Over Promise and Under Deliver, Failing To Estimate The Time To Complete A Task

268921_accent Our office is going to be remodeled at the end of next week, the flooring, wallpaper and paint are all picked out and ready for the contractors to arrive and get started. Although the contractors are ready to go we still have a lot do take care of inside the office to have it ready for them to come in and do their job.  If you can imagine, we have been in this office for 11 years, we have saved a lot of stuff that we do not need, and have accumulated much more that needs to be gone through before we begin moving it out so the contractors can work.

A few staff members had a little free time on Tuesday and asked if they should start packing things up to get them ready to move out so they would be ready for flooring people to come in.  I thought is was a great idea, as the more we get done now the easier it will be the next week. 

When our boss saw what we were doing he made this statement “wait until next week to start this, as the office will look empty if you do it now.”  I think our mouths must have dropped open because he just stood there wondering what was wrong with us.  I told him that we could not do this next week that we needed to get everything packed up and moved out way before the contractor was to arrive.  He replied “it should only take about 15 minutes to get the stuff off of the walls.”  The walls? But what about all of the other stuff that needed to be moved next door to an empty office so the new floor could be put in?  Did he really think that all of the shelves, desks, computers, filing cabinets, etc., were going to move themselves in the middle of the night?

What was wrong with him?  He didn’t seem to have a clue as to what really needed to be done in order to complete this project in the two weeks that he was going to be on vacation.  And fifteen minutes…. was he mad?  No he was actually suffering from Hoftadter’s law  and Planning Fallacy.

Hofstadter’s law, conceived by the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, goes like this: any task you’re planning to complete will always take longer than expected – even when Hofstadter’s law is taken into account. Even if you know a project will overrun, and build that knowledge into your planning, it’ll simply overrun your new estimated finish time, too. This is referred to as the “Planning Fallacy.”

The Planning Fallacy is a cognitive bias–or a distortion in the human mind that has been well documented by psychologists. According to the studies, we know everything always takes longer than expected; we just seem to forget … again and again.

I personally never knew that there was a law or fallacy for what I call “poor planning” so I learned something new today.  I do think for a lot of people it is poor planning because they do not really take into consideration how much time things it takes to do things. 

Maybe I am just wound a bit too tight, but I calculate task time and then add a little padding so that I am sure (unless something totally unexpected comes up) that I will be able to complete my project and without too much stress.  My boss on the other hand, seems to walk around with blinders on or is it rose-colored glasses? 

The link below is to a good article about this topic, I think you will find it interesting.

“He who fails to plan, plans to fail” ~ unknown

Why we underestimate the time to complete a task

14 thoughts on “Over Promise and Under Deliver, Failing To Estimate The Time To Complete A Task

  1. Great post. What I find odd is that people that regularly fail to adequately estimate the time needed for a project, seem to be doomed to do it repeatedly. It is almost as if they are incapable of learning from their mistakes. Maybe it is a disease. I will start working on a cure.


    • I would be so happy if you could find a cure for this. It is a bit of a mystery to me as I calculate and plan. My family says I am the only one they know of who is thinking about Christmas dinner in July. Keep me posted on your progress with this project. 🙂


  2. In my former life in the computer software industry and my current life as an executive and leadership coach, I give clients the same advice: Think of everything in dog time. Multiply by seven and you’ll be good. Whatever it is, it will take longer than you think.


  3. Tina,

    I also had never heard of Hofstadter’s law before.

    I’ve noticed that this seems to happen a lot with entrepreneurs starting new businesses. I know multiple times I have thought things would take much less time than they actually did.

    However, at other times, I have been very accurate about how much time something would take. At least in one instance, the key was that it was something I had done before. Therefore, I knew about everything that was involved.


    • Greg
      Thank you for the comment. When doing something for the first time, I can see under estimating time. But when doing it repeatedly, there is a problem. Not sure when someone chronically has this problem, who they think they are fooling because is certainly would not be their coworkers. Interesting subject, and what do you do with employees or employers that “suffer” from Hofstadter’s?


  4. Tina,

    Don’t put them in charge, ha ha!!! (This is the response that immediately came to mind!) But on a more serious note, this is obviously tough when it is the employer. In that case, my answer would be to try to find a creative way to work around the problem.


    • Well, many times we over promise by saying that we can get a project done in a certain amount of time but we really do not calculate how much time it really will take to complete it. It is an old saying “over promise, and under deliver” In this case our boss is saying it will only take a short time for us to complete a project, but he does not really understand how much time it actually will take. I hope that makes it a bit clearer for you. Thanks for your comment


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