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Why Do Things Take Longer Than I Think?

My wife is going to love this post because after more than 35 years of marriage, she has heard me say so many times on finishing a task, “Honey, it took longer than I thought.” In fact, at one point, she threatened to inscribe on my tombstone: “It took longer than he thought.” Thus when asked what slogan to print on my plate celebrating my 200 beers what better catchphrase to use than “Took longer than I thought.”


This question of why things take longer than I think came to mind again several weeks ago as I was preparing to go out of town. My wife had already flown out to see our son and daughter-in-law in California and I was traveling the next day to New Jersey to teach a new course before joining her later in the week.

Even before I had ever dropped her off at the airport early that Saturday morning, I had already made a mental list of all of the things I was going to do that day. I was going to clean up the condo, go for a run, get packed for my trip, pay bills online, get the pool ready for its week of our absence, study the owner’s manual of our new car so I could figure out all of the cool technology features it had, go to Mass, have a beer at a local brew pub, and then settle in at the condo for a night of reading; all of this while catching a little college football here and there as well (I like to multi-task).


But even before the day was half over, I was already scratching things off my mental list that I knew I wasn’t going to have time to do.

Frustrated, it prompted me to explore, “why do I do this over and over again, over plan and under deliver?”

In my defense, this often occurs when I am doing something for the first time. Invariably, I under estimate the time it will take to learn what I am doing and then actually to do it.


Case in point, if you’ve never used a wet saw to cut and lay ceramic tile on the point in a bathroom, how can you know that it is more than a weekend job and that you will have to shower in another bathroom for the beginning of the workweek? I don’t think I over estimate my abilities, but I know I do under estimate the difficulties I’ll encounter and the time it will take to solve them.


Early in our marriage, every weekend, I would make a list of things I wanted to get accomplished over the weekend—I never completed the list. While I might actually accomplish quite a bit, it was never everything. But I know the fact that everything took longer was a hardship on my wife who typically spent the time, entertaining our toddlers and keeping them out of my sometimes-dangerous work area.


Fortunately after our kids were older, my wife no longer had this chore and after the kids were grown, could even help with the project.


From a practical perspective, I’m actually very good at math. So if I knew on the front end that these 6 chores would take 2 hours each, I would easily know that I could not complete them after work and before bedtime. I’d only attempt one chore for sure and certainly no more than two. The problem is the knowing how long something takes. Interestingly in my line of work, I have to frequently predict the future at least two years out when assigning an expiration date for a product. Turns out, I have been much more successful at looking into my crystal ball at work for these predictions than at home when figuring out how long something was going to take to complete.

When I think back over all of the projects I’ve taken on during our marriage; from the simple fixing of a toilet, to putting up a cedar fence, to the complex task of building the kids a clubhouse, they were usually things that I had never done before and so had no experience.


Whenever I have to do something I have done before, I can often accurately predict when I will finish. But even these tasks that should be fairly predictable can run into overtime. This because I have to admit, I am a perfectionist.


Take painting a room. This is one of those jobs I have done many times during our marriage. However, because I want it to look “professional”, I painstakingly tape off the trim, brush paint two coats on the areas that cannot be rolled, and then roll two coats. Then once the paint is dried (usually overnight) and I remove the tape, I fix the small mistakes with a small model paintbrush. My wife has learned once I walk in the door with the paint, not to come check too early on my progress—I’ll still be taping which as she says is so booooring!

Another aspect of my tasks is often they are fun and I almost hate when they are finished. (Maybe I subconsciously drag them out.) I so enjoy working with my hands, to the point of sometimes wondering if I would have enjoyed being an auto mechanic as I love cars which would have required me to work with my hands.


When I talked my wife into helping me build a deck in our backyard by our pool—a multi-weekend job—I had a blast even in the July heat. Cutting with a table saw, a circular saw, and a jigsaw and then bolting together the foundation and screwing down the planks with a drill, I got a chance to use a lot of fun toys; I mean tools.


And when we decided to redo our playroom and I suggested adding built-in bookcases in an alcove, my wife experienced little inconvenience for however long it took, as the playroom was a room she rarely used.


Rare is the time when something takes less time than I thought. Those are very happy occasions indeed, as if I was given a gift of extra time. But sadly that was not the case the few weeks ago that prompted this introspection. Fortunately my wife was not there that Saturday to witness me go from optimistically planning to do about 10 things to actually getting about four of them done. She only witnessed me working extra diligently the day after we got back from California. But as she smiled as I scurried about with my chores, she no doubt knew—she knew because “it always takes me longer than I think.”

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