How To Estimate Time Accurately

Scaling / July 27, 2016 / Kristie

Not being able to estimate your time accurately can cause you to lose money on fixed rate projects and cause frustration with clients. Use the following 5 tips to become better at estimating time accurately.

Illustration of a target sign with time markers at the center and three missed arrows surrounding it, representing how to estimate time with accuracy.

Get the full scope

Before you start doing any calculations in your head to estimate time, get the full details of what’s involved. It’s great to be excited about a new project or to work with a new client that you want to jump right in. But don’t make the mistake of jumping in blindly. Get all the details before creating an estimate.

What are all of the deliverables? Is there a time frame that this needs to be done by? How many people will be involved in decision making? What is the estimated time that each decision will need before moving forward? Are there other people involved who’s work will affect the timeline of the project? Are there any foreseeable factors that could affect the timeline?

Pull out as much info as you can from your team and/or your client so you have the full picture and can estimate time more accurately.

Map it out

Write down all of the deliverables and break them down into stages. For example, estimated time for research, estimated time for initial work, revisions, implementation, etc.

Breaking down your estimate into chunks will make it easier for both yourself and your client. You’ll have a better understanding of how much time each stage will take, and your client will understand the work involved when reviewing the estimate cost.

When breaking down the project into stages and tasks, set clear boundaries for what is included. How will you know the task is complete?

For example if revisions is a stage, how many revisions are included in your estimate? How much time will each one take?

Figure out your error ratio

Rarely will the time you estimate match the actual time perfectly. To get better at estimating time accurately, figure out what your error ratio is so you can add that much buffer time.

As an experiment, write down all the tasks you need to do over the next few days and record how much time you estimate each one will take. After you’ve completed each task, write down the actual time it took to do.

At the end of the experiment, review how far off you were on various types of tasks to get your margin of error. This will give you a better idea of how much more time you need to factor in when estimating projects.

You can also do this for each project in Billings Pro by running the Estimate vs. Actual report under the Projects tab. Select the report, choose the project, and run the report. The report will show you the total time and amount estimated for the project compared to the actual time and amount.

Add more estimate time for new tasks

It’s easy to estimate time for things you’ve done a hundred times. But what about estimating time for things you’ve only done a few times or never before? As a rule of thumb, when estimating time for new types of tasks and/or projects, add another 25%-50% of your estimated time.

There will no doubt be problems you run into that you’ll need more buffer time to solve. Plan ahead by giving yourself adequate time to solve problems. It’s better to finish sooner than to go over.

Track your monkey wrenches

As you work on projects and run into various issues that cause slow downs, log these details. What things happened that threw off your estimated time? What factors played a role in extending the time of projects? It’s best if you can compile this information in one place to look at it across multiple projects.

By capturing this information, you can then review it to get a better idea of what kind of unexpected issues came up and how much time they derailed your plans. The issues may be unique to each project, but often times there’s a common thread.

For example, realizing that it takes twice as long to gather feedback for each stage, or needing more research time in the beginning phase, or being far off from estimating the time of various people involved.

Pay attention to the monkey wrenches that get thrown into your plans and use this information to get better at estimating time for projects in the future. It can also help you pin point areas that need more attention so you can streamline your processes.

The more projects you complete, the more data you can review to figure out what threw off your estimated time from the actual outcome. By using the above tips and paying close attention to your time during and after projects, you’ll become better at estimating time. Practice makes perfect.

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