How Can You Become More Realistic When Setting Your Goals?

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One of the members of the Thinking Lab mentioned that he has difficulty setting realistic goals for his major projects, because his expectations are unrealistic. I'd venture to say that most people set unrealistic goals in at least some areas.

This is a big problem. Unrealistic goals amount to wishful thinking. That doesn't help you get the job done. Worse, unrealistic goals can make you feel discouraged whenever you look at the schedule. At best, that undercuts your motivation for the project. At worst, you start avoiding looking at the schedule — and problems come up to bite you.

Why are unrealistic goals such a widespread problem?

First, it can be challenging to estimate how much time an unknown task will take. You need to start with an estimate for a similar task, then estimate the added complexity. This takes some serious thinking, just on the face of it.

Second, most people don't realize how long their past tasks have taken them. Few people track their time with any precision. When they look back to recall how long a project took, they may remember only the time spent on the most intense, interesting, creative part of the work. They won't remember the rest. So, the base estimate is low.

Third, it is common to discount the time it takes to do things you know exactly how to do. When a task is conceptually simple, it goes quickly, and that can be remembered as "a snap." But simple things still take time, and those bits of time add up.

The first time I cooked a Thanksgiving dinner, I made the mistake of making 31 separate items. Most of these items were easy — on the order of 15 minutes each, such as gravy or special cranberry sauce. But added together, it was a cooking ordeal. I remember nothing from that Thanksgiving but the total number of items and how my feet throbbed when I sat down at the table! I could not enjoy the company, or the meal, because I had been cooking nonstop during all my "free" time for the last three days.

What can you do about it? You need to get better at predicting the future. You need to automatize knowledge about how long tasks take. This isn't information you can learn from a book. It is too specific to your circumstances.

To develop the skill of predicting task times, first you need to track your time. The easiest way I know of to track your time is The Pomodoro Technique by Francesco Cirillo. But whatever method you use, you need to do it regularly so that you have objective data about how long it takes you to do specific tasks.

Once you have tracking down, you need to discipline yourself to estimate how long the day's tasks will take, and then compare the estimates with what really happens on a regular basis. There is no other way to get the feedback you need to make more realistic estimates.

I warn you, making time estimates is both challenging and unpleasant. It's challenging, because you need to discipline yourself to make a list of tasks in the morning, and check back later. It's unpleasant, because your estimates will often be wrong.

You will regularly come face to face with your own mistakes and ignorance. When you discover your time estimate was wrong, or you were clueless about how the day would unfold, it's critical to keep a positive, curious attitude. You have just gotten critically important feedback. Don't let yourself characterize this as failure! You have deliberately chosen to have this learning experience, because you know it's necessary education for your future success. You are on a mission to gather this exact data, so that you can learn to predict times more accurately in the future.

Remember, the whole reason to get better at time estimation is to ensure that you have time to do the important stuff. Getting clearer on your priorities will help you learn to estimate time better, too.

The clearer you are on what's important, the more motivated you are to ferret out the little time drains that are keeping you from doing it. For example, after writing this newsletter for many years, I finally recognized that it takes at least 15 minutes to format the thing after it's written, and several more minutes to test and initiate the email automation system. By delegating that routine task to an assistant, I save at least 17 hours a year for more interesting endeavors.

Plus, the clearer you are on what's important, the better you are at getting the important stuff done first. This makes you feel satisfied when you see what got done versus what didn't. Even though some things didn't get done, the most important stuff did get done. In contrast, if everything is equally important in your mind, every undone task is a reproach. You will never feel satisfied.

There is no formula to help you set realistic goals. But if you get better at tracking your time, embracing new information about how long tasks take, and setting your priorities, you'll build up a storehouse of knowledge that will help you set more realistic goals.

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