June was a busy month for me. Between teaching and conferences, my weekends were booked solid. So I tried to move some of my weekend chores to the weekdays. I figured I could easily complete a few editing projects, lead online classes, see clients and do the laundry. More times than I care to admit, I’ve started a load of clothes only to find them three days later, turning moldy in the washing machine. Yuck!
I’ve been done in by what scientists call the planning fallacy. (Don’t worry, you can’t catch it.) But know that you probably suffer from it, too. Here’s a quick quiz. Think back on past writing and work projects:
+Have you ever underestimated the time it will take you to complete a task?
+Have you ever underestimated the external resources you need to complete a task (e.g., money, research time, outside experts, editors, marketing professionals, etc.)?
+Have you ever created a project plan without taking into account external circumstances like illness, meetings, computer problems, and writer’s block?
No doubt you answered yes to at least one of those questions. (If you said no to all three questions, send me an email. I want to learn your strategies!) In a 1994 study of psychology students, they calculated how long it would take them to finish their senior thesis for both best-case and worst-case scenarios. Guess what? Most students took longer to finish their paper than their estimated worst-case scenario.
Why? Psychologists have several theories for why we suffer from the planning fallacy.
+We tend to want to impress others, so we make optimistic estimates. (When participants made anonymous estimates, the planning fallacy disappeared.)
+We tend to take credit for things that go well and blame outside forces for setbacks.
+We focus on the project in isolation and forget about other factors such as sickness, other projects, external delays, and so forth.
The problem? So what’s the big deal, you wonder. When we fail to plan well, we end up rushing through the end of the project, sometimes pulling all-nighters. Worst-case scenario? We miss our deadlines.
The fix? Keeping detailed work records can help us plan better. When we record our work time, noting any delays, we can create more realistic plans for future writing and editing projects.
Review three past writing experiences.
+How many hours did it take you to complete the project?
+How much calendar time did it take to complete the project? (E.g., It might take you six hours to write a proposal, but the project took a total of two weeks because you needed to wait for data from an outside source.)
+What external delays did you encounter while working on the project? (E.g., waiting for an editor to review your manuscript, waiting to hear from a resource.)
+What internal delays did you experience? (E.g., exhaustion, illness, writer’s block).
Once you have collected this data, you can create a writing project schedule that works!
Pro Tip: Always add a bit of extra time to your estimate—just in case you need it. You may not use it, but when you do need it, you’ll be thankful to have it!
Your turn: How have you been done in by the planning fallacy? How have you overcome it? Add your stories and solutions below!