Work And Effort: Not Always By The Numbers

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.comĀ and Steve’s Tumblr)

Latley I was feeling overloaded but couldn’t figure out how much. Turns out it was mostly in my own head.

Now I’ve been through a move, changes at work, and more. So the last two months my own workload estimates have been a tad off, all things considered. Now that I’m back at it, I decided it was time to get a handle on my work and my life. This included:

  • Making sure I tracked other time-consuming activities, like me workouts.
  • Getting back to my projects.
  • Recovering from the move.

So, I looked at my plans for March . . . and felt overloaded. Why was that, because in my head it made sense. Not much changed. Hell, I wasn’t moving at least.

Something didn’t feel right. You know that feeling of Really Not Right, and I couldn’t place it. Nothing came to mind, so I began to play with my schedule, looking at time taken, past work. Suddenly, something became very clear – an error you may have made in your own personal plans.

What I found was that I had overestimated the amount of work ahead of me, and that made me feel overloaded.

Normally, I’m for a little overestimation, just to be safe. But past a certain point, overestimation becomes not a buffer, but a source of confusion. Your gut, your mind, and your estimates can’t figure out how long things take or where time is going. That’s where I was.

  • I wanted to track more of my regular activities, making sure I accounted for them and didn’t get overloaded. I made sure to pad them a bit – which may matter little on one or two tasks. But when you’re talking things like cooking or working out that you do a lot, then padding adds up pretty fast.
  • I wanted to get back to my projects. Which of course I now was cautious about, so I overestimated a few of those. Which wouldn’t be as bad except I always juggle 2-4 projects.
  • Finally, I wanted to “catch up” on anything that got behind from my move, and of course, overloaded myself on top of some over-estimation.

Yes, in my effort to be Thinking Ahead and Develop A Good Backlog, I ended up overestimating so much out of caution I confused myself. So, uh don’t do that.

I also found I had to modify one of my estimating techniques. Check this out, it may help you.

Fibonacci Revised

As I mentioend in my Personal Agile, I estimate the time things take in hours using Fibonacci numbers – 1,2,3,5,8,13. This is common in abstract estimating as people are bad at determining small differences in large things – it’s easy to know if something is 2 or 3 hours, harder to know if it’s 4 or 5 hours, and real hard to tell if something is 25 or 26 hours. So Fibonacci estimating uses numbers with increasingly large gaps to force you to A) use certain numbers to avoid fiddling in the middle, with the side effect of B) By the time you’re tackling something so large maybe you should break it the hell down.

Now on the high level (beyond 3 hours) this helped me. But, I had lost control of detail on the lower end.

I didn’t differentiate between a 30 minute task an an hour. Or a 90 minute task and 2 hours. As I break stuff down pretty finely, I had overestimated work in many cases – and as noted as I also track many repetitive tasks, this balooned my estimated workload.

So now my “Modified Fibbonachi sequence” is .5, 1, 1.5, 2,3,5,8, 13. I give myself a bit of leeway on the low end.

I’ve wondered if in time I’ll learn enough I won’t need any kind of sequence as a crutch. I suppose I’ll find out – and share it with you.


So some takeaway lessons:

  • If your sense of what you can do and the time you’ll think it’ll take don’t “feel” right that’s a good warning.
  • Be careful on overestimation and adding too much buffer time to things you’re trying to get done. That causes confusion – and may squeeze out work you can do.
  • In estimating how long it takes to do things, tools like Fibonacci numbers may help on the high end, but give yourself leeway on smaller estimates.

– Steve