Light-Colored Linen, Muddy Paws, and the Planning Fallacy

September 2022

The chase was on. Prey drive was engaged. The only thing between my Boston Terrier and the frantic fly on the window was the pale-colored linen couch I had just painstakingly cleaned. Beans missed his target but left behind his signature muddy paw prints. Before this mishap, I had allocated two hours to refurbish the second-hand couch. I researched how to care for the fabric and wooden legs, gathered the materials needed, carved out time, and then got to work while imagining how cozy it would be when completed (fresh scent, sipping a cup of tea, watching Netflix). The unexpected redo doubled the time spent on revitalizing the couch.

Reality, not impression

Whether it’s a home- or work-related project, hitting a target time or date for completion—a deadline—will very often take longer than you expect. In 1979, the planning fallacy—a cognitive bias—was proposed in a study by psychologists Daniel Kahneman (Nobel Memorial Prize winner in Economic Sciences) and Amos Tversky. The psychologists maintained that people tend to underestimate how long it will take them to get something done using the go-to impulse of intuition, judgments and educated guesswork, along with the factors that limit their accuracies, such as common biases or probabilities for uncertain events.

When pessimism is a good thing

At the root of this tendency is optimism about performance scenarios. People (even time-efficient managers) think of the best-case outcome when deadlines need to be met and not about compound probabilities. The study says, “Recent research suggests that people rely primarily on singular information [case data], even when it is scanty and unreliable, and give insufficient weight to distributional information [the knowledge about the distribution of outcomes in similar situations].” A dose of pessimism may help. Try making yourself realistically aware of all the blips that can get in the way of meeting your goal and plan accordingly.

Expect the unexpected

When my children were teens with newly minted driver’s licenses, I always advised them to expect the unexpected, but this truism applies to life in general. The more steps and stakeholders, the more time a project is likely to need to reach completion. A recent blog post by Seth Godin, businessman, author and marketer, lists many variables impacting deliverables, citing factors like “Are we depending on supplies or inputs from other people?” and “What are the incentives of the people working on the project?”

I now see the flaws in my plan to gussy up the couch in two hours. Before taking the dog for a walk on a rainy day, I should have protected the furniture with the blanket that typically drapes over it. I also should have killed the fly on the window when I had the chance.

Practice patience, and thank you for reading this.

Maureen Joyce