5 ways to make more accurate plans (and stick to them!)

I bet you’re wondering what’s wrong with the way you currently plan.

Well, let’s test things out. First, think about an upcoming project or task for school/work/life that you need to complete.

Have one in mind?

Great, now come up with an estimate on when you expect to complete the task. Write this expected completion date down or just commit it to your memory.

Okay, now think about someone else who has the same assignment — a coworker, another student, your roommate.

How long do you think it would take them to finish it? Got your answer?

Now, what if I told you that you’re probably wrong for both answers, being overly optimistic in your first response, and too pessimistic in the latter.

In fact, the answer that you suggested is probably only somewhat near the truth if you have a deadline you are anchoring your response on. If not, good luck completing that task anywhere near the time frame that you suggested.

The good news is you’re not alone in this tendency to incorrectly estimate how long it will take you to complete a task.

This miscalculation is so common that psychologists have coined a term for it — the planning fallacy.

The planning fallacy, as defined by Nobel Laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman, is made up of two major components. First, it is the tendency to think that your project will proceed as planned and secondly, it is the decision — typically an unconscios one — to ignore the relevant past examples or probable obstacles that make it evident how unlikely this plan actually is.

Sound familiar?

I know it does for me. The planning fallacy impacts me every single day. From small tasks like scheduling time to work on a writing assignment to larger goals like gearing up for a half marathon, I am constantly overoptimistic about how quickly I can achieve these goals. And this is even after understanding that the planning fallacy exists!

The good news is there are a couple of tips from researchers that can help mitigate your inclination to plan incorrectly. Here’s what I’ve found helpful when trying to create and stick to more realistic plans.

1. Add and Enforce deadlines:

Research has shown that people stick to strict rather than flexible dates. In a study conducted by Roger Buehler, Dale Griffin, and Michael Ross, deadlines were highly correlated to task completion dates, since a majority of people will adhere to deadlines. Interestly enough, people barely mention deadlines when asked to explain the reasoning behind their plan but it clearly has a large impact on their behavior.

Push yourself to stick to a plan by imposing your own smaller deadlines for different portions of a task. Make yourself accountable for these dates by communicating these times with a coworker, spouse, or study partner.

2. Have someone else predict the time spent planning for you:

Back to my point at the beginning of this article, we predict different competition times for ourselves than for others.

In the same study referenced above, observers were more conservative in their estimates for when a “random other” would complete a task, and predicted a pessimistic completion time — one that was longer than what actually occurred.

If you want a more accurate forecast, ask an outsider to give you their honest expectations, couple that with your estimate, and you’ll be somewhere closer to the truth.

3. Relate past experiences to this specific task:

We often have some past experience that can help us when planning for a new task. Unfortunately, this past experience seems to vacate our minds when we are thinking about a new case. Whether that be because we think this time will be different, or because we fail to see the similarity in the two cases, there are ways to make sure that you use past experience to your advantage.

Here’s how:

  1. Think of as many relatively similar assignments as possible.They don’t need to be the exact same case, and the more examples you can think of the better.
  2. Now write down how long each project took. Also write down what is different or the same about those projects in comparison to the one you are embarking on now.
  3. If you are incedibly concerned with planning aaccuracy — ask around for other examples from people who have had to complete a similar assignment.
  4. From there, make your own predictions about completing the task, with all of these relevant examples fresh on your mind.

4. Break down what you are planning to do & visualize the situation:

Intentions are powerful. A study done by Sander Koole and Maschavan’t Spijker proved that implementation intentions — breaking down when you intend to complete your task, how you intend to complete it, and where you intend to complete it — helped mitigate some of the impacts of the planning fallacy.

Try formalizing your intentions and writing it down to make sure you stick to the plan.

5. Schedule an actual time and place to complete the task so that you can avoid interruptions:

Interruptions happen. Sometimes there’s nothing we can do to avoid them, but other times we can take matters into our own hands. This is where scheduling comes in. Koole & Spyker’s study showed that premeditating interruptions actually helped reduce the likelihood of being interrupted because people took more precautions to avoid them.

Do what you need to do to complete that task, whether that’s blocking off a part of your calendar as busy, or keeping your kids out of the home office for an hour.

Lastly, I wanted to make sure this did not read as an attack against optimism.

There are plenty of benefits to optimism including fewer negative emotions, increased motivation, and better health. Optimism is even very useful in planning, since predicting a faster completion time gets you one step closer to making it happen. This is simply a suggestion to take some of that optimism and act upon your overly optimistic plan to make it a more realistic one.

Good luck planning better! I’m sure we could all use it.

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Lola Idowu

Lola Idowu

“When you know better you do better” — Maya Angelou. Articles and tips that help you to do better. @Youknowbetterdobetter on instagram