How long will it take to do it?

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“How long will it take to complete that project?“ I hate that question because I never know the answer. I estimate one hour and it takes three. I think I can get it done in a week and two months later I’m still working on it.

Turns out, humans aren’t good at estimating how long it takes to finish things. So I usually avoid estimating. I tell myself it will take as long as it takes and don’t think about it.

Unless there is a deadline. And then I think about it a lot and get the thing done, usually on time, thank you.

If I’m forced to estimate, and it’s not something I’ve done many times before, I usually pick a figure and then double or triple that number, to give myself extra time. But I’m still usually wrong.

Sometimes, I choose a target completion date and calendar it. But I usually ignore that date because I know it’s an artificial deadline and there is no penalty if I miss it.

It’s hard being me.

It’s better for me to schedule a “start date” and/or dates to work on the project. Short deadlines, even of my own making, work better for me. They allow me to make progress without worrying about missing a day because there’s always tomorrow.

We all have our own ways and means of working and we all seem to get things done. Sometimes because we have to, sometimes because we want to and we keep working at it until it’s done.

Instead of asking, “How long will it take?“ I think a better question is the one asked in GTD: “What’s the next action?“ We may or may not work on the project, but at least we know what to do next if we do.

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What to do when you don’t know what to do

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You’ve got a situation. A problem, something you need or want and you can’t figure out how to get it. You’re confused and frustrated and don’t know what to do.

We have a situation like this in our family right now. A close relative is ill and we’re trying to sort out the medical, legal, and financial options. It’s all been a bit overwhelming.

When you have a problem and you don’t know what to do, your feelings aren’t going to help you, you have to focus on action.

Here’s how:

1) State the goal

Where do you want this to end up? What would be a good outcome? How would you define success?

You need to know the destination before you you know what to do to reach it.

2) Write down the facts

What do you know about the current situation, and what do you need to find out?

What are the options? What can you do? What are the problems, issues, and obstacles stopping you from reaching the goal?

3) Choose the “next action”

Once you know the facts, it’s time to take action. Not just any action, however, the logical “next action,” in Getting Things Done terms, meaning something you can do to move the situation forward.

If you’re having trouble getting started, choose something small and easy to do:

Write down a list of questions. Make a call. Do some research.

Once you’ve done that, ask again: “What’d the next action?”

And do that.

If the next action is too big, break it down into smaller steps and find one you can do.

If you have several next action candidates and don’t know which one to choose, your next action might be to talk to someone or to weigh the pros and cons of each option so you can decide which one to choose.

We did this with our family situation and while it’s been a bumpy ride, we’ve moved forward from a place of not knowing what to do to knowing what to do (next).

And we know that if we continue asking, “What’s the next action?” and doing it, we’ll get through this difficult situation and eventually reach our goal.

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