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How to Make Better Time Estimates


How to Make Better Time Estimates

Do you ever plan for a task to take an hour, but it takes four hours? Or maybe you allotted an hour to finish a job that only took 10 minutes.

Estimating the amount of time a task will take can be very important, especially at work. How can you get better at making time estimates?

Like anything else, there are several ways to improve. Use these four tips and you’ll be well on your way to mastering your time.

1. Measure where you are right now. Start by estimating how long you think it will take you to complete various tasks every day. Then record how long it actually takes. Finally, to get your “time factor,” or how much difference there was between the two, divide your estimate by the actual amount of time used.

  • Say you decide to change the oil in your car. You believe that the oil change will take 45 minutes, but it requires 60 minutes. Your time factor would be 1.33 (the task took you 33% longer than planned). 
  • You’re likely to see a wide variety of time factors. But if you total everything over a week (such as 55 hours actual versus 38 hours planned), you’re likely to see similar time factor numbers from week to week
  • You can then apply that time factor to large groups of tasks, such as all those you’d do in a day or a week. And although your time factor won’t be accurate for single tasks, it does provide a good starting point. You get a better idea of whether you usually overestimate or underestimate time.

2. Recognize the level of detail. Break down tasks to appropriate levels. Tasks that are too big will result in overlooking too many details, which each take time. On the other hand, if you break things down too far, you’ll get swallowed up in the minutiae. Experience and practice will help you determine an accurate level of detail.

  • For more accurate estimating, avoid letting your blocks of time be too big. For most people, a task that takes one to two hours is about right. Also keep in mind that if you’re off by 25% for a one-hour task, you’re only 15 minutes off your schedule. If you’re off by 25% for an 8-hour task, you’re 2 hours off schedule.

3. Set specific goals. If you can’t be certain of the point at which the task is complete, you can’t expect to make a good time estimate.

  • Some examples:

    “Make sales calls.” – Too non-specific.

    “Make five sales calls.” – Now you’re very clear about when the task is complete.

  • One trick to know you’re on the right track: you should be able to easily verbalize the first and last actions that need to be taken. If you know exactly how to start and how to finish, you’ll know exactly when you’ve completed the task.
  • Remember to include any clean-up time. It might only take you 15 minutes to change the oil in your car, but what about putting everything away, disposing of the used oil, and washing up?

4. Keep track of past results. If you vacuumed the entire house last week and it took 72 minutes, then that’s probably a pretty good estimate to use the next time you do it. Much of our lives consist of tasks that we do over and over. If you measure yourself, you can use that information in the future.

  • Having this information also makes it a lot easier to plan for the day. You’ll be far less likely to over-plan or under-plan.

Making more accurate time estimates is a valuable skill. With this skill, you can be much more productive and reliable. Plus, your boss will be thrilled if you start getting everything done when you claim it will be done! Although effective time management takes some practice, it’s certainly worth the effort.

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