A few weeks ago, I sat down at my desk with a steely determination to have a super productive workday. I suppose the same could be said for any workday, but this particular Monday was a little different. I had a shortened workweek ahead of me, and I knew I needed to get as much done as humanly possible.
I began jotting down my to-do list. I was going to reply to a bunch of emails. I was going to draft four different articles. I was going to follow up with several different sources. And, when I had extra time (because of course I would), I was even going to get my planner all set up for the following month.
Let’s fast forward. The end of my workday swiftly arrived, and I took another peek at my list to see how much I’d actually accomplished. It turned out I’d checked off only about half of the tasks on my list.
I was shocked…and then defeated…and then unreasonably frustrated. What?! Where did I go wrong? And how would I fix it? It turned out that what I really needed was some Star Trek. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Do You Have Too Much to Do and Too Little Time?
Unfortunately, I’m willing to bet you’ve had days like this too—where you set the best intentions and end up betrayed by that back-stabbing clock.
In these moments, it’s easy to point the finger at everyone and everything nearby. You didn’t get enough done because your co-workers are so noisy. Your office is full of constant distractions. There were too many fires to put out.
But, I have news for you: There’s way more at play here than the nuisances of office life. Trust me—I work totally alone in a home office, and even I still fall victim to a half-finished to-do list.
So, what gives? You might’ve heard of something called the planning fallacy, a cognitive bias that makes us underestimate the amount of time a task will take. Put simply, this means we’re overly optimistic about how much we can get done and reach the end our workdays feeling disheartened by the items on our lists that remain untouched.
So, What Can You Do About It?
Let’s start with the bad news: You can’t magically add more hours to your day. Instead, your goal should be to set yourself up for a greater feeling of accomplishment by being more realistic about how many tasks you can get done during any given work session.
How do you do that? Use something called the Scotty Principle.
It might sound like some sort of fancy business school theory, but it actually comes from the Star Trek character Lieutenant Commander Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, who earned (and strategically bolstered) his “reputation as a miracle worker.” How? Simply by overestimating how long an assignment would take and then completing it ahead of schedule.
Sure, you might not be tasked with saving Starship Enterprise from a catastrophe. But this very same principle can not only earn you the same kind of reputation with your boss or clients, it can also help you be more reasonable with your to-do list.
Okay, But How Exactly Does the Scotty Principle Help With a To-Do List?
Here’s how it translates: Estimate the amount of time you think a certain task will take. I know that this can be tough, so I recommend thinking back on previous instances when you’ve completed this or a somewhat similar task to get a more realistic handle on how long it typically takes you.
Next? Channel Scotty and add 25-50% to that estimate (I recommend 50%, just to be safe) to keep your ambitions in check. So, if you think completing that report will take you an hour, actually carve out an hour and a half for it. And then get started.
Best-case scenario? You end up with extra time to get even more done. Worst case? You’re right on track—without that heavy feeling of disappointment at the conclusion of your day.
I’ve implemented this trick myself for the past couple of weeks. While it certainly took a little practice and getting used to (it’s a bit of a shot to the ego to realize that you aren’t exactly the productivity superhero you fancy yourself to be), it’s been a huge help in making sure I’m realistic with my expectations for my workday. In short, I’ve been loving it.
I’ve even taken this a step further by actually writing my adjusted time estimates next to each task on my to-do list. If I add those up and discover that I have 12 hours of work planned for an eight-hour day? I know some things need to be moved to tomorrow.
Here’s the awesome thing about the Scotty Principle: It’s super quick and painless to implement, and it saves you from that feeling of utter disappointment when an unfinished to-do list stares back at you at 6 PM. Plus, you can honestly claim that Star Trek is the secret to your success (or at least one of them).
Give it a try and prepare to wrap up your workdays feeling less like a slacker and more like a “miracle worker.”