If someone were to ask you, “How long does it take to make a sandwich?” What would your answer be? 2 minutes, 5 minutes, maybe 10, depending on what you’re making. Trying to answer this simple question highlights the surprising complexity of the planning fallacy. You can view this cognitive bias as either the human tendency to underestimate how long it takes to do something or the optimistic belief that you will get things done better and faster than you (or others) have done historically.
To illustrate, I asked my wife, who makes a salmon-lox slider for our son’s school lunch each morning, how long it takes to create one. Her answer: about 2 minutes. Armed with that data, I went into the kitchen the next day and timed myself. After all, 2 minutes doesn’t sound wildly unreasonable. It’s not rocket science. How long can it take? It would be a simple test of how real is the planning fallacy.
So, I went into the kitchen and set a two-minute timer. I grabbed my wife’s preferred prep plate, a clean butter knife, and a roll, which I neatly split in half. My next stop was the fridge, where I grabbed the cream cheese container and a fresh package of smoked salmon. Unfortunately, the cream cheese was nearly gone, so I had to hunt for the new one I had recently bought. It took some time, but I found it, removed the seal, and generously spread the cream cheese on the roll. Then, I tackled the new package of smoked salmon, which took a moment to open due to its seal. Layering the salmon on the roll, I finished my task — total time: 3 minutes and 51 seconds. Almost double the original prediction.
This experience shows that the planning fallacy is alive and kicking. While it’s true that getting a new container and opening a new package are not parts of the typical workflow, they highlight that you hit the occasional road bump even for routine operations.
And that for what seems simple, may be deceptively so.
To illustrate, if you google the times it takes to make a sandwich, you will find it spans a huge variance. It can go from 40 seconds (World’s record) to 10 minutes (grilled cheese) to 6 hours (pulled pork). So, even estimating the time for a straightforward request depends on a lot of factors you might not even think about until you start doing the work:
- What do you want? Take pasta. Is it simple, like spaghetti, or something fancy, like lasagna?
- What ingredients are on hand? Is it in the pantry/fridge, or do you have to order from a truffle farmer in France?
- What’s available? Is everything prepped and ready to go, or do you have to triple-rinse, slice/dice/puree the ingredients?
A key challenge in project management or pursuing any goal is estimating how long it takes to do a task. After all, without this information, it’s hard to set deadlines and plan schedules. And on a motivational note, it can get depressing when you feel you’re being slow when it’s actually your unrealistic expectations for progress. Yet, one of the “curses of the planning fallacy” is while you know the fallacy is omnipresent, it is behaving like it doesn’t. History says your estimates will fall short, but you feel this time will be different than all the previous ones.
Yet one field that seems to do a pretty good job managing the planning fallacy is cooking. And that’s because it has tight deadlines and food is perishable. You can’t afford to be inefficient, or you will immediately experience negative consequences. As a result, it’s a good proxy for pursuing time-sensitive important goals or projects.
Imagine you’re planning a dinner party for 10 guests. This event has all the elements associated with a project:
- You have a deadline. You don’t want your guests to wait 3 hours for a meal.
- You have a goal. You want to create a positive dining experience for all.
- You have stakeholders. You don’t want unhappy people.
- You need to gather, prepare, and transform resources. Even raw entrees, like sashimi or oysters, need some prep work.
- You have a lot of moving parts. You’re probably making several dishes, not just one, or if there is a signature dish, a lot of coordination to pull that off.
- You need to be adaptable on the off-chance something goes wrong. If you can’t serve folks what you had hoped for, then you’re still on the hook to serve them an alternative.
As you can see, the culinary world has many of the same challenges as running a project or chasing after a goal. While some may argue that cooking has the advantage of using recipes as well-defined workflows, many aspects are generic to all goal pursuits: estimating time, getting things ready, working with minimal friction, and contingency planning. These lessons can apply to all projects.
The good news is we can leverage the best practices of the culinary arts to ensure that we reach our goals on time.
Making the Meal Isn’t Just About Cooking Time. Account for the Steps
How long? This seemingly simple question is laden with assumptions. Understanding that many different “times” exist is critical to getting this right. When we think of time, we focus on how long it takes to perform the essential action (task duration) and forget that they often have prep and follow-on steps. This means the total time to make a meal is more than just the cooking time. You need to cover everything from start to finish, and that’s the one you need to estimate.
Consider a scenario where you’re short on time but craving something delicious. Pan-searing a steak seems quick, but this overlooks any marinade (if you have low-quality meat) or defrosting time (if your only steak is frozen). In other words, you might be better off making a ham sandwich.
Effective task management considers all the steps to start, perform, and wrap up the action. It’s essential to consider the total ‘out-of-pocket’ time required.
Recipes serve as excellent planning proxies. They list times for each step, including both upstream and downstream tasks. A quick scan of cookbooks shows that as many as 10 other “times” cooks must consider beyond the common preparation and cooking time, such as rise, thawing, rest, marinade, soaking, preheat, etc.
