The ‘Scotty Principle’ Is Your Secret to Finishing Tasks on Time
January 10, 2019
It's a productivity tale as old as time: you write your daily to-do list, prioritize your tasks so the most important comes first, feel confident you can get through it all (with extra time to watch a seventh showing of Bird Box)—but come 3 p.m., you're still trying to tackle that first task you thought would only take 30 minutes, tops.
Feel familiar? If so, you're not alone. We're actually wired to underestimate how long it'll take us to finish a task. It's called the “planning fallacy," and it's a cognitive bias that makes even the most well-meaning folks underestimate the amount of time a task will take.
The planning fallacy can create serious frustration and friction in our day-to-day—falling behind can stir up lots of self-shame and guilt, and basically derail our entire day.
The good news: There’s a solution for it. There's always a solution. Writer Kat Boogaard over at The Muse adopted a genius tactic: Be like Scotty. As in, “beam me up, Scotty.” As in, the famous Star Trek character.
She discovered this idea after ambitiously tackling a to-do list but realizing she only got about half of her tasks completed. So she turned to an unlikely source—Star Trek, of all things—for inspiration.
You see, Scotty had a trick. Instead of pushing himself to meet unrealistic deadlines, he overestimated how long something would take—and then, inevitably, finished it early. Not only would he not disappoint whoever he was committing a promise to, but he wouldn’t disappoint himself—a familiar feeling to anyone who’s over-promised and then under-delivered.
As Boogaard writes, “We’re overly optimistic about how much we can get done and reach the end our workdays feeling disheartened by the items on our lists that remain untouched.”
Here’s some advice on how to fully execute on the Scotty Principle—and how to better manage your time at work and in life, so you have more time for the things that matter most.
1. Bank on Being Slow
Sounds harsh, but I’m speaking from experience. Have I ever actually achieved Inbox Zero in 45 minutes, like I always tell myself to do? No. Not once. Ever. Have I ever actually brainstormed a new story idea in the 15 minutes I carve out for myself? Nah.
It takes a lot of time to break these habits—they’re ingrained in your head for a reason—so if you need to start timing yourself to get serious about how long tasks actually take, then do it! I’m pretty sure that’s why Steve Jobs stuck the timer on the iPhone.
2. Time Stamp Your Tasks
Looking at each task straight in the so-called eye will make it less likely you’ll underestimate its timing. Write in the margins of your to-do list—or in your Google Calendar—the exact amount of time you think you’ll need, and then, taking the advice of Boogaard, add at least 25 to 50 percent more time than that.
If you think your errand to pick up that delicious seasonal Trader Joe’s cheese is going to take 30 minutes, actually allot yourself 45 minutes. If you think doing your laundry will take an hour, give yourself 90 minutes—at least.
This way you won’t be surprised if you go over your time, and you also won’t feel rushed.
3. Reward Yourself For Finishing Early
Habits are more likely to continue if you receive positive feedback, so when you’re an earlybird with your tasks, be sure to recognize your success—Scotty would be proud!—and give yourself a small pat-on-the-back. Whether you celebrate with an actual pat or an extra-large chai latte—own your win. If you receive recognition for overdelivering, too, remember that and you’ll have more incentive to continue this habit in the future.
Next time you come in well under the wire, just thank Scotty—he’s a lifesaver.