Be very careful with your assumptions about the complexity level of future tasks. Especially other people’s tasks.

Being able to accurately predict how simple or complex a task will be in advance is an incredible skill. It’s difficult to master and few people have it, though most think they do. The fact that most people think this skill is simple, when it isn’t, is actually about everything you need to tell you how complex this skill really is.

Many people overcompensate by just assuming everything will be ten times harder, take ten times longer, or cost ten times as much juice as they initially assume. That’s safer, but “safe” isn’t the goal. The goal is “accurate.”

This is a really helpful skill not only for your own time management, but because a huge percentage of our interactions with other people involves asking them for stuff. Accurately predicting the costs of the favors we ask and the tasks we assign goes a long way towards keeping those relationships healthy and getting the stuff you want.

A co-worker was looking for some ideas today on a project, and I offered an idea that I thought would be simple to implement and have a big impact. Unfortunately, the subject was pretty far out of my wheelhouse and my co-worker (very kindly!) informed me that implementing this idea would require entirely rebuilding our website. So, uhh… yeah.

Of course, there’s no bad ideas in brainstorming, so I definitely don’t regret offering up the suggestion (and in true brainstorming fashion, someone else took the idea, turned it into another idea, and off we went). But the point remains that you can think something will be very simple and it turns out that it’s wildly complicated.

The reverse can also be true. You might think something will be wildly complicated, but it turns out it was pretty low-cost. This is the heart of a lot of procrastination – you put off a task because you think it will cost a lot of juice, but if you had been accurately able to predict its simplicity, your negative emotions about it would have been lessened and it would have been done already.

I don’t necessarily have a magic method to get better at predicting something’s cost in juice, either for yourself or someone else. But I can give a few tips.

One, ask. Especially if other people are involved, ask them what they think the cost will be. Trust their answers as being honest, even if they also might be wrong. If you don’t like the answer, don’t disagree with it – find out what you can do to change it. If your mechanic tells you that your car will take 2 days and $1500 to fix, they’re probably right, but even if they aren’t, arguing won’t help. Instead, ask what you can do in the future to take better care of your car.

Two, be honest with yourself when you’re wrong. You took on a project thinking it would take a day, and it took two weeks. Our natural inclination is to punish ourselves for the wrong thing – we think that the fault lies in our work. If only I’d been smarter, or worked harder, etc. But the reality is that it was always a two-week project, and your flaw wasn’t in your work ethic or intelligence, just in your ability to predict that. Don’t be hard on yourself for the wrong thing. Go back and look at your initial prediction, and see which things you didn’t see then. Adjust your expectations in the future.

Three, try to make your predictions visible and recorded. Don’t give yourself or others tasks that don’t have a predicted cost in time, effort, juice, what have you. Call your shot publicly and be open to feedback. Don’t say “I’ll do this project for as long as it takes,” and then when it takes a month say “I always knew it was going to take a month.” That doesn’t improve your accuracy. Giving yourself a yardstick to actually measure against is a good way to be right about more stuff.

It’s a long journey, but it’s worth it. The ability to see into the future always is.

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