you, it was the planning fallacy at play.

Estimating travel times based on best case scenarios

If you've ever gone, "well, I've gotten to this place/part of town in 15 minutes before so I only need to plan 15 minutes to get there now..."

Totally forgetting that...

That time it was only a 15 minute drive? Yeah...

It was late at night with no traffic and you caught every single green light on the way. And right now you're driving there in rush hour.

Yep, that was the planning fallacy.

Starting an assignment the night before it's due

Aka, most of my college existence. 😬

Have you ever known that an assignment—whether for school, work or something else—would take several hours, and then waited until several hours before it was due to start?

Bonus points if you were already aware that those several hours would be best spent broken up into multiple, spread out work sessions.

If so, that was time optimism, too.

And perhaps a dash of regular procrastination, or perhaps neurodivergence. ¯\(ツ)

Not pacing yourself in exercise

This one, I'm guessing not as many can relate to, but I want you to imagine the misery. It will teach you the needed lesson here.

If you've ever overestimated how long you'd be able to last jogging or walking and ran out of steam still a mile from your house...

If you've ever had to practically crawl the last 10 blocks home, and then up THREE flights of stairs before you could sit down, stretch, and drink water...

Well, that might be a cardio fallacy more than a planning fallacy, but the two have to be cousins, at least. 😝

How to Avoid Falling Prey to the Planning Fallacy

Most cognitive biases aren't something you can just instantly vanish from your thought processes. (Life would be so much easier if you could!)

But once you're aware of them, you can implement practices and exercises to help you combat your brain's natural tendency towards them.

Here are a few ways to do that with the planning fallacy, so you can stop overplanning, overcommitting, and falling behind.

5 ways to avoid falling prey to the planning fallacy: complete a time audit, use ongoing time tracking, build in buffer time, practice energy management, break projects down

Complete a time audit

The first way to start combatting the planning fallacy and your tendency to underestimate how long things take is to complete a time audit. Most people rarely take the time to figure out, precisely and intentionally, how long things take.

So when it's time to start planning, they have nothing but guesses to go off of.

Of course it won't be accurate!

So completing a time audit and tracking your time for a short period of time will give you a baseline to use in future planning. If you've never done one, try our free Practical Productivity Time Audit to figure out estimates for all your regularly recurring tasks to get a realistic view of your days.

Use ongoing time tracking

While it's not necessary to track all of your time beyond an initial time audit, it can be really helpful. As I've mentioned in other posts, I track as much of my "intentional time" as possible. Not just client work. Not just work. Whenever I'm spending my time intentionally.

This helps me stay mindful of how long things take on an ongoing basis. I now have a good enough idea of how long different types of tasks take that I can plan fairly accurately, and keep on eye on when that changes. It's like time budgeting.

Build in buffer time

Another thing that's been helpful to me? Making sure to build in lots of buffer time.

My buffer time exists on two levels:

First, when I'm estimating how long things take, I round up to the nearest 10 minutes. This helps combat the tendency to underestimate how long things take.

Second of all, I build in buffers of 15-30 minutes in between important things on my schedule. That way, if a task does go over the time I've given myself for it, I can go a few minutes over before cutting into the next thing on my calendar.

Practice energy management

Regulars around here know how much I love energy management and tracking energy in addition to time. This is because how long something takes in terms of time depends on how much energy you can bring to it.

By practicing energy management, you can figure out how much energy something takes in addition to how much time it takes. And that way you can figure out the best time of day to do the task in addition to how much time it will take to do it.

If you're interested in getting started with energy management, check out our free Energy Tracker or The Energy Effect course.

Break projects down

It's really hard to estimate how long a large project will take as a whole. If I asked you how many hours it takes to build and launch a new course, would you know? I've probably done it a dozen times and I still wouldn't know off the top of my head.

However, I do know that outlining a course sales page takes about an hour and a half. And that I can write an email in 30-45 minutes. And that it takes me 45 minutes to outline a webinar presentation.

Breaking the launch down into the individual tasks makes it much easier to estimate. Then just add it all up!

Banish energy hangovers with energy management

Tracking and managing your energy can straight-up change your life, without having to change much at all (no ridiculous productivity hacks needed!)

By better understanding your natural energy, peak hours, and existing habits, you can take advantage of it all to unlock new levels of productivity. 

Get started today with my free energy management tracker! 

From time optimism to time realism

Listen, I'm a positive person. I have no problem with optimism. But let's make it realistic optimism.

Learn how long things will take, and then be optimistic you can find the time for it. 😀