meetings_timeIt can turn the most powerful person into a bunny rabbit in the headlights…

It is the harbinger of doom…

It is the question…

How soon can you get this done?


Your answer to that question affects your credibility.  If you underestimate, you are a slacker.  If you overestimate, you are a liar.  However, accurate estimates are just plain hard.  How can you know what fires will be burning tomorrow?  How do you know when someone will poke their head in your door and then all your priorities are thrown to the wind?


When work is unpredictable, all you can do is the best that you can to accurately estimate a turnaround time.  What does “the best” look like?  Four suggestions follow.


Four Ways to Estimate Turnaround Times


  1. Look at your calendar and task list

I’ll start with the most obvious.  The best way to give an honest estimate of how long a task will take is by seeing when you can realistically fit it in.  That’s why “Let me check my calendar and get back with you by close of business today” is a perfectly wonderful answer to “When can you get this done?”


  1. Track your typical turnaround times

This does not have to involve a stopwatch or a scientific research study.  For two to three weeks, track the requests you receive and how long it took you to complete them.  This can be done in a spreadsheet or paper notebook.  The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.  Know your numbers.


  1. Use the Montgomery Scott approach

In Star Trek 3, Scotty reveals to Captain Kirk that he is known as the Miracle Worker because he routinely multiplies his time estimates by a factor of four.  It may sound ridiculous, but some programmers and engineers can attest to the validity of the approach.


  1. Calculate a Weighted Average

For important projects, a great way to estimate time to complete is to consider the following:

  • The most optimistic turnaround time
  • The most likely turnaround time
  • The most pessimistic turnaround time


Then, you calculate a weighted average of these three numbers:

O + (4L) + P


Here’s a recent example of a report that I needed to write and deliver to a client:

  • Optimistic estimate = 3 days
  • Likely estimate = 6 days
  • Pessimistic estimate = 12 days

3 + (4 x 6) + 12 / 6 = 6.5 days


While my instincts are to tell my clients the most likely estimate, the weighted average technique reminds me to allow a little extra time.


All four techniques above necessitate some organization and ability to manage your tasks.  If you are struggling there, I can help.  Contact me for an initial assessment at my expense.


Final thought:  If you know that you are going to miss a promised deadline, come clean about it.  Notify the requester that, despite your best efforts, you will need more time.  Most people understand because they experience it themselves.  Learn from the experience and estimate better next time.


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Dr. Melissa GratiasMelissa Gratias (pronounced “Gracious”) used to think that productivity was a result of working long hours. And, she worked a lot of hours. Then, she learned that productivity is a skill set, not a personality trait. Now, Melissa is a productivity expert who coaches and trains other businesspeople to be more focused, balanced, and effective. She is a prolific writer and speaker who travels the world helping people change how they work and improve how they live. Contact her at or 912-417-2505. Sign up to receive her productivity tips via email.