Goals Habits Planners

Time Estimates & Blocking

December 10, 2020

I loved this comment from Jenn yesterday:

“. . . Your comment about time blocking yesterday reminded me of a question I’ve been meaning to ask you. I am an obliger who constantly over-commits myself at work. I have been trying to block time to work on big projects, but I find that I am terrible at estimating how long a project will take me (I always seem to underestimate). This leads me to get frustrated with feelilng like I didn’t accomplish much, since my time blocks weren’t accurate. Do you have any suggestions at getting better at know how long certain tasks will take? Similarly, I struggle with massive to do lists and feeling paralyzed by how to start.”

OMDG (who I consider one of the most productive people around!) noted that she felt similarly about estimating time.

I find this topic (not surprisingly) fascinating. I feel I am actually very good at estimating how long things take though do fall into the temptation of sometime striving to sneak in just one more thing — which even if it works, turns the whole thing into a sort of race because the pieces just fit.

I am not sure if this is just because of the nature of my job and the things I do, my willingness to do a rather imperfect job at some things, or something else.

Commenter Kathy provided two great ideas:

1. You know that you underestimate the time you need. So try estimating the time you will need. Then multiply your estimate by 2. You can experiment and see if that is the correct factor.

I don’t know if Kathy is a Cal Newport listener, but he has suggested this on his podcast. It’s an interesting idea. If you finish early, you might want to have a list of other more nebulous tasks you can go to — or just reward yourself and spend that time on reading or other more exploratory pursuits.

2. Spend a week or so collecting data by tracking your time . How long does it take you to do different tasks? Just view this as collecting information without trying to shoehorn tasks into designated slots. This is very Laura Vanderkam-inspired 🙂 If you don’t want to track every minute (I am actually terrible at this!), you could keep a little table going of common work tasks and how long they take.

I actually saw this on instagram on a bullet journal blog written by a psychology professor (have NO IDEA who it was, or I’d link it!). She had a list of her most common work tasks and a time amount next to each one on a (beautifully-laid-out) bullet journal page. This might be something to think about paying attention to.

I know that I AM good about paying attention to repetitive tasks (and multiplying to create reasonable estimates). If it takes 8 minutes to review a residency applicant, then 15 of them will take 2 hours (8 x 15 = 120 minutes). If a patient note takes 6-10 minutes, catching up on 5 will take up to an hour. Sometimes knowing what the whole batch should take is motivating for me to say on task to see if I can get through it.

Energy matters, too. In the morning I can do certain things very quickly (write out a meeting agenda, write a blog post, edit a presentation). Some of these things would take me much longer in the afternoon when I am no longer very fresh or energetic. I admit I often forget to take this into account when creating estimates, but it can be beneficial to schedule the more mentally challenging tasks for whenever you are typically in your top mode.

Finally, I’d add — if you aren’t already, try writing it out with the times physically on a piece of paper, in a document, or in a planner. Sometimes it’s easy to put 10 things on a list but when you actually go to assign them blocks of time it quickly becomes clear that the number of items just isn’t realistic.

Other ideas? I know you have them!!!

(Had half the day off – recorded 3 pod eps + 2 ads, baked, ran, and then headed to work for half a day of patients. Worked nicely)

Also, this kind of makes me laugh now:

Ha. Maybe next year.


  • Reply Lisa S. December 10, 2020 at 6:58 am

    I had a boss who used the make us first create time estimates in our project plans, line by line before we started. It felt tedious at times but I’m now really grateful for the practice because I’ve gotten better at this and still use this skill a ton. I do think it is something you will never get “perfect” but you can improve with practice and getting closer to the mark makes a big difference in assessing what is (and is not) realistic in a given hour/day/week.

  • Reply Janelle December 10, 2020 at 8:01 am

    I think you’ve touched on this in the past but breaking projects down can help estimate time. So instead of Time blocking for an entire project you just time block for the first step.

  • Reply gwinne December 10, 2020 at 8:03 am

    “She had a list of her most common work tasks and a time amount next to each one on a (beautifully-laid-out) bullet journal page. This might be something to think about paying attention to.”

    Sarah, this is brilliant and I need to write myself a note on actual paper to do this. The thing I seem incapable of estimating is how much time admin tasks take over email (like, those occasionally necessarily long and thoughtful pieces of writing that would have been a ‘memo’ but now are emailed docs). Submitting work to journals also takes me longer than I think it should (actual process of submission, I mean, not writing the ms itself). And student letters of rec (have one today)–though I do try to limit those types of things to 1 hr/each. (Students usually have NO idea how long a good letter can take to write!)

    FWIW I bought Cal’s planner, which I wouldn’t really call a planner. Looking forward to seeing if that’s usable for me next semester. Until kids are back in school time blocking is sort of pointless.

    • Reply Heather December 10, 2020 at 9:39 am

      “Until kids are back in school time blocking is sort of pointless” – YUP. It’s so hard to work like this, and I’m being expected to be *more* productive than I was before. I’m exhausted.

    • Reply KGC December 10, 2020 at 10:06 am

      Your comment about submitting to a journal could not be more true. I feel like there have been countless nights where the entire submission is ‘ready to go’ and somehow it doesn’t happen until 11pm because one file didn’t upload correctly or was mislabeled or there’s an error in the automatic PDF creation process. I’m generally good-ish at estimating how long things will take, but abstract or manuscript submissions are ALWAYS longer than I think. I’m on the brink of (hopefully) submitting three papers in the next 2 or so months, so this is a timely reminder!

