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Chris is co-founder of Prolifiko, writing productivity coach, writer and content consultant.

If you’ve ever missed a deadline the planning fallacy may well be the culprit. It’s the tendency we have to underestimate the time it will take us to complete something – whilst knowing full well that similar tasks have taken longer in the past. It’s based in an innate biological bias towards optimism – but if you want stop missing your deadlines and start hitting them, it’s something you need to master – here’s how.

Roger Beuller is a psychology professor at the Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada.

Every night he used to leave his office and pack up his briefcase with all the work he was planning to finish off that evening at home.

Every morning he’d return to the office with most of work completely untouched.

He’d do this time and time again.

Talking to the Freakonmics podcast he said: “Every night as I packed up my briefcase I was sure that my plans were realistic – so that was the puzzle. Why wouldn’t I learn from experience and get more realistic in my estimates?”

Student numbers

Buehler decided to investigate whether it was just him, so he asked a group of research students writing theses how long it would take them to finish their papers.

On average, the students predicted that their theses would take 33.9 days to finish.

How long did it actually take? 55.5 five days –  a 64 percent over estimation.

>> Read more: How to make time to write – 4 approaches to finding time in busy schedules

Buehler went on to find similar examples of over estimation among stockbrokers, academics, electrical engineers and doctors.

He found that people commonly underestimated the time it would take to undertake everyday activities too like travelling places, completing tax forms or finishing household chores.

What Buehler was investigating was a phenomenon called the planning fallacy – something discovered by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1979.

Everybody’s happy nowadays

Kahneman and Tversky found that behind the planning fallacy, lay something quite primordial – our innate bias towards optimism.

They believed that optimism bias was related to our survival instincts.

It seems that even the most grumpy among us are biologically hard-wired to hope and believe they can achieve things and that things will be better.

On the upside, our optimism bias is how we keep going through thick and thin.

On the downside, it’s why you miss deadlines, why major building projects always overrun by squillions of dollars and why you think the rush-hour traffic must be better tonight than the night before.

It’s great to be positive and to believe you can achieve, but when that means you constantly overshoot deadlines it can knock your confidence – and when it comes to writing, that very often means you grind to a halt.

So, how do you remain positive whilst keeping your optimum bias in check?

Your judgement sucks

When you’re planning a new project – thinking about how long it will take or what’s involved – researchers tell us that you spend too much time focussed on the specific thing you have to complete and not enough time considering how you’ve completed similar projects in the past.

>> Read more: A guide to tracking your writing – why noticing how you write will transform your practice

Prof. Yael Grushka-Cockayne from the Darden School of Business, University of Virginia studies how people make decisions in business – she’s been studying the planning fallacy for years. Interviewed for Freakonomics she said:

“If you’re planning project X, the best approach is to ignore project X,” she said.

“Instead, look back at all the projects you’ve done that are similar to this new project X and look historically at how well those projects performed in terms of their plan versus their actual. See how your plan compares to your actual and use that shift or uplift to adjust the new project you are about to start.”

In other words – don’t rely on your personal, subjective judgement of how long something is likely to take or how involved it will be because that’s likely to suck.

Instead, rely on evidence. Monitor past projects, monitor how well of otherwise you’ve completed projects before – track your progress and base your decisions on that.

Evidence is clear (but boring)

Researchers tell us that the more evidence you can amass about how you’ve tackled projects in the past, the better prepared you’ll be to tackle projects in the future and the less likely you’ll be to overshoot your deadlines.

“Tracking historical plans and actuals is the fundamental first step in overcoming the planning fallacy. You should track your performance because if you start with that – let alone anything more sophisticated – you will improve”, said Prof. Grushka-Cockayne.

Admittedly, it’s way more fun to bullishly believe that you really can smash that deadline (even if you don’t stand a chance).

It’s a bit boring and dry to look at the facts and consider whether based on previous performance, you should probably give yourself a bit more time.

But if you truly want to finish your writing project you need to give yourself the best chance. Missing deadlines – again and again – is demoralising. It’s the reason why many writers give up altogether.

So stay positive, have hope – but be realistic. Keep track of your writing, keep learning.

How to track your writing (and side-step the planning fallacy):

Whatever you’re writing it’s an emotional journey so we believe there two elements to successful tracking – quantitative and qualitative. Both are as important as each other.

After every writing session ask yourself:

  1. What went well?
  2. What didn’t go so well?
  3. What would I do differently next time?

Asking yourself three simple questions every time you write will help you build up a picture of your practice. It will help you spot patterns and in those patterns you’ll find your own writing system.


The quotes for this article are from the Freakonomics episode: Here’s Why All Your Projects Are Always Late — and What to Do About It.