Hi Rose — I’m behind on my manuscript. Can I send it to you next week?
Hi Rose — Sorry, I underestimated how long it would take me. How about another two weeks?
These are the emails I receive from academics. As a former professor myself, I get it. Estimating project completion is a nightmare. Why doesn’t it ever work?
Why can’t thousands of PhDs accurately estimate their own writing deadlines?
There are legitimate reasons, so stop feeling bad about it.
Optimism Bias and the Planning Fallacy
Have you noticed how major infrastructure projects, like a new tunnel or bridge, often take longer than predicted and run over budget?
Leaving aside corruption possibilities, the reason for the delay is often “optimism bias.”
Your optimistic bias toward future projects ignores your experience with past projects:
“people underestimate the time it will take to complete a future task, despite knowledge that previous tasks have generally taken longer than planned” (Buehler, Griffin, & Peetz, 2010).
Bizarrely, psychologists Buehler, Griffin and Ross (1991) found that “Although aware that most of their previous predictions were overly optimistic, they believe that their current forecasts are realistic. It seems that people can know the past and yet still be doomed to repeat it” (Buehler, Griffin, & Ross, 1994).
Why does this happen?
Buehler, Griffin, and Ross confirmed three reasons for this contradiction:
1. People underestimate their own but not others’ completion times.
2. People focus on plan-based scenarios rather than on relevant past experiences while generating their predictions.
3. People’s attributions diminish the relevance of past experiences.
The third point about attribution is the most devious.
Attribution means we dismiss past experiences as uniquely circumstantial:
“For example, an optimistic academic may attribute her or his inability to complete past weekend tasks to visits by her or his in-laws. Thus, the academic may generalize the previous failures only to weekends when that external and specific factor is present. Knowing that the in-laws are away this weekend, the academic may suppose that she or he can readily attain her or his objectives” (Buehler, Griffin, and Ross).
Have you ever tried to overcome your optimism bias by looking at a past project timeline? Attribution means you dismiss past experiences due to particular circumstances. You believe past experiences were unique and that new experiences are similarly unique.
I witness task confusion frequently.
You need to finish a paper by X deadline (self-imposed other otherwise).
You can envision the final project. You can also envision daily tasks, such as writing 500 words a day.
So what’s the problem?
You haven’t written the tasks to move from writing 500 words to the finished product. As a result, you spin your wheels. Anxiety sets in and you flail about, desperately trying to craft a paper before the deadline. After you finish, exhausted from stress and overwork, you promise you’ll never do that again.
But you do.
Because you didn’t plan writing tasks. Planning time is rarely a waste.
Emotional hurdles are many, but most fall into one of two categories.
The first is external and driven by research topic. For example, writing about racism, oppression, heterosexism, ableism, and similar heavy subjects can take a toll, both in terms of primary trauma (if you’ve experienced what you’re writing about) and in terms of secondary or vicarious trauma.
You underestimate how the topic will (a) take a toll on you psychically and emotionally, and (b) how it can slow your writing progress.
Writing about difficult subjects is exhausting; even if you accurately predict timeline completion, you may underestimate the time you need to decompress before you start again.
The second point is about internal resistance from specific negative experiences you’ve had related to a similar project.
For example, let’s say you published your first journal article (congrats!). But the peer review process was brutal. Reviewer #2 said your historical method demonstrated a wanton disregard for methodological rigor.
You’ve planned out your next article. There is a small section on historical method. But you underestimate how long it will take to complete the historical method section. Why?
Because your inner critic yells at you.
Your inner critic is loud because she has evidence of your past failure. Your inner critic wants to keep you safe and comfortable, so she screams when you arrive at the historical method section.
If you combine emotional hurdles, optimism bias, and task confusion, you’ve got a recipe for supreme frustration!
Solutions to Cognitive Bias, Task Confusion, and Emotional Hurdles
1. Cognitive Bias: Reference Class Forecasting
Reference class forecasting (Kahneman) helps overcome optimism bias and the planning fallacy.
Reference class refers to planning based on similar past projects.
For example, if you’ve published five journal articles, look back at how long these pieces took from inception to publication.
Kahneman and Tversky called the “outside view,” based on “information from a class of similar projects.”
The “inside view,” however, is how most of us plan projects: “focus on the project itself and its details, to bring to bear what one knows about it, paying special attention to its unique or unusual features, trying to predict the events that will influence its future.”
The inside view gets us into hot water. We’re so wrapped up in the uniqueness of this new project and our “new” circumstances, we forget we had the same thought about the past five articles.
Here’s how to take the outside view:
1. Examine past projects. If you cannot remember the timeline, search your inbox for starting and finishing dates.
2. If you can’t find the dates, recall how long specific, repetitive tasks took you, such as writing an introduction or researching and writing a literature review.
3. If this fails, ask a friend or writing coach to help you plan out your next timeline. Select a friend who has watched you work on projects. They will balance your optimism.
2. Cognitive Bias: The Pi Rule
Let’s say you’re determined to face optimism bias. But you’ve started an entirely new type of project, like a book. You don’t have comparable past experience.
What do you do?
Turn to the Pi rule, used in project management for difficult management scenarios. For those of us who don’t remember high-school math, Pi is 3.14159. Let’s round down to 3.
The rule is you estimate how long a task will take and then multiply it by 3. Do you believe you’ll finish your book in a year? Multiply it by three: three years. Ouch. Sometimes when I use the Pi Rule, I’m so horrified that I return to my original prediction. Guess what? I’m wrong almost 90% of the time.
If the Pi rule pushes you beyond your limit, then consider doubling your timeline, which will still be more reasonable than your own estimate.
3. Task Confusion: Hunks, Chunks, and Bites
The hunks, chunks, and bites method (see Meggin McIntosh) comes from the saying, “How do you eat an elephant?” (please don’t!)
Answer: “One bite at a time.”
Once you’ve identified the elephant — your project — you identify project hunks. Hunks could be finishing the literature review section, for example.
Chunks would be things such as “researching white supremacy culture.”
A bite is a task you can complete in one sitting. For example, “find 10 peer-reviewed articles on white supremacy culture.” Notice it is a SMART goal: I know exactly what to do and how long it will take.
Identifying mid-level tasks (chunks) is the most difficult part of the process. That’s because we can visualize the whole project and the small tasks, but not the mushy middle.
4. Emotional Hurdles: Inner Work
Here are suggestions to move past emotional hurdles.
My friend and colleague has an excellent suggestion for writing about disturbing topics: batch your writing days. Instead of daily writing, plan out two longer blocks a week. You can be fully immersed, but it need not bring heavy energy into your other working days. If you want to keep daily momentum, then choose administrative writing tasks for those other days.
For the negative experience scenario that will be replicated in your new project, use Tara Mohr’s inner critic tools, the most powerful of which is to recognize your inner critic is not you.
But how can you stop your inner critic from derailing your timeline? Start the heavy task first (see eat the frog). Then it won’t hang over you during the rest of your project. Build accompaniment supports by working with a friend during this difficult phase. Plan a treat as soon as you finish, regardless of what you accomplish.
I hope you’re as relieved as I was when I discovered the reasons we struggle with accurate timelines. I had considered it my personal failing; if I just tried enough, I’d finally, magically make it happen.
Regardless of how accurate your next timeline is, remind yourself of Maya Angelou’s wisdom:
I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.
. . .
Dr. Rose Ernst is an academic editor and consultant who supports scholars in sharing their brilliance with the world. Find her at roseernst.net.
This post was previously published on The Writing Cooperative and is republished here with permission from the author.
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