While you don’t need to be aware of all these “time types,” you must expand your focus beyond the significant actions. Anything that connects to those activities has to be accounted for and estimated. Think of it when you go shopping. When you look at an item’s price tag, that’s the base cost – task duration – but what you pay out-of-pocket often includes sales tax. You can’t avoid it.
Once you account for all those steps, there are three methods for time estimation. The first uses others’ experiences as a baseline for your planning. Ideally, they will give you the total times, which is what you want— so verify whether the numbers they cite are total or task duration times. Most folks remember duration times, so you may have to add a fudge factor of 20-30% on top of those numbers to account for missing steps.
The second approach is simply going through the rigorous process of unpacking your workflow, calling out the upstream and downstream events around your main tasks, estimating each separately, and tallying them into a total [O3: . This way is quite laborious but can be invaluable for future projects if you keep a time log so you have more relevant data.
The final method uses a project management formula for expected completion time (ET). It averages the most optimistic (O) along with four times the most likely (M) and the worst-case (P) time estimates. This formula balances across the 3 possible scenarios. As such, it’s an attempt at making the most of what limited data you might have to make predictions.
ET = (O+4M+P)/6
As with all estimates, it’s good to put some buffer for flexibility if things don’t move precisely on schedule.
The goal is not pinpoint accuracy but getting a realistic feel for how long things might take to manage progress expectations and have a reasonable schedule.
Prep Your “Kitchen”/Workspace Before You Start
Imagine waiting at a restaurant because the kitchen ran out of stock, delaying your meal by 30 minutes. Or, during a romantic dinner, your entrée arrives early, and as you wait for your date’s dish, it gets cold. Such scenarios underscore the consequences of poor scheduling.
In cooking, time management is crucial. The food’s taste, texture, and safety depend on precise timing. If you get this wrong, you immediately see the negative consequences of bad planning.
As a result, chefs focus on ensuring all the stuff you need to complete your work is available and prepared. Before starting, double-check the readiness of all essentials: resources (ingredients), tools (cooking ware), and workflows (recipes). Ensure everything aligns with your plan and is ready to go. If not, adjust your schedule to include additional preparation and transition times.
Remember, you start a falling chain of dominoes once you start cooking. Stopping because something is not ready can cause cascading effects. You don’t want to stop grilling your fish because you found out your spinach got moldy, and you need to run to the supermarket.
The same is true for projects. Your time is often short and valuable. When executing, spend your limited energy creating value, not addressing shortcomings.
Note: while inspecting your fundamentals up close is ideal, a cursory evaluation is better than nothing, as it can help you catch the significant red flags before you start.
Don’t Stop and Go, but Flow
In a busy restaurant kitchen, you often see extremes: frantic chaos and periods of waiting. This environment mirrors how work can oscillate between intense activity and downtime. Unfortunately, if you’re not careful, this pace means you can experience the rollercoaster ride of stress as you alternate between these 2 stages. If you’re not prepared, you will experience a lot of stop-and-go when what you want is flow.
Achieving flow means smoothly transitioning between tasks with minimal distraction. It’s about efficiency in both thought and action, creating focused execution.
While flow is more effortless in linear tasks, many activities, like cooking, involve nonlinear processes with multiple simultaneous steps. You have splits in the workflow, requiring you to divide your efforts into parallel directions. For example, you need to marinate the meat and season the vegetables. Or you have to reuse tools (e.g., frying pan) or revisit steps (e.g., check on the meat on the grill).
All of these issues present both a curse and an opportunity. It’s a curse because you now have several balls you have to juggle. It’s a benefit because if you know how to leverage that chaos, you use the momentum to push things ahead and create quieter periods to catch your breath. The trick is to know when you can stage your actions to maximize chances for flow.
To achieve the above, mentally map out your tasks. Identify which are sequential, parallel, can be batched, or are dependent. Once categorized, identify opportunities for synergy.
To illustrate, consider the case of going to the supermarket with your shopping list. For most folks, you create that list when you’re about to prep for cooking and find things missing. It is a prioritization based on “what.” The work equivalent would be what product features the customers ask for.
But if you’re short on time, that prioritized list isn’t going to help you be efficient in the store. You need to think about the “how” to do the what. Rearrange items by aisle location to maximize your flow, eliminating any back-and-forth trips across the store. In addition, as you go down the aisle, consider what else to pick up since you’re already there. You want to leverage that time and space. For instance, your list has sugar, but seeing the salt next to it may have triggered a recall that you’re also low on salt. So, you might as well grab it even though your recipe doesn’t call for it.
The work analogy is what action, if you do now, eliminates future tasks or makes other tasks easier so you save time overall. Clients don’t care how you do the work if they get what they asked for. So, create the order that makes your life easier.
