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How to predict how long a project will really take

3 min read


This guest post is by Pierre Khawand, founder and CEO of People-OnTheGo, a company that helps business professionals manage their digital communications.

In the years I spent in the software industry, one thing I learned (sometimes the hard way) is that estimating how long things take is not easy. We would ask our development and marketing teams how long it would take to perform certain tasks or implement certain features. Some times we got ambitious estimates, with actual delivery dates ending up being far later than expected; other times we got heavily “sandbagged” answers, leading us to not take on these projects, and therefore missing windows of opportunity.

Whether a task is high- or low-tech, the ability to accurately predict how long it takes to accomplish something is both highly desirable and rare.

It’s also something you can learn to do better. Here is a brief overview of the technique:

  • For individual tasks, develop a Micro-Plan. Create a brief outline at the beginning of your work session, listing key steps that you need to get done to complete the selected task.
  • Time yourself. Use a countdown timer and set it for the desired time period, preferably no longer than 40 minutes before you take a break or switch to a collaborative session.
  • Compare actual results to your original plan. Do this often, so that reality sinks in. Not only will you become a better estimator, but you will start to  get rid of  distractions and stay focused on the core task, which will lead to getting much more accomplished.

Why 40 minutes?

Let us start by examining how our results change with time when we are working on a task. When we start to work on a task, we start to produce results, and then as we continue to work on that task we produce more results. This continues until eventually the flow of results begins to level off and start to diminish. Results diminish because we get tired or saturated, or because we have done what we could and now need to wait for someone else to do their part, or because we have completed the task.

Forty minutes of focused time is likely to allow us to get some significant progress done on most tasks and yet not reach the exhaustion stage and start to experience the diminished returns. Forty minutes is also not too long to cut us off from our team and the outside world and therefore keep us collaborative and responsive to the needs of others. It seems to accomplish a nice balance between individual productivity and team collaboration. After 40 minutes, you can decide to switch to another task, or to a collaborative session, or, if you are hungry for more accomplishments, extend your focused time yet another 40 minutes.

Image credit, Hiob, via iStockPhoto