Productivity and GTD

The Planning Fallacy and GTD

AUTHOR: Francisco Sáez

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Are you one of those people who estimate the time that it will take to complete each task, in order to know how many things you will get done at the end of the day, week or month? If so, how often do you check off all the tasks in your to-do list, at the end of the period? If you’re like almost people, the answer is “rarely”.

The planning fallacy is a phenomenon introduced in 1979 by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, and one of the most universally studied cognitive biases. It basically means that we are too optimistic in estimating how long we need to finish doing something. Inaccurate estimates in the completion of tasks and projects are important, because they have economic, social and personal costs.

This phenomenon only takes place with tasks that we have to do. If someone asks us to estimate tasks that others have to do, we tend to do the exact opposite: we believe that it will take more than they really should take.

Another curious thing about this phenomenon is that it happens even with tasks that we have already performed before and tasks with similar nature with the ones we have experienced before. Not even then do we hit. And not only do we underestimate the time but also the economical cost and risks associated with the task or project. There are a number of large projects that have failed throughout the world due to the planning fallacy.

Overall, we are very bad planners and there are a few possible explanations for this:

  • When planning, we tend to focus on the most optimistic scenario, in which no incidents happen.
  • Wishful thinking makes us prefer to imagine the result that we want to obtain, instead of using rationality in our estimates.
  • We tend to interpret our past performance with similar projects in a very biased way, where we blame external elements for any deviation.
  • In working groups, the need to impress others can influence.
  • We may also unconsciously try to minimize the cost of the project to get it approved more easily by our boss, our spouse or by ourselves.

In terms of personal productivity, this concept explains why organizing yourself with simple to-do lists is so frustrating. No matter how experienced you are, no matter how many years have you being compiling a daily to-do list, at the end of the day, there are always tasks to be done.

Every day new information, new problems, new challenges and opportunities appear so that plans and priorities are constantly changing. We need modern management methods that allow us to react to the changes. GTD is a methodology that knows this problem well, so it doesn’t put special emphasis on defining priorities, milestones and deadlines.

With GTD you define the next actions of each project, you don’t do planning for the next year. As you go completing actions, you’re adding new next actions to make the project progress.

This doesn’t mean that planning is useless but, since plans end up being guesses rather, it’s better not to hold on to them. Planning is a mental process that helps to envision the future and anticipate things, and that’s important, but we must be more flexible. In the end, any plan must be subordinated to the current circumstances and situation.

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