A leadership expert has a simple time-management trick to help make sure you never fall behind on your to-do list again

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  • The items on your to-do list will probably take longer to finish than you think they will.
  • So when you're estimating how much time it will take to complete a task, multiply that number by three.
  • That's a tip from leadership expert Greg McKeown, highlighted in The New York Times.
  • Most people fall victim to the "planning fallacy," meaning they think they can finish a project sooner than everyone else can.

I've been writing and reporting for years now, and I'm still horrible at estimating how long it will take to finish an article.

Once in a while, I get lucky and inspiration strikes, so that the whole thing takes less time than I'd budgeted. But more (a lot more) often, things take longer (way longer) than I'd anticipated.

I hope and suspect I'm not the only one in this particular boat, nor the only one to be delighted by a trick I stumbled across recently in The New York Times' Smarter Living newsletter.

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Tim Herrera shared a tip from leadership consultant Greg McKeown, author of "Essentialism": Whenever you're estimating how long it will take to complete something, multiply it by three. (Apparently, this strategy works for calculating any investment, not just time.) The idea is to be as realistic as possible - and to save yourself some scrambling and self-loathing in the long run.

McKeown's advice reminded me of insights from Caroline Webb, a former McKinsey partner and the author of "How to Have a Good Day." In an interview with psychologist Ron Friedman for the Peak Work Performance Summit, Webb recommended doubling your estimate for how long it will take you to finish a project - and then adding some buffer time.

That's because Webb has noticed that we tend to remember the "one shining example where everything went right" and think that's how long a particular task will take. It's an example of the "planning fallacy," or the tendency to underestimate how much time it will take to complete a task.

Read more: Too many of us make the same mistake with our to-do lists - and it ruins our productivity

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman has written that people generally think they're more capable than others, in the sense that if writing a project report takes most people a day, you might think it will only take you half a day.

If you use McKeown's trick or Webb's, you might discover that you don't have the resources to successfully complete a task - and that's OK. As McKeown told Herrera, "Pay the price up front and think about it fully." Then make a decision about whether to pursue the project.

"It's a very healthy way to live," McKeown said.

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