Posted in Advice

Simple Planning Tools for Project Estimation

When you plan a hike, you can make distance or time your primary planning tool. Let’s say you want to go 5 miles. The area is rugged and unfamiliar, you’re not sure about the weather but it’ll probably be hot, and you want to stop to rest at scenic overlooks. You estimate the trip will take about three hours, with an extra 45 minutes for lunch. Alternately, you might think: “I have 3 hours for this trip. How far can I go in that time?” Again you consider distance, terrain, weather, and rest stops. You conclude that if you keep lunch fairly short, you can cover just under 5 miles.

The same reasoning processes can help you estimate a project accurately. How much can I accomplish in the time that I have available? How much time do I need to accomplish these tasks? If time rules, then you have a fixed deadline and you make judgments about what you can accomplish before that point. If the document rules, then you adjust the project schedule to reflect the time that you need to complete the various phases of the project. In many cases, neither the deadline nor the document rules completely, and you have to balance the requirements of both.

If you have to complete a 100-page document in two months, for example, and you know you cannot devote full time to it, your planning has to balance chunks of the publication against chunks of time. What can I produce in two months? How much time do I need to produce what the customer says she needs? If you ask both questions at each of your planning sessions, then you can set a realistic schedule and reach the end of the project with a document that meets your customer’s expectations.

A half-day hike requires some simple estimates about time and distance. A long publication requires a more protracted and complex planning process, but the analytical methods are essentially the same. For a document, you can do one of the following:

  • Start with the project completion date and use that benchmark to plan the scope of the publication.
  • Start with the requirements of the publication and set the project schedule based on the time needed to meet the requirements.

Typically, you need to use both methods to develop a sound plan.



Grew up in the Upper Midwest, now live in greater Boston. Taught politics in a previous life, now work as a technical writer and illustrator. Other interests: athletics, flying, outdoor activities, writing about politics.

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