One of the best time management skills you can learn is how to accurately estimate the amount of time it will take you to complete a task or project. Under-estimating time makes you perpetually late at best, and can get you into big trouble at worst. (Think missed deadlines, missed bills, missed planes…you get the idea.)
One common time-estimation mistake is not taking into account all the steps involved. Often a task requires things to be done beforehand. What at first seems like one task is actually a multi-step project.
Here is an example from my life right now: My daughter is taking a school trip to an outdoor adventure center (which sounds awesome and I want to go too!). She needs to pack her bag. She has her packing list, supplied by her teacher, so she knows exactly what she needs to pack. Packing the bag should take, what, about 30 minutes?
Except that every single item, down to every sock, must have a name label on it. So we need to stick in the name labels. Which I already have on hand, because I ordered them ahead of time. (Lead time: 3 days.)
But before the name labels can go into the clothes, the clothes have to be clean and completely dry so the long-lasting adhesive will stick properly. Any new clothes must be washed first to remove excess dye and any production dust, for complete adhesion.
I have ordered new quick-dry hiking trousers for her, 9 days ago, and they have not yet arrived. In-store pickup was supposed to be in 2 days, which is why I chose it as opposed to 2 weeks for home delivery. I phoned a couple of days ago to ask about my order: the items are on their way and should be in the store ready for pickup tomorrow. I’ll need to travel about 50 minutes in to the store itself to pick the items up. (Lead time: 11 days.)
So what originally looked like 30 minutes of packing turned into 11 days waiting for the order, half a day to travel in to town and back, then a couple of hours for laundry completion, gathering all items, sticking in labels to every single garment (I’m approximating an hour), then packing. Good thing I started this process early!
Two things are necessary for accurate time estimation: thinking through the entire process (as outlined above), and experience to know how long it takes you to complete tasks.
A good exercise for this is to keep a log for a few days detailing how much time you spend on each task. Maybe you think you spend 15 minutes online in the morning while you drink your coffee. If you log your time, you might discover that’s actually an hour spent. Maybe you thought it would take you one hour to write that report but it actually took you two. Or three. Keeping track will help you more accurately estimate next time.
As always you should pad your schedule a little bit to avoid crises because even the most experienced time-estimator gets surprised sometimes, and unexpected things do come up. With practice, you’ll learn how to predict how long tasks will take, which will maximize your productivity and keep those frantic last-minute panics at bay.