Narath Carlile in Articles 6 minutes

Better, simpler estimation with the X-factor

How to become much better at getting things done on time.

This is not really a piece about doing things faster. There are certainly things that can help you work more efficiently (such as Deep Work, or better planning or collaboration that we discuss in the video content in the app). This is instead about being better able to estimate how long things will take you, so that you can more reliably complete things on time.

This matters especially if you are working with others. Your boss or your spouse will certainly be grateful (even impressed!) if you consistently deliver on time. It also matters even if you are “just” doing things for yourself. Your confidence in your own ability to know you can complete things on-time (and knowing when you are cannot commit) can be foundational to your sense of personal achievement and success - as well as very good for your reputation.

Whether we are good or bad at delivering on time, most of us work in an inter-connected environment where tasks/actions are dependent on each other. When we don’t deliver our own tasks on time, it has a ripple effect on the whole system. This causes problems for us and for others.

Meanwhile, what we love and value the most - our families, friends and personal well-being - bear the brunt of this domino effect as we work late and on weekends to try and make up for our poor estimation.

A missing secret ingredient in most planning: acknowledging the ‘x-factor’

Planning is hard, and often feels like extra work rather than the work itself. This is especially true with some tools, like Gantt charts. They can be useful in breaking down a task and showing how our collaborative work affects shared milestones, but they are not great at tracking how most work occurs (i.e. roughly estimated in the beginning that ideally becomes more refined as the project progresses).

And they can take a lot of work to maintain. On some teams I’ve been on, it felt like we spent 25% of the entire team’s time in meetings updating the Gantt chart! Life’s too short!

A technique I learned from agile software development (shout out to PivotalTracker here) developed into what I call my “x-factor”. This is the amount I need to multiply how long I think a task will take me. Hence the “x” for multiplication.

Quick sidebar: the x-factor is not an excuse to not break down/understand your tasks. Do break down the task as much as you can - that will also help with estimation!.

Here’s a simple way to estimate your x-factor

  • a task I have done successfully before –> has an x-factor of 2
  • a task I have seen done successfully before, or I learned how to do it, but I have never done it myself before –> has an x-factor of 4
  • a task that I don’t yet know how to do successfully –> has an x-factor of 8 to infinity!

If you’re facing the final task type (one you don’t yet know how to do successfully), this is a sign that you need to learn more or break the task down further. Most often the first thing you need to do is a learning or discovery spike.

A learning or discovery spike is a dedicated period of time for learning how to do something new.

For tasks of any significant complexity, you will be most effective if you give yourself enough space and time to find all the relevant information and load it into your conscious brain - in other words, rapid learning in a new area will happen best if you have an environment that will support you in deep work.

A common mistake most people make is not creating enough of a block of time, which leads to very slow, sporadic learning. Two or three 4-hour blocks (that’s 8-12 hours of deep work time) are the minimum needed for anything but the simplest learning.

This has worked for me not only in my professional life, but also at home. When asked to do something, I am now much quicker using the simple 2x, 4x, 8x-to-Infinity x-factor rules so I am much better at being able to say if I can get it done and when (or if I need time to do some learning and then can tell them when I can get it done).

I admit, it’s been very hard sometimes for me to accept that it will take me that long to do a task, but the x-factor has been right more often than I have, so I’ve learned to trust it over time. I’m betting you will too.

Practice re-negotiating time estimates.

I’ve also learned that when people are asking you to do something, they’re often more than willing to hear from you about when I think I can have it done. Most of the time, they just care that (1) it will be done and (2) they know approximately when it will be done. While the deadline is sometimes non-negotiable, most of the time people are willing to be flexible as long as the schedule is transparent and reliable.

I’ve also learned (sadly, the hard way) that as hard as it can seem to re-negotiate a deadline when you are first asked, it is much harder to do it closer to the deadline. In general, the sooner you renegotiate, the better.

I hope this is as helpful to you as it has been to me - drop me a line and let me know how it goes!

May your x-factor always be less than 2!

Narath.