To illustrate the last point, in work, a common event is waiting for someone to respond before you can move forward because your next step depends on their action. Since you know that in advance and also recognize it might take them time to get back to you, send the email earlier in the day. As you wait, advance on other activities that don’t depend on that reply.
You also want to note what actions need immediate follow-up versus ones that aren’t time-sensitive. If possible, you want to put in some slow steps between the intense ones, allowing you to build some cushion should things fall behind.
Ideally, you want your work to flow, and you can’t do that if you constantly have to stop and go because you have to wait or get diverted. And remember to take any action that reduces the need for future activities.
In the Kitchen and Work: Always Have a Recipe for Plan B.
Even meticulous planning isn’t immune to the unexpected. Unforeseen disruptions often arise, necessitating a well-thought-out Plan B or contingency planning. But you need to think about this before things go sideways.
The 2 common scenarios where things go astray are: 1) something happens to your “ingredients” (stuff you have to work on) or 2) your workflow gets compromised. If you’ve done the prep and mental walkthrough, you’ve reduced but not eliminated risk. And that’s all done before you get started. These scenarios are when you actually begin the work, and things don’t go according to plan.
In the first case, explore suitable substitutes if essential resources are unavailable. By thinking ahead of time, this reduces the tendency to panic.
If there are no alternatives, then your choices are limited. You may have to consider modifying the menu/goal with what is available and see if that is acceptable. Recall this is thinking about possibilities, not acting on them.
A great example of how chefs improvise can be seen in cooking shows like Iron Chef, where they have to work with unexpected and unusual ingredients.
The second scenario of an impacted workflow is more complicated. Imagine you want to serve baked chicken. But your oven broke down. Short of finding another one, you might consider alternative devices, like using an air fryer or rotisserie. Or you may have to adjust your cooking strategy altogether, like pan-searing or grilling the chicken.
Again, you need to ponder what other processes could stand in. You don’t need to set them up, but just know what steps need to happen for Plan B. It gets activated only when things go wrong, which hopefully is rare.
Regardless of which scenario happens, in either case, you will have to manage expectations for any stakeholders involved since changes had to be made.
A key element to remember when you do this type of contingency planning is not to go overboard. You don’t want to go into analysis paralysis or enter a doom loop by imagining everything that can go wrong. Be selective and timebox this activity as well. Use past experiences to identify potential hotspots. Focus on steps within your control and account for those influenced by external factors. This approach helps you develop a feasible Plan B while minimizing panic.
The point is you want to think about Plan B when you’re calm and not make it up on the fly while you’re in the thick of it.
Summary of Takeaways
Going after your dreams, goals, or desires takes a lot of work and resources. Knowing this, some try to plan and schedule things to maximize progress. Yet despite our best efforts, things stall because of the planning fallacy – the human tendency to underestimate how long work takes or to imagine that our progress will be better and faster than it actually is.
While this fallacy plagues many areas, one field that seems to have a great handle on it comes from the kitchen. In cooking, you get immediate feedback on what poor planning looks like. As a result, the culinary arts know the importance of effectively and efficiently using your time. They have developed tactics to develop realistic plans and schedules to reduce uncertainty and chaos.
As shown in this article, there are 4 takeaways you can take from the kitchen to apply to your goal pursuit:
- Realize not all time is the same when planning: completion time isn’t the same as task duration. Most of your significant actions will have preparation and follow-up components that precede and follow your work. If it’s unavoidable, it’s part of your out-of-pocket cost, and you have to spend it whether you like it or not. That’s your completion time. It’s what you should estimate in your plans and schedules, not just how long it takes to do the critical task. If you are mindful of that, you avoid the basic time estimation mistake.
- Prep your kitchen/work environment before you start. You want to invest your energy in creating value, not getting ready to create value. Don’t just assume, validate the readiness of all essential ingredients, tools, and workflows. Make sure that everything you need is ready to go so that when you start, you concentrate on execution.
- Don’t stop and go, but flow when you’re working. When planning and scheduling, look for opportunities to maximize energy usage or minimize waste. Recall that things don’t always have to go in a linear order. See if there are steps you can do in parallel to reduce wait times or eliminate other later tasks, and remember, especially when interacting with others, they don’t move at the speed you do, so you need to account for their lag.
- Think about Plan B before you need it. Try as you might, things go wrong. Look at what has historically gone awry. Don’t go into analysis paralysis and try to consider everything that can go wrong, but focus on a select few events where they did. If you did the earlier takeaways, you’ve already reduced the risk. The point here is buying insurance. Create a contingency plan around those “likely” problematic elements. The harsh reality is that when circumstances demand you need Plan B, that is the worst time to create it on the fly. Plan it in advance when you have calm.
By employing these 4 tactics, your odds of success increase dramatically by reducing friction points and mitigating risk.
Part of the inspiration for this post came from reading Everything In Its Place by Dan Charnas. Hat tip to Tiago Forte, who mentioned this book as an interesting take on productivity. To learn more about the book, go to this link to read my book review.
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