Beat the ‘Planning Fallacy’ to Be More Productive

Beat the ‘Planning Fallacy’ to Be More Productive

Even if you’ve never heard of the planning fallacy, you’ve likely experienced it. It’s a phenomenon in which a person or team underestimates how long a task will take and what it will cost in money or resources, plus overestimates the actual benefits it will yield. If you’ve ever waited until the last minute to respond to an email only to find you don’t have the data you need to send a decent response, you’ve fallen victim to the fallacy. Hell, you’ve fallen victim to it if you’ve ever been late to something because you were just sure traffic wouldn’t interfere with you getting there, despite there always being traffic along that route at that time—but there are ways to beat it.

What’s the deal with the planning fallacy?

As mentioned, the planning fallacy is just a pattern of faulty thinking that results in people not budgeting their time or expectations correctly. You don’t realize how much time a task will really take, how much you’ll need to spend on it, or how little you may get out of it. The fallacy itself was first introduced by economist Daniel Kahneman and cognitive psychologist Amos Tversky in 1979, but was expanded on in 2003 to include the overestimation of beneficial results.

Over the years, it’s been studied and proven by other big brains, who’ve concluded it’s all part of an optimism bias that makes people look ahead through rose-colored glasses instead of thinking realistically about their plans and anticipated results.

All of that is to say, in general, when you’re planning out your day or your projects, you’re probably strategizing around the best-case scenario—low time and resource investment with high yield—instead of the worst-case one. This means if (maybe when) things don’t shake out right, you’re unprepared.

How to beat the planning fallacy

First, you need to set a realistic goal. You can do this using a SMART goal or a FAST goal, both of which require you to write down a specific objective and indicate exactly how you’ll measure your progress toward it. A SMART goal is preferable to a FAST one here because with that structure, you’ll also be incorporating a time-based element; the “T” in SMART stands for time-bound, and that’s going to be crucial in defeating the planning fallacy. You need to determine, in advance, what your deadline is. But to do that, you have to be realistic, not optimistic.

Consider projects you’ve worked on that are similar in demand or scope to the one at hand. How long did they take you? No, really, how long did they actually take you? To be realistic about how long the new project will take, you need to take lessons from the past, and it might not go perfectly this time around if you don’t have solid data. Start tracking your time when you get to work on the project and its associated tasks. Use the 168-hour method to diligently monitor your time over the course of a week, paying attention to how long each step in your project process actually takes. When you do complete the project, conduct a personal after-action review, going over what you wanted to achieve, what you actually achieved, and what stopped you from achieving it, then making notes of that and filing them away with the project itself.

By tracking your time and assessing what went wrong that prevented you from accomplishing a task in a timely or productive manner in the past, you can better structure your future to-do lists and schedules. You may not defeat the planning fallacy on your first try, but after a few attempts during which you collect and review data, you’ll have a better understanding of how long things take you and you can eventually conquer it.

Another key to defeating the fallacy is to avoid anchoring, or the cognitive bias that prevents people from changing their original course of action. If, halfway through your project, you realize the planning fallacy caused you to be a little too optimistic, consciously make the decision to consider altering your goal, timeline, or approach. Seek outside opinions from colleagues or peers, weigh their inputs fairly, and adjust as necessary. In addition to being wired for optimism, people are also wired to be stubborn, but neither of those is helpful when you’re trying to accomplish a goal. Being aware of these cognitive biases and fallacies is a solid first step to overcoming them, but you do ultimately have to do the work to do that.

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