The Planning Fallacy: Why You Don’t Know How Much You Can Do This Year

Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

— Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

As you make your plans for 2011, do you feel that you didn’t do much, or enough, last year? Do you feel that you really want this year to be somehow “different?’ And perhaps do you recall having a similar feeling in the past, that next year has just got to be different?

During the years I’ve worked with clients in my Plan to Thrive program, I’ve observed a persistent hurdle encountered by many: it’s hard to figure out how much is possible to do in a year.

There are a couple of important reasons why we are generally not very good in our attempts to make plans that work. A key one goes by the name of “the planning fallacy.”

Have you ever noticed how often things take longer than you thought they would? You are not alone. In one study, college students were asked to estimate how long it would take to write their thesis papers. The average estimate was about 34 days. In fact, the actual time required was over 55 days on average. This is the planning fallacy at work. The planning fallacy refers to the persistent human tendency to underestimate how long it will take to complete tasks. And experience suggests that those college students will not get better at estimating how long a project takes; they’ll continue throughout their careers to underestimate how long they’ll need to get a project done.

There are some theories about why we’re so bad at making estimates, even when we’ve had plenty of practice. First, there may be many things that could slow us down — we catch a bad cold, necessary materials are missing, someone we’re counting on to help us turns their work in late — and each of these has a small chance of happening. But the odds that one of them will happen are somewhat higher. We don’t know which one will happen, but chances are that one of them will.

But here’s another funny thing about planning. While we persistently overestimate what we can accomplish in a year (and so become discouraged), we also underestimate what we can do in three years (and so are astonished).

Think about it: where were you and what were you doing three years ago? How well did you foresee your current situation? Many people are astonished by what they can be, do and have now that they never would have believed as recently as three years ago.

This is why the Plan to Thrive program includes steps to help clients get a solid grip on their productivity baseline and focus on what possibilities are within reach. A method for benchmarking helps track your progress and keep up motivation. (Getting discouraged just takes up precious time and energy.)

Understand that the human mind can be an unreliable tool, then get help to keep you accountable to your goals. And be pleasantly surprised by how much you can reach this year.

Are you surprised by where you are now compared with one year ago? How about three years ago? Leave a comment here.

One Response to The Planning Fallacy: Why You Don’t Know How Much You Can Do This Year

  1. There are many things I didn’t achieve in 2010, but since I scratched some things off the list (like, run a marathon) and added new ones (complete career re-think, for example), the past 12 months did move me forward. And yes, compared with 3 years ago, I am totally surprised!

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