Mind the Deadlines

Gorgeous sunset last night. I love how it looks like the sun has set something on fire, with blazing smoke billowing away.

Yesterday I was on a phone call for the day job about a report that needs revision. We went over the points and the gal in charge asked me how long it would take me to make the fixes. Now, I’d received this report with comments about three minutes before the call started. But I made a guess, added half as much again and told her the number of hours. She agreed and we were off and running.

This is definitely an acquired skill in our business.

Working for a consulting firm means getting really good at knowing how long a project will take. We operate entirely on billable hours. There is very little room for overhead hours – and Accounting gets most of those. Everything we do needs to be directly billable to a client or a project. Because a client is paying for your time, you don’t get to waste that time. And, because we have to give estimates and costs up front, being able to accurately estimate is a very necessary skill.

In fact, this is often something that newbies with the company struggle to learn. Many people are not naturally good at knowing how long a project takes. Some habitually run over deadline – or frantically work to finish up until the last moment. A lot of people develop the habit in school of starting way ahead of time, so there’s room to spare. None of these are practical in the business world. A missed deadline can mean a contract violation and rarely do we have the opportunity to start something early, because we have other projects to work on. Besides, you’re often waiting on data from a client, so you have to be ready to roll when they send it.

I think the correlation to the writing life is obvious.

The publishing process involves a lot of hurry up and wait. You wait on line edits. You wait on copy edits. Then, when your editor sends them, she usually asks if she can have it back in two weeks. Or five days.

Now, this is the important part.

You have to know what the answer is.

It’s easy to just agree, but then you have to do it. You have to be really good at knowing how much time you really have available (and really, robbing from sleep hours is just a bad idea) and how much time the job will take. My tried and true formula, as you may have noticed above, is to figure how long I think it will take and add half-again. So, if I think a job will take 40 hours, I estimate 60 hours. This usually works for most people, because we all seem to have a tendency to underestimate. I rarely need the full half-again, but it gives me a bit of a buffer, in case I really missed my guess.

How else do you learn to do this? Practice, practice, practice. I give myself writing deadlines and measure how well I do on meeting them. This also takes being able to look at your work habits with an unflinchingly honest eye. Knowing yourself – and accepting who you are and how you work – is key to making accurate estimates of work time. If you start to think “Oh, but this time it will be different…” you’re already going down the wrong road.

Good luck!

6 Replies to “Mind the Deadlines”

  1. This is a really great point. My day job works with dates too, and like you said, experience helps knowing which vendors can push faster, and which cannot. I always pad things about 2 days. Gives some wiggle room.

  2. What was it that Mr. Scott on Star Trek used to do? Multiply his repair estimates by four, and when he got it done sooner, he was a miracle worker.

    “I cannot get it done any faster, Captain!”

    Good advice.

  3. I’ll have to remember that – ya know, if I ever sell a book and end up with a deadline. Then again, I’ll have to figure out what my base time is so I can get half that. Someday.

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