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Do you routinely take way longer than you thought possible to finish your writing work? That’s likely a result of the planning fallacy…
We were standing on the waterfront in Sydney, Australia, waiting for our tour of the Sydney Opera House to begin.
It was Spring 2019 — well before COVID — and my husband and I had anticipated our New Zealand/Australia trip for almost a decade. But little did I know that the Opera House tour would reveal one of the most common pitfalls facing writers: the planning fallacy.
This is because the beautiful and remarkable building took 10 years longer and nearly $100 million more to complete than politicians and administrators had planned. So, the next time you find yourself missing deadlines or poorly calculating how long a particular piece of writing work is going to require, cast your mind to the words planning fallacy.
It is as common as table salt. It is expected. It is part of human nature.
Proposed by Israeli psychologist and economist (and Nobel prize winner) Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky in 1979, the fallacy suggests that most of us typically underestimate the time we need to do just about anything.
- We tend to be overly optimistic when planning: we expect everything to go smoothly and we are reluctant to factor possible delays — you know, things like cupboards or countertops not being delivered on time for a home renovation or interview subjects not being available for interviews we need to conduct before writing.
- We engage in wishful thinking: We so badly want to finish our project by a specific deadline that we lose our ability to make objective and realistic assessments.
- We overestimate our own abilities: We are hard-wired to assume we’ll be able to accomplish tasks in a shorter amount of time than is realistic. (Remember those times when you assumed you could write 2,000 words in one day?)
- We become carried away with our desire to impress: Knowing how terrific it would be to turn in our paper or piece of writing by X date, we assume — against all evidence — that we’ll just be able to do it.
- We believe it’s always better to do things faster: Eager to prove our aptitude, we close our minds to the realistic amount of time it’s going to take to finish a job.
One of the most common expressions of the planning fallacy I see with my clients, is that they like to use “round numbers” to estimate the amount of time a writing job is going to take. So, for example, if I ask them how long it will be before they can finish chapter X, they tell me they’ll have it done by the “end of the month.”
But when I ask them how many words they can write in 30 minutes, they don’t know. And when I ask them how many words they have left to write in their chapter, they don’t know that either.
When I ask them how they can possibly give me any answer at all when they don’t even know the key variables, some of them have a lightbulb moment. But others kind of wave their hands as if they were brushing away annoying flies. That’s the planning fallacy in action.
I don’t want to embarrass anyone. My goal is to help people deal with the imperfect human mind and still accomplish their writing in time.
So, here are five ways to outwit the planning fallacy:
1-Don’t let yourself be too anchored to your original plan: When we draw up an initial plan for a project, we are biased to continue thinking in terms of those initial time estimates — how long it’s going to take to do research, line up the interviews, do the actual writing, take care of both substantive and copy editing. Even if our initial predictions were outrageously inaccurate, we still feel bound to those original numbers. For example, let’s imagine we’d allocated eight hours for writing and this has proven to be wildly insufficient. We’re more likely to want to increase our time by no more than an hour or two — even if what we really need to do is double the amount of time we’d originally estimated. This natural human tendency leads us to make insufficient adjustments to our plans as we go along.
2-Visualize HOW you are going to do the work: In a study performed in the Netherlands, participants were given a writing assignment and asked to complete it within a week. The participants were split into two groups. Both groups were instructed to declare the day they intended to start writing the paper, and the day they believed they would finish. But, the second group was also asked what time of day and in what location they would write, and were also asked to visualize themselves following through on their plan. Researchers found that those in the second group did a better job of meeting goals. They also reported fewer interruptions while they were working — perhaps because they had a stronger commitment to follow through.
3-Always break big tasks into much smaller pieces: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time! Don’t ever try to write a book! Instead, resolve to write 200 words per day for a year. Even though most of us are really bad at estimating the amount of time large jobs are going to take us to do, most of us are much better at planning for small ones. In fact, for smaller jobs, we often overestimate the time they will take. Keep reminding yourself that it’s better to allow too much time for a project rather than too little.
4-Resist the tyranny of the urgent: Here’s another cognitive bias that can un-do our planning. We are hard-wired as human beings to always put urgent matters first. Somehow, we think they are more important than, well, really important tasks! Understand that you’ll want to work to override your natural instincts about urgency. I’ve written a separate blog post about this counter-intuitive topic, with six useful suggestions.
5-Make future plans based on your past performance: Managers in HR departments are taught to ignore their hugely unreliable feelings about job applicants and, instead, focus on those candidates’ past performance. As a writer, you should do the same thing with your time. Don’t guess how long it’s going to take you to finish writing project X. Instead, look at how long writing project W really took you (again, not your goals, but the actual achievement) and use that past performance to predict your future one.
And let’s say you’ve never kept such records before? Then vow to start with your next project.
Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. The group is now full but there is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours.
My video podcast last week described how to get more cohesion in your writing. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.
Do you finish your work on time or do you struggle with the planning fallacy? How do you deal with it? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Jan. 31/21 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!