Don’t Overestimate What You Can Do Today

Monday motivation, or all over the place? I remember reading an article a little while back discussing what is known as the Planning Fallacy, or, in other words, mistakenly assuming that you can get way more work done than you are consistently capable of.

“Oh yeah, I’ll finish the grocery shopping on the way home from work, make some calls on my lunch break and then get a head start on that project due next week after I get back from the gym”¦”

Of course this lofty plan is never fully realized and you only get half of these things accomplished, compromising on groceries for takeout and cutting your time at the gym in half.

But we always have good intentions, and repeatedly create these long – whether mentally or explicitly written out – to-do lists that we somehow think we can fulfill. Why do we repeatedly do this? A number of psychology and social science researchers chalk it up to Western culture’s emphasis on optimistic outcomes. Borrowing from my Culture and Cognition course, Karen Cerulo’s work “What’s the Worst that can Happen” theorizes on the reasons why people tend to focus solely on positive outcomes while ignoring the bad.

When you think about it, North America is famous for underscoring the importance of rankings and success. We measure nearly everything in comparison to other things. The most pressing thing in life is “doing your best” and there’s no better story than that of a person who climbed their way to the top of the social and economic ladder. *Cue Drake’s “Started from the Bottom”*♪ ♬

Cerulo’s article centers in on the idea of social rankings and how it governs our lives: the best things that can happen to us are explicitly drawn out and defined in society (think marriage and romance, landing your dream career, making lots of money, etc.). These are all important milestones in one’s life, and ones that everyone should want to strive for, according at least to culturally prescribed goals. In a sense, this is generally how your life should go and progress, this is the ideal standard with which you should imagine your future. And while they are pretty clearly defined, they are also pretty vague and don’t really outline the steps in which to attain these golden markers of the good life: you are basically left to your own devices in order to establish the path to your own success. But at the end of the day, you will want these basic things in life, according to society.

As far as overestimating the small things, we all have so much to do these days that it’s almost impossible, there are just not enough hours in the day, and even if there were, our attention span and cognitive facilities simply would not hold up. To help avoid the mistake of planning too much for your day, it’s best to focus more of your attention on planning and strategizing the circumstances in which you will finish which tasks, rather than actually doing the tasks themselves.


I borrowed from Forbes and the Daily Muse in compiling this list of handy ways to boost your productivity, as well as my own experience in multi-tasking and accomplishing several different types of everyday demands on your time and attention.

Keep All Work-Related To-Do Lists in One Place

This one’s probably your best bet if you want to stay organized and fully aware of what needs doing. It’s easy to forget that deadline sneaking up on you if you have 50 Post-it notes everywhere, some saved email drafts, a few to-do lists and then a couple notes on your phone. Look through everything and write it all in one place. I promise it’s easier that way.

Make Use of Wasted Time

Commuting or waiting in line for an appointment? There’s nothing worse for me than staring blankly and wasting time, and then having to do work at times when I should be relaxing, so this year I started to take my homework to work, believe it or not. I would somewhat plan ahead, look at what I had due coming up and then brainstorm for future essays or make my grocery lists while I was cashing people out. Not only did it keep me sharp and not-so-bored at my cashier job, but it enabled to me fully relax once I got home knowing I had completed double the work in half the time.

Limit Your Screen Usage

This one’s important, and your biggest distraction. The Daily Muse recommends avoiding computers for the first hour in the morning and the last hour at night, and while I don’t think it needs to be this rigid, I definitely believe taking a break from screen time is a efficiency – and sometimes mood – booster that most people are unaware of until they are away from it. I personally also like the idea of not having to constantly maintain my online presence, or be aware of what so-and-s0 was doing on the weekend. If you’re not in a social mood or have the time for it, don’t be on social media.

Use That Drowsy Hour Before Bed

I seriously hate that last hour before bed on a weeknight. I’ve been going all day, I’m tired, but I still can’t quite justify watching TV for that last hour. I can’t manage to go to bed yet either. Do something low-intensity, brain-wise. Maybe go for a walk to clear your head, or as Forbes suggests, start planning for the next day. Make a yummy, healthy lunch for work (certain foods do in fact increase your energy level!). Or simply make a few lists of what needs to be done the next day. In either case, feel productive without doing too much if you can’t stand the thought of (perhaps well-deserved) lethargy for the last hour of your day.

Complete Your Least Favorite Task Early

If at all possible, get your least favorite thing out of the way for the day. The longer the day goes on, the more likely you are to feel bogged down and perhaps thrown some other unexpected tasks that stand in the way of you getting that one big task completed. Before you do anything else, at least get a head-start on it. It will not only put your mind at ease but it will also enable you to be prepared for the unexpected and not have to compromise your relaxing time later.

Be Realistic

Now this one may be the hardest. Try to remember all the other times you have completed similar tasks and how long they took you. For instance, I always think I can bang out a blog post in half an hour. I don’t tend to factor in the fact that I won’t be writing non-stop, that I will have to look for pictures to attach to the post, I’ll have to think up some tags, an attention-catching title, factor in times to post that will accompany my subject”¦ it’s more complicated than just getting on here and writing for 30 minutes. But my brain always thinks at the beginning of the task that that is the only thing I have to do. Knowing that I will take more like two hours than half of one, I have started to adjust my expectations and realistically plan for interruptions. I am working on a computer afterall.

How do you manage your time efficiently? Do you fall victim to the planning fallacy? Oh, how I wish I weren’t human and didn’t get distracted”¦

*As originally posted on my own personal blog onlytwentysomethingstopfronting*

By Taylor

I'm a 20-something University of Toronto student trying to hack it as a freelance writer but am also an aspiring journalist. I am particularly interested in diversity within the mass media and love to deconstruct different kinds of advertising, investigating the types of populations different kinds of marketing target.

2 replies on “Don’t Overestimate What You Can Do Today”

I always try and remember what my flute instructor told me in undergrad which is “set yourself up for success”. In this instance, I think she meant be warmed up enough for a performance but don’t over prepare or over practice right before you perform. But now that I am doing grad research work in music, I see this as a motto that relates to a) setting aside enough time to do the work I want to do well, but also b) having reasonable goals. I know I can write one to two pages of prose that I am happy with per day, but if I expect myself to write ten or twenty then I will fail and be disappointed in myself.

Oh, I like this list.

On ‘free days’ (aka not working in the office but stuff needs to be done) I go up to no more than five points on a list (and each ‘real’ point combined with internet, watching a show, any tiny reward). On working days I keep my list at ten: five that needs to be done that day, five that can move around.
I know the moving around one is risky, but I always like to know where I can go if I surprise myself by finishing early.

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