Once upon a time, okay nearly half a lifetime ago, I worked for PC World Magazine as the administrative assistant to a senior executive.

Although we were not on the content-related side of the publication, my boss had an valuable and very eerie talent: By looking at a mock-up of a cover, she could determine within a 1,000 copies how well that issue would sell on newsstands. The art department hated her. They wanted to do new and creative work, and she would give that a low number, and more traditional formats usually scored higher. For the most part they listened to her. On the few instances they didn’t, they regretted it because she was ALWAYS right. At the time, I didn’t understand just how rare this kind of talent could be – how many variables were involved with the seasonality of newsstand readers and their ever changing tastes.

I gained a much greater appreciation for her ability when I listened to 37 Signals‘ book Rework, in which they bring up studies showing how bad humans are at estimating. As a whole we substantially underestimate the amount of time any given project will take.

My brain, of course, has to be contrary. I normally overestimate how long things will take. In my head, it takes a half hour to get anywhere in my fair city. Part of it is my fear of being late, but most of it is being a bad judge of time, which I guess still supports their theory!

All this reminds me of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “Relics”, where Scotty from the original series appears. He and Geordi have a conversation sparked by Piccard asking for an estimate of how long a project will take. Scotty asks how long the job will really take, and Geordi proclaims that he told Picard the correct amount of time. “Oh, laddie,” say Scotty, “You’ve got a lot to learn if you want people to think of you as a miracle worker!”

Relics Poster

Are you more likely to overestimate or underestimate the amount of time things take? or Have you ever deliberately overestimated how long something would take so you could look like a miracle worker?

6 thoughts on “Estimating”

    1. I hate that feeling of being late … and also when my perceptions don’t mesh with reality. What I think is worse is when I plan even extra time, and I still end up being late. Those days I swear the universe is out to get me.


  1. You know what’s weird about this? Whether I overestimate or underestimate a task depends on what task I’m doing. For instance, if I’m writing, I’ll usually overestimate how much I can get done in a given time frame. I guess I just get carried away with all the words I can put down. But when it comes to some physical labor, I’m usually pretty good at estimating the time involved. Although I wonder if that’s because I work out at the gym a lot and I’m always watching the clock to see how long I’ve been there. Maybe that affects my ability to calculate how long I can do manual work. Oh well, at least I can rest assured I’m good at crunching the numbers for time in one category.


  2. I’m with Steve on this – if it’s something I get wrapped up in and enjoy – I think I can do what i need to do in less time than I actually take – and yes, if it’s somewhere I have to be – I overestimate – because I hate that feeling of being late. Hate it. Time, I swear, is fickle – slows down or speeds up on a whim.


    1. I’m glad I’m not the only one where time goes all wonky and inconsistent!

      That sinking feeling of knowing you are going to be late is the worst! I hate that, too, with a vengeance!


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