You Can’t Control the Future – or, Your Estimates Suck

Measuring Tape Clutch
Measuring Tape Clutch from FA2u

Estimating feels good.

It makes us feel like we can control things, that we can whip both ourselves and time into shape. But I’ve found that life has a way of resisting being scheduled (dammit!)

Don’t get me wrong, I stand by the importance of estimating. If we don’t try to get a handle on the amount of time it takes to do something, we run the risk of getting totally off track. But we also have to paradoxically accept that we don’t know what we don’t know.

We don’t know what kind of family emergencies will arise to throw our schedules to the wayside, we don’t know that we may run into all sorts of technical problems setting up our new blog that we didn’t anticipate, and as disciplined as we may be one week, we may end up screwing around on Facebook for hours the next.

In their book Rework, 37 signals’ Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson support the ‘breaking work into smaller chunks’ approach of estimating in a chapter bluntly titled ‘Your Estimates Suck.’ They point out that:

humans are just plain bad at estimating, which is why the Denver Airport opened 16 months late with a cost overrun of $2 billion dollars and Boston’s ‘Big Dig’ finished five years late.

So don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re estimates are off. It’s a bit of a paradox but that’s part of the process; we plan, God laughs.

Alas, we can’t control the future.

What we can do is break work down into more easily predictable (and over time, measurable) chunks and revisit our estimates on a regular (weekly, monthly) basis. The shorter the time span of the estimate (one week, versus four months) the more likely the estimate is going to reflect reality.

4 thoughts on “You Can’t Control the Future – or, Your Estimates Suck

  1. Slowly but surely, I’m working this into my life. I’m letting go of my need to control everything, my worry that things will get messed up, and my fears of being wrong. It’s amazing how all of those things are slyly nested inside estimating, isn’t it? Breaking things into smaller chunks as vastly improved my productivity and sanity. Excellent suggestions.

  2. What a great reminder this article is! It’s always good to hear that we’re all human, I know I tend to forget sometimes… And then find out, once again, that I’m not a super-human-artist-machine. Wiggle room is a blessing, I like estimating that into all my equations.

  3. Total truth to this post! And Rework is a GREAT book. In addition to this estimating bit, it’s chock full of realistic-minded tips on productivity, time management, and business strategy. I hope other people consider reading it!

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