Why do things always take longer than we think? What can we do about it?

Things take longer than we guess because we focus on our plans and not on those things that have commonly caused problems with meeting deadlines in the past.

This study showed that imagining yourself in the third person when planning (like watching yourself in a movie) made people think more about common obstacles and made time predictions more accurate.

People typically underestimate the time necessary to complete their tasks. According to the planning fallacy model of optimistic time predictions, this underestimation occurs because people focus on developing a specific plan for the current task and neglect the implications of past failures to meet similar deadlines. We extend the classic planning fallacy model by proposing that a phenomenal quality of mental imagery – the visual perspective that is adopted – may moderate the optimistic prediction bias. Consistent with this proposal, participants in four studies predicted longer completion times, and thus were less prone to bias, when they imagined an upcoming task from the third-person rather than first-person perspective. Third-person imagery reduced people’s focus on optimistic plans, increased their focus on potential obstacles, and decreased the impact of task-relevant motives on prediction. The findings suggest that third-person imagery helps individuals generate more realistic predictions by reducing cognitive and motivational processes that typically contribute to bias.

Source: “Perspectives on prediction: Does third-person imagery improve task completion estimates?” from Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes

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