As a developer, how to estimate the time for a task?

It's hard to calculate the time you will need to finish the task, but it is equally important. Let's dive deep and understand how to do it.

As a developer, how to estimate the time for a task?

Time estimations are one of the most critical metrics in project development. Though it is important for any project type, today, I will be talking about only software development projects (since I know them very well 😁)

Accurately estimating time for any task is very difficult but important as the whole project’s timeline is dependent on each of them. Most of the time we all underestimate a task leading to imperfect work (though perfection is a myth), buggy code, compromised work quality, and in the end, a frustrated team!

To be honest, I am no expert to write about this and in the early days of Peerlist, I have made blunders in calculating the time I will require to finish the task. But still, I thought of writing about this today since it is a very less discussed topic and as I am getting better at it day by day, I thought of sharing my ways with everyone reading this.

Before we start understanding my process, let's just first try to understand -

Why it is so hard to estimate the time for a given task?

1. Overconfident Self (I am a superhuman 😎)

Don’t get me wrong here, but we tend to forget our own past experiences and become fairly optimistic about ourselves. For example, I know creating a UI for a page would generally take me 4 hours, next time I will “think” I will be able to finish that up in 2 hours!

This is my “assumption” based on what I “think” at that moment of time without even realizing that if it generally takes me 4 hours, then how can I finish this up in 2? The optimism of my past experience do not make me take a better decision but overestimates my capacity to work.

End result, I fail in completion, get annoyed and affect the deadline of an overall project!

2. We don’t care enough to track how much time we generally take for small tasks

In the above point, seamlessly I wrote about 4 hours for a single UI page where that was a mere guess! If I ask you about the time required for any small part of your work, I am pretty sure you will also end up guessing time. This is common in all of us. We mostly don’t track our time much while working.

I know you must be feeling that tracking time might lose your productivity and focus right now, but it is like training yourself right now. If you understand it better, you will be able to estimate it better.

Enough of the whys, now let’s find solutions. Let’s understand -

How to be better at estimating time?

I have created a small model of task time estimation. Remember, this is what works best for me and I still keep on improving it. If you think you can add or remove any of these steps, you should! Also, though this sounds like a task in itself, trust me after a certain time it becomes a very normal process.

So, let me walk you through all the steps I take to estimate the time for a task.

1. Divide the task into small units

It does not matter how small the task is, if you can divide it into small units, it helps you understand the time required more closely. I mostly divide all my major tasks into small tasks that can be finished in 30mins (every unit should not require more than 30 mins to complete), this time should be based on what you think is best for you

2. Combine all the steps to find the final schedule

Now that you have divided your tasks into smaller ones, calculate all of them and the total time you will require to finish them.

Pro Tip: I write all the small tasks as comments in my code, and whenever one gets finished, I remove it. Helps me get that dopamine hit of completing and achieving something 😉

3. Add 25% time as a margin

Though you created small tasks and added the correct time, still, there is a high possibility that you have misinterpreted something, something came up on time, or anything else, so always always always, keep this buffer on min 25% of the time.

Well, and who knows if you finish within time, this 25% can be a reward for you!

4. Assess the time after completion of your task

Out of all, I think this is the most important and most ignored one. Do go back to all your time estimates and start assessing which ones were correct and which ones you overshoot. But, for all those which you miscalculated, DO NOT think you performed badly at the task, it is always that your estimation was incorrect! This review will help you improve dramatically in estimations. This process does sound not-so-interesting but trust me, it will take you only 15 mins to do this.

5. Do not forget breaks

I am guilty of doing this! I always used to consider 5-10 mins of break would be fairly enough, but well, it's not! (Ohh come on, who can scroll Twitter feed and leave that phone aside in 5 mins 🙄). This might not be your case, but point is, that you should consider the appropriate breaks that will require for you to recharge yourself.

6. Use time tracking and Pomodoro

I will not ask you to subscribe for one more time tracking app here, because google timer works best for me here! I always start a timer of 30/40 mins, close all my non-required windows, mute/ignore all the notifications during that time and start working on that one task to finish it within that deadline. It's almost like a Pomodoro.

How does it help?

  1. You don't get distracted by other windows, notifications, etc.
  2. You time limit your task. So if you don’t finish it in time, you understand that pretty quickly.
  3. This helps you take breaks without feeling guilty.
  4. You start having a set schedule of your work.

I follow all these things and they are helping me get better every day in my time estimates. I believe in one thing, it is okay if you don’t know you will be able to do something in a given time, but it is not okay if you don't know you will NOT be able to do it in a given time! The latter will make things worst.

If you are still here, I appreciate your will to be better at your task! Hopefully, we all will crack this code soon. Meanwhile, if you find a better way to do this, I am there to listen/read.

Hope I am able to add some value to you with this article. If not, I am always open to feedback. I am mostly quite active on Twitter, so feel free to reach out there.

Shameless plug, join Peerlist. It’s a community-led professional networking platform for people in tech with very rich work profiles.

Keep building 🙌🏼