You Need to Scale Up Your Research Project Timeline

If you know how quickly different research projects have gone in the past and the scope of your upcoming project, you have some of the key information you need to estimate how long you’ll need to complete that next project.1

That said, you’ll probably underestimate how long your next project will take if you don’t scale that estimate up. This tendency results from

  1. inaccuracies in small samples,
  2. differences between projects, and
  3. the planning fallacy.

1. Inaccuracies in Small Samples

Especially when you’ve just begun tracking how long your projects take, the information you gather won’t be very helpful.

That’s because you’ll have such a small sample. And the smaller the sample is, the more wildly it’s likely to diverge from representing what’s “normal” for you.2

That said, you won’t ever collect a meaningful amount of information about yourself and your research habits if you never start by having a small amount. So, the fact that you have have a small amount of information isn’t a knock against your having it. It just represents a reason to scale your estimates up even more at the beginning.

2. Differences between Projects

Your current understanding of your “typical” or “average” output might be based on a body of work with a different difficulty level than you’re about to tackle.3 If that previous work was easier, your next project will probably go slower by comparison, and vice versa.

Because projects differ from each other, you can also focus on previous projects that are more similar to the one you’re about to start. By excluding projects that are less similar, you can get a better sense of how long you’ve previously spent on the kind of work you’re about to undertake.

3. The Planning Fallacy

Third, people—including you and me—often have a “tendency to underestimate how long a task will take, even when they have actually done the task before.” This error in judgment is called “the planning fallacy.”4

So, your estimate of how long a project will take is likely to be overly optimistic. That’s especially likely when you have to communicate that estimate to someone else because then social pressure enters to encourage a more optimistic estimate.5

To account for the planning fallacy, you can be mindful of when you feel social pressure urging you to set a timeline that’s too optimistic for reality.

Scale Up Your Timeline

These challenges that help us underestimate how long projects will actually take need to be borne in mind. They shouldn’t be minimized. But they can be mitigated with strategies like I’ve mentioned above.

In addition, consider scaling up your initial estimate. Projects almost always take longer than you think they will at the start. So, you can get a closer estimate by allowing yourself some extra leeway for when “life happens” or a project moves more slowly other reasons.

The question then becomes: How much should you scale up your initial estimate? Greg McKeown suggests multiplying your original estimate by 1.5 times.6

That’s a good starting point, but the larger, newer, and more complex your project is, the more opportunities there will be for delays to add up. Anecdotally, I often find a multiple of 2 times is closer to the mark by the time the dust completely settles on a project.

Conclusion

Over the course of a research project, any number of things can conspire together to make that project take longer.

The unexpected will happen. You just can’t know in advance what it will look like.

But you can do your best to reckon with small samples, differences between projects, and the planning fallacy. And you can scale up your estimate of how long a project will take to complete.

With these adjustments, your estimate still won’t be perfect. But it’ll be a lot more likely to be a lot closer. And it’ll give you a much better basis for planning how you’ll bring your project to completion.


  1. Header image provided by Illiya Vjestica

  2. Daniel Kahneman discusses this principle as the “law of small numbers” in Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011). 

  3. On not noticing these kinds of differences, see Kahneman, Thinking

  4. Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 182. 

  5. McKeown, Essentialism, 182–83. 

  6. McKeown, Essentialism, 183. 

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