Avoiding the Trap of Ideal Hours

When you sit down to plan your sprint backlog or weekly to-do list, how do you estimate what you’ll need to invest to check it off the the list? The most common way would be to think about each item on in terms of how much time it would take to accomplish. Pretty easy to estimate how long it will take to send that important email, give a final polish to an article you are submitting, or plan a lesson for a course you’ve taught before. These are known activities that we have temporal references for.

But many things we do as faculty are much harder to estimate in terms of time. It doesn’t help that humans are notoriously bad at estimating how long things will take to do. This may be because we tend to think about our activities optimistically by ideal hours rather than actual hours. Yes, there is a difference.

When we think in terms of ideal hours, we estimate how long we think something will take us to do. But this is usually an optimistic guess. Maybe you think it will take you about three hours to do a last revision and polish on the article you want to submit the week before classes start. What are the odds of finding three uninterrupted hours to do that work? Especially right before the start of a semester, when syllabi need to be completed, lesson planned, meetings come out of nowhere, and students start knocking.

So, what you think will take three hours may, in actual hours, take three days of finding snatches of time here and there to cobble your three ideal hours together.

How can we more effectively estimate our tasks and activities? If you have been keeping track of your time and fastidiously set aside time for projects, you may have a good sense of what your velocity is, so estimating by time might work for you. If not, consider estimating by effort or complexity instead.

One way to do this is using t-shirt sizing. Rather than thinking about how long something takes, compare your tasks to each other in terms of effort by assigning each chunk of work a t-shirt size – a lit review might be an XL, while a final edit might be a S or even XS. We know that an XL shirt is 3-4x bigger than a S, but relatively bigger not exponentially bigger. This gives you a sense of your tasks relative to each other, so you can choose the tasks you can realistically work on in the actual time you have available.

Do you fall into the trap of thinking in ideal rather than actual hours? How do you estimate your tasks and projects? How might thinking in terms of actual rather than ideal hours impact your planning and work?

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