  • Reply Emma December 10, 2020 at 10:33 am

    I put my time block on the left side (like a left bracket) and then on the right side how long it actually took or what I actually did (like a right bracket). Over time, this has made me much better at estimating how long things actually take (especially academic and household tasks/projects). If it’s something new, I allow double the time, and sometimes I’m still off!

    • Reply Jeanna December 10, 2020 at 7:33 pm

      Love this idea!

  • Reply Dr Eva Lantsoght (@evalantsoght) December 10, 2020 at 11:17 am

    It also depends on the nature of the project and uncertainty associated with it. Cognitively complex and uncertain work makes it much harder to estimate how much time it will take.

    FWIW – this research looks into this: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/255621356_A_Framework_for_Project_Management_under_Uncertainty

    And, a more accessible analysis of this research, addressing the question why we are always late to deliver research projects, is written in this blog post: https://thesiswhisperer.com/2020/12/02/please-keep-doing-your-work-while-you-scream-inside-your-heart-a-guide-for-research-project-management-during-covid/

    Admin and service are an issue as well, when it comes to being able to free up chunks of time.

  • Reply omdg December 10, 2020 at 11:35 am

    I think… even if I multiplied anticipated time spent by 10, I would still underestimate most things. What has worked for me recently has been blocking out an hour each day for writing, as you suggest. You can get so much done in only one hour! This is even more true if you are able to devote this time over a series of days. This is how I got a manuscript out last month. I’m also a big proponent of chipping away at things a little at a time. I admit, this approach is not that satisfying.

    I think the biggest challenge is learning to be patient with yourself. Not that much worth accomplishing takes only one day. Each day may feel individually unproductive, but over the long run you are actually moving forward.

  • Reply Beth @ Parent Lightly December 10, 2020 at 3:13 pm

    I am a consultant so I estimate professionally all the time. The advice to add x% is good. Also breaking it down into tasks is helpful. Here are my best practices: 1) Save old estimates and refer back to them for similar projects 2) Start with a high level gut number 3) Itemize the tasks and estimate each task, add up and compare to the gut high level 4) Ask others for feedback. Other people can help you spot things you’ve forgotten, question your estimates, etc. 5) Once you have a number you like, start by doubling it. Eventually you can refine this. At this point I add 20%. If you have a big project, break it down into manageable chunks. This is where I find my planner really helpful. So if the weekly goal is to get an estimate out to sales, I break it down into almost ridiculously tiny chunks – List the tasks, gather feedback from the other team members, send to business development to add dollars, etc. etc. That way I feel productive when I get even one of the sub-tasks done and I make incremental progress every day.

  • Reply Alyce December 11, 2020 at 5:42 am

    I also tend to underestimate/not know how long something will take – the bulk of my job is reviewing unknown/unfamiliar/unique legal and policy documents that I usually only review once. The only way to have an accurate assessment of how long it will take me is to read through, think about, provide comments, and edit the document, is to actually do all those thing, at which point, obviously, I’m done with the task. (Eva’s post above about cognitively complex work being hard to estimate rings very true to me). Thinking about time blocks as the time that I will work on a task rather than the time in which I will definitely complete the task helps me a lot. Basically, I don’t assume I will complete my review at that time, unless I’m up against a hard deadline (at which point I’m making calculations about what are the most important things for me to think about what feedback is essential for me to provide, or deciding if I truly do need to ask for more time). Time blocking is more about giving myself permission to exclusively focus on the specific task at hand and ignore all of the other interruptions that typically pull me away and slow down my review. When I’m gauging my success at the end of the block, I’m doing so in terms of look at how much I accomplished, not whether or not I finished.

  • Reply Jenn December 11, 2020 at 11:15 am

    Thank you so much Sara and commenters for your feedback. It’s reassuring to hear that I’m not alone. I like the idea to double my estimate (seems so simple and yet I don’t do it), and to track how long projects *actually* take. I am also going to check out the resources that Eva mentioned. I do think a large part of the issue is that my role doesn’t involve many recurring tasks, but larger, changing projects. But I should do a better job of breaking up projects into manageable pieces and tracking those components (e.g., literature review, creating a presentation or workshop, etc.) because those tasks do recur. Thanks again!

  • Reply Evelybills December 12, 2020 at 11:16 am

    ok random planner question… setting up for 2021… how do you insert birthdays? I’ve given up noting allll the birthdays in my life, but the ones i really want in my mind that i dont have memorized (lots of neices, nephews) – just havent decided what i want that to look like in my beautiful W222 🙂 quarterly view? monthly spread? Sounds funny but i really want to be happy the way i insert them since i’ll be looking at it the whole year… or do you just have it in your google calendar and just reference it during your monthly review? (I think i need more lead time tho to plan for the bdays that land in the first week of the next month…) thanks for your ideas! Love all your layouts!!!

    • Reply Sarah Hart-Unger December 13, 2020 at 1:55 pm

      I put birthdays that I don’t want to forget in my weekly layouts b/c I am not going to check monthly every day – so I’d miss it!
      (I also have some in google calendar!)

  • Reply Anne January 15, 2021 at 2:54 am

    The psychology professor with the beautiful handwriting – maybe https://instagram.com/yukikosakamura ?

    I still struggle with estimating task time, albeit not helped by clients who suddenly find extra documents that they should have sent at the outset (I’m a lawyer).

    • Reply Sarah Hart-Unger January 15, 2021 at 5:46 am

      YES!!! That’s her, thank you!!!

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