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Time management & cognitive bias: why is estimating our working hours so hard?

We should be able to define the length of time it will take us to perform a particular job, but reality is very different and shows consistently exceeded execution times.

This underestimation of the amount of time required has a name: cognitive bias in planning. So what are the solutions to address this and complete tasks within the allotted time?

When it comes to estimating the length of time it will take us to perform a particular task, being too optimistic often ends in disillusion. So much so that we are greatly disappointed and the result is rarely there.

Something which recent studies have shown to exist through people’s cognitive bias when it comes to planning.

Ultimately, individually estimating the time you will spend working on any given job is quite difficult, even though it is a key element in the way we manage our time.

Why are we unable to properly assess our time expenditure and do we seem to think we are better organised and armed in this respect with each new project we take on?

    Multiple consequences

    We need to go back as far as 1977, when two psychologists - Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky - came up with the concept of the so-called planning fallacy.

    They looked into how people were able to predict the length of time it would take them to perform a given task by observing individuals who, as optimists, underestimated the amount of time it would take them to accomplish their projects. Which in all cases ended with delays.

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        These people did not learn from their past mistakes and did not call themselves into question.      The situations seen on the shop floor nowadays and which ultimately end in people exceeding the time allotted to perform a particular task sometimes involve added costs to the company or have an impact on other team members.

        However, we should point out that not everybody has this cognitive bias. This only relates to people who themselves decide the amount of time they are giving themselves to perform particular tasks.

          Why investigate this topic?

          Quite simply because there are solutions out there that enable people to better manage their working time at the office, increase efficiency by delivering the project or completing the task on time and making them feel pleased with the job they did!

          All of which also helps to build a better work-life balance which means one less source of stress to worry about. Sound good?

          So, to avoid disappointments and to deliver the work within the allotted time, it is a good idea to take a step back and to put barriers in place that will counteract this cognitive bias, which is deeply ingrained in some people.


            Here are a few methods of improving your time management at work

            • Listen and adopt the view of an outside party (a colleague) to better estimate the length of time it will take to complete a job.
            • Allow yourself a degree of leeway that is greater than the length of time initially planned.  
            • Get an accurate idea of the project and all associated duties to be performed so as to restore the time balance and to stop yourself from procrastinating.
            • Finally, please be aware that there are methods to take a more efficient approach to work, such as time blocking or the Pomodoro method which involves working to a timer. The aim is to remain focused on one and the same task in 25-minute sessions.

              From simple time and attendance systems to detailed task and activity management reporting, SD Worx make your team’s time more valuable.