“When can you have that first draft completed? “
“I will have that with you next week, it’s practically finished anyway”
MANY. WEEKS. LATER.
“I promise, definitely next week, I ran into a few problems, its nearly finished though”
Sound familiar? Perhaps you have missed your deadline because Netflix selfishly decided to air that TV series you like? Or maybe you couldn’t possibly start work on your thesis without making sure the kitchen is tidy? Or some other equally as important procrastination method. It is easy to be overly optimistic about your deadlines, to honestly believe that submitting that literature review will be a seamless and efficient process. You are, after all an academic machine. A Skynet inspired cyborg sent back from the future to write a citation classic, or to prove you can complete a PhD thesis without coffee (it’s not possible). The problem with machines, apart from the inevitable uprising, is that it is very difficult to make a machine learn from past experiences. This concept lies at the heart of the planning fallacy and may be one reason why people underestimate how long it will take them to complete a given task.
What is the planning fallacy?
In a nutshell, the planning fallacy refers to the tendency to underestimate how long it will take you to complete a given task as a result of a failure to take into account past experience. In a highly cited study published in The Journal of Personality and Social psychology, Buehler, Griffin and Ross (1994) asked participants to estimate how long it would take them to complete a variety of academic (submitting assignments) and non-academic tasks (everyday activities). The authors found support for three hypotheses. Firstly they found evidence that people underestimate their own, but not other peoples, task completion times. Secondly, that people tended to focus on ‘plan-based’ scenarios (e.g. focussing on only the steps needed to complete a task) rather than focussing on relevant past experiences (e.g. my last paper took longer than I thought) when predicting task completion times. Finally, the authors reported that people tended to diminish the importance of past experiences when making predictions about future task completion times. For example you may conclude that a failure to meet a previous deadline was the result of an external, one off cause (e.g. my parents came to visit) rather than because of an overly optimistic deadline or an internal cause (e.g. it may take you a while to read the literature).
How to overcome the planning fallacy
The paper by Buehler and colleagues is very interesting, and well worth a read, however perhaps the most interesting finding is that the planning fallacy was overcome when participants were encouraged to consider past experiences when making a task completion prediction. There are three main barriers to successfully incorporating past experiences which you should be aware of when making your predictions. 1) Making a prediction is a forward thinking action; this by its very nature can inhibit you focussing on past experiences. 2) Connecting past experiences to future task completion predictions may not be so straightforward. Even if you do try to incorporate past experiences, you may not have a clear definition of a past experience that is similar to the task at hand, to base a prediction on. Finally, 3) people diminish the relevance past experiences have to future planning, meaning previous experiences are less likely to be used in future planning. A combination of these three barriers may lead you to underestimate how long it will take you to complete your tasks. So when you are in your next supervisory meeting and the dreaded question, when can you send me a draft, is asked by your supervisor, try the following. 1) Do try to think back to your past experiences. How long did it take you to complete your last chapter? What problems did you have (and there will be problems)? 2) If you cannot think of a direct past experience, what similar experiences have you had that could inform your task completion prediction? For example, you may never have written a systematic review as such, but you may have similar experiences such as searching for papers on a particular topic or writing for a particular audience. And finally, 3) don’t diminish the importance of past experiences. They are your greatest and most accurate guide to future performance.