If everything takes longer than we expect – even when we allow for delays – how can writers hit their deadlines? Here’s an evidence-based approach to overcoming the planning fallacy. Going public with my best laid plans.

Life goals – achieved

I’ve achieved my life dream: a publisher wants to publish me. I’ve got a contract AND an advance. The only problem: I haven’t written the book yet.

No, I’ve not pulled a fast one on an unsuspecting publisher and done a runner to the Caribbean – non-fiction writers get commissioned on a proposal and several sample chapters. I am over the moon, but now I need to get writing.

Luckily, I have a plan. I’ve got until 1 October to write, rewrite, edit, re-edit, and hand in the best possible version of my book. That’s around 100 days of writing allowing for the odd day off and one week’s holiday. Sounds manageable.

@Eva_Bec tweet on signing a contract

The planning fallacy

I think it’s manageable because I’m human and that means I’m hard wired for optimism. Believing I can do it helps me survive, recover from setbacks, and keeps me forging onwards to a better future.

That bias for optimism was investigated by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1979. They called it ‘the planning fallacy’ because my optimism is mistaken.

I can’t do it in the time I expect. My best estimate will be wrong as it is for most people who underestimate how complex tasks are and how long they will take to complete.

And the funny thing about the planning fallacy is that even when we build in time for delays and setbacks – we still take longer. Our worst-case estimate for a deadline is generally too optimistic.

Did I say the 1st October 2018?

“Our worst-case estimate for a deadline is generally too optimistic.”

Getting realistic about writing deadlines

Now I’m depressed. I have a full-time job, family commitments, a social life, exercise, Netflix, Twitter and a dog to walk. I’m busy, so how the hell am I supposed to find time to write 50,000 words?

First, I need to stop thinking about writing 50,000 words.

Prof. Yael Grushka-Cockayne from the Darden School of Business, University of Virginia has been studying the planning fallacy for years. She told the folks at Freakonomics:

“If you’re planning project X, the best approach is to ignore project X. Instead, look back at all the projects you’ve done that are similar to this new project X and look historically at how well those projects performed in terms of their plan versus their actual. See how your plan compares to your actual and use that shift or uplift to adjust the new project you are about to start.”

The evidence so far

Step two is to review historical evidence. Unfortunately, as a first time author I’ve never written a business book before so I’ve not got any comparable data.

However, I’ve been writing other stuff for years, so I can muster some evidence to aid my estimation.

Take my 16,000-word Masters dissertation back in 2005. I was working full time, writing at evenings and weekends and wrote the whole thing over a summer. I handed it in on time.

I’ve written a 90-page film script of 27,000 words. It took me six weeks to write a first draft then a couple of months of tinkering. I was on sabbatical, with no work, but I prioritized my writing and fitted in a couple of hours every day before swimming, cycling and living the slacker dream on Vancouver Island.

Then a few Novembers ago I took part in NaNoWriMo and wrote a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. That’s 1667 words a day, every single day, for a month, while working 6 days a week.

And the last five years of blogging regularly and the piles of short stories buried in my desk drawer all contribute to understanding how I write, what works, and where I fall short.

“I’ve got evidence that I can write at length, to deadline, when I set aside time to do it regularly – even when I’m working”

Taken together, I’ve got evidence that I can write at length, to deadline, when I set aside time to do it regularly – even when I’m working and have other commitments. This will give me a better chance of overcoming the planning fallacy.

The next step is to design a plan that I can measure going forward.

Eva Bec Tweet - day one of writing

Best laid plans

Since signing the contract a couple of weeks back I’ve been planning and plotting and pulling together everything I need to write my book.

I’m setting my intention, going public and sharing my best laid plans. Over the next four months I’ll check back on how I’m doing and update my planning estimate by using data gathered from Prolifiko where I’ll track my writing and reflect on how it’s going.

Here are a few of the things I plan will keep me accountable and on track to meet the deadline:

  1. Scheduling: I’ve blocked out two hours every day to write. It’s in my calendar alongside all my meetings and other commitments. It’s important and prioritised.
  2. Avoiding distractions: I’ve booked a desk at my local co-working space that I can use each day. That means I’m away from my own desk, work, family, and all the other distractions that eat away at my writing time (ahem, Twitter).
  3. Accountability: I’ve told my friends and family and got the support of my husband. We run a business together so he needs to buy into this book.
  4. Beta readers: Alongside the formal guidance I’ll get from my agent and publisher, I’ve set up a beta reader group. Over the last fortnight people have been signing up to help me and answering questions in an online survey.
  5. Tracking: I’ll track my writing on Prolifiko and share progress and pictures on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #100daysofwriting.

Day one

Today is day one of writing my book. I’m stepping into the unknown with a best-guess map to guide me on my writing journey.

If I wander off the path, I hope to retrace my steps and plan another route. And if I get completely lost – it’s all evidence for planning the next book!


Article originally published on Prolifiko. Image credit: Mini Metro screenshot – royalty free usage via Wikimedia Commons