In his book The Art of Thinking Clearly
, author and entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli writes that if you’re like many people, you create a to-do list every morning.
But how often is it that everything is checked off by the end of the day?
Every other day? Perhaps once a week?
As Dobelli puts it, most people reach this rare state of achievement just once a month.
The problem is that our plans are often “absurdly ambitious” – we systematically take on more than we can handle. This would be understandable if making plans were a new skill, but you’ve probably been doing some version of a planning process for years, maybe decades.
This tendency toward unrealistic planning is what the economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls the “planning fallacy”: even though you realize that your previous efforts were overly optimistic, you believe that, today, the same workload or more is completely doable.
The planning fallacy gets exacerbated as you increase the timeframe of the planning process, and the number of people involved.
Dobelli gives the example of the construction of the Sydney Opera House. The conch-shaped structure was planned in 1957, and it was supposed to be completed in 1963 at a cost of $7 million. By the time the Sydney Opera House opened its doors in 1973, the project had cost $102 million – 14 times the original estimate.
Why are we so bad at planning?
Dobelli offers the following reasons:
Wishful thinking: we want to be successful and achieve everything we set out to do.
Ignoring external factors: we tend to focus too much on the project itself, and overlook outside influences. For example, a family member ends up in the hospital. Or a new technology disrupts your industry – and your job.
For Dobelli, there are 2 practices you can do to increase the odds of your plans succeeding:
1. Pay attention to external factors: For example, look at similar projects and consult the past: “If other ventures of the same type lasted three years and devoured $5 million, this will probably apply to your project, too – no matter how carefully you plan.”
2. Perform a premortem (“before death”) session shortly before you make key decisions. Dobelli cites psychologist Gary Klein’s guidance on what to say to your team before doing the premortem: “Imagine it is a year from today. We have followed the plan to the letter. The result is a disaster. Take five or ten minutes to write about the disaster.” These stories will illuminate how things might turn out.