Over and Under Estimating is Normal

As I struggle to wrap up a few projects around the house, I realized that there’s a definite pattern of under estimating how long something will take me — specifically if I’ve never done that something before. In this case, I figured I would save myself a few hundred bucks by renting a trencher so I could run electricity out to my new office. What I didn’t account for:

  • My kids and dogs knocking dirt into the trench I just dug
  • Not having a “trenching” shovel to clear out the dirt that fell in
  • How long it would take to dig out the spot closest to the house — where I couldn’t use the trencher.
  • How difficult roots can make the entire process.

Similarly, I’ll build up an immense amount of anxiety when I have a really simple list of tasks building up. It could be really basic things like reading some emails, responding, and writing a few updates and I’ll be over here sweating and telling my wife that I will probably have “hours” of work to do… Usually I end up at my desk for about 30 minutes and get it all done. What I over estimate for:

  • How many emails I don’t really need to read e.g. notifications about “likes” on posts.
  • How many of the things I need to read are short and don’t require a response.
  • The fact that I already knew what my response would be for the emails I did need to respond to.
  • How quickly I actually write my updates because I have all of the information saved and organized.

Then I remembered that people with ADHD have issues with time perception. I went to dig in a little bit more and, sure enough…

One of the main problems associated with time perception that has been widely noted among individuals diagnosed with ADHD is time estimation. This problem can lead to significant difficulties in assessing the amount of time that has passed or the amount of time that might be required to perform a specific task.

Boring research article titled Time Perception is a Focal Symptom of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in Adults

While I don’t really love the content in this article, the quoted title is about perfect,

We don’t see time, we feel it.

This is also true for estimation. When we’re excited about something and eager to get it done, we’re more likely to underthink and underestimate it. When it’s something we don’t want to do but know we have to do, anxiety takes over and causes us to overthink and overestimate.

I don’t know many people that like estimating their work — especially if they are expected to make that estimate “public — but I think there’s a huge benefit to:

  1. Estimating your own tasks for yourself to ease the anxiety that comes with it.
  2. Breaking down any big projects, tasks, or chunks of work into smaller pieces and thinking about them individually.

When it comes to breaking them down and looking at them individually, I have a few tricks that will help you ease anxiety and build up your confidence:

  • When you are doing something new, account for the time you need to learn about what you’re about to do.
    • Give yourself 30 minutes to watch a Youtube video first.
    • Give yourself an hour to look at examples of the deliverable you are going to create.
    • Give yourself a few hours to learn a new tool, setup, or technology.
  • When it comes to common tasks, establish a baseline.
    • How much time do you generally spend on comms when you first get to your desk?
    • How many messages do you tend to write during that time?
    • What is the longest you end up spending on a single thing during this time?
  • For anything else:
    • Start by breaking down what you know, what you need to know.
    • As you start figuring out “what I need to know” start creating your “what I need to do” list.
    • Estimate tasks that do-not cause you anxiety when thinking about where you’ll start and what “done” looks like.
    • Figure out what you need to know to remove the ambiguity from tasks that are causing you anxiety. Give yourself time to go get that information.

Start by doing this for yourself and then start writing down in any updates, plans, docs, etc. that you share at work. People will be impressed to see that you’ve identified “unknowns” and that you’re planning to fill in those gaps. You may even get people jumping in with answers, context, or relevant discussions that would have been hard to find on your own.

In my experience, leaders are more worried about people under-thinking their approach, so this approach ends up being a perception booster.

I’ll probably write more things and you might just want to read those too.

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