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Time Management Worst Practice: Wishful Thinking

Wishful thinking is assuming that things will just work out when you have no good reason to think that they will.

Wishful thinkers may ignore evidence that things are not going according to plan (if they even have a plan) and are, in fact, getting worse. It goes beyond reasonable optimism and squarely into the realm of denial.

There is an old joke about an optimist who is falling from a 100-story building. As he passes the 50th floor, he says to himself "Well, so far, so good!" That's just wishful thinking.

Wishful thinking is a big problem for all types of projects. In many cases, it causes more problems than all the other worst practices combined, and leads to colossal project failures.

Some examples of wishful thinking: ignoring a problem employee and hoping that the issue with solve itself, expecting a newly formed team to meet an important deadline without doing any planning, ignoring signs that a project is in trouble and falling behind schedule hoping that things will straighten out by themselves, planning a big product launch with a schedule so aggressive that it would only work if everything falls perfectly into place and nothing unexpected happens, etc.

There are three main reasons people fall into wishful thinking.

The first reason is lack of experience. People that lack experience may not realize that there are certain gotchas in a project and therefore assume that things are going to work out well without any special attention. They simply don’t know any better.

The second reason occurs when they are overwhelmed or feel uncomfortable about a part of the project. For example, when there is a lot of uncertainty in a certain area or they don’t know how to manage a piece of the project, it is natural for some people to feel uncomfortable.

Instead of doing the research, working out the details, and planning these aspects of the project—which may be the ones that need the most attention—many people hope for the best and focus on the other areas of the project they are more comfortable with. This is a classic form of self-denial.

The third reason is overconfidence. Many wishful thinkers overestimate their ability to handle a particular task or project or underestimate the difficulties and obstacles they are likely to face.

Either way, they end up setting themselves up for eventual failure.

The best way to counteract wishful thinking is through careful planning and preparation. If you don't have enough experience for a particular project, do some research or ask someone who does.

The best practice of Risk Management can also help you avoid underestimating the potential difficulties or obstacles facing your projects.

Creating overly optimistic schedules is a form of wishful thinking so prevalent that it deserves its own mention. Overly optimistic schedules are either imposed on you by someone else (your boss, marketing department, the project manager, etc.) or are self‑imposed.

If someone else imposes the schedule on you, it is usually because of a deadline. The deadline may well be due to a real event (a trade show, a competing product, etc.) but it could also very easily be a date that was pulled out of thin air without sufficient thinking, planning or information.

If you believe that a schedule imposed on you is overly optimistic and you are in charge of the project, you basically have two choices: accept the schedule and face the consequences of trying to meet it, or do your best to convince your boss that the schedule is unrealistic and needs to be corrected.

Self‑imposed overly optimistic schedules occur because people tend to underestimate how much work it will take to complete a project and overestimate how much work they can accomplish in a typical day.

When these two factors combine as a form of overconfidence, the result is overly optimistic schedules, which can be a source of frustration and lead to other project management problems.

It is often difficult to estimate accurately how long tasks will take at the very start of a project, which is when most schedules are constructed. If the schedule is not updated as you learn more about the project and what it will take to complete it, or when more work is added, you are left with an overly optimistic schedule.

Estimating how long tasks really take is a skill that you can improve with practice. The best practices of Project Planning and Weekly Reviews can help you overcome this form of wishful thinking.

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