Most people are very bad at estimating how much time something is going to take, most of the time the estimation will be wildly inaccurate and – sometimes disastrously – people usually underestimate how much time the given task is going to take.
But improving your estimation skills is actually relatively easy – just follow 3 simple tips and you can accurately estimate how long your tasks are going to take.
You can’t estimate how long a complex project is going to take, as you go over the high level details in your mind you are completely ignoring all the small details that has to be completed – and those small details are going to take time you didn’t take into account when estimating.
Always break large tasks into smaller tasks when you are estimating – this will force you to think about all the small details and will result in a more accurate estimate, a good rule of thumb is to break up any tasks that takes more than 2 days, to discover the right threshold for you just follow the next tip.
This is where the magic happens – if you compare the actual tie spent to your estimate you are probably going to find that your estimation errors are very predictable most of the time (for sufficiently small tasks), for most people thing almost always take 2-5 times the time estimated, once you learn by how much you tend to under estimate you can just compensate when estimating.
Different people work in different style and require different types of time tracking – so I can’t tell you what the right time tracking system for you is (but I do think you should look into yaTimer our time tracking product) - but I can tell you what is the wrong system – any system that requires you to fill out how long something took after the fact is flawed and shouldn’t be used.
The reason for this effect is that you didn’t think about overhead when you estimated – meeting, phone calls, e-mails, interruptions from your boss and coworkers – all those take real time and cause real delays in the work you are trying to do.
You will also learn that for large tasks the estimations and the actual time vary wildly – those are the tasks you should have broken down into smaller ones, write down your original estimate for those tasks so you remember it – if in the future you estimate a task as that long you should break it down into smaller ones.
And last but definitely not least - a small number of tasks, seemingly at random, will take significantly (and often disastrously) longer than estimated – for this we have the next tip
Equipment will fail, people you depend on will be busy with other work and things you thought are a solved problem will turn out require a lot of time to solve – this is just the reality of our world.
The solution is to prepare in advance and leave time for those disasters – how much time depends on your line of work but it is usually between 10% for extremely boring and repetitive work using reliable tools to 200% on riskier projects – if you track your time long enough you can use your history to determine how much buffer you need.
And that’s it, only 3 things – none of them magical or requires special skills – and you can correctly estimate how long things are going to take, by breaking down tasks into smaller ones you are going to be more accurate on day one, tracking you time and learning from your mistakes is going to make you become more accurate as time goes by and having a buffer will protect you on those cases when you estimation is wrong.