Estimating the time a project will take is essential to creating realistic deadlines, establishing an appropriate budget and team schedule, and setting expectations for employees and stakeholders. This guide covers the estimated time to complete (ETC) projection and the best ways to estimate timing for project management.
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Knowing how long a project will take allows you to create realistic deadlines, manage resources, establish a budget, schedule staff, and set expectations for employees and stakeholders alike.
Without proper planning, projects that should have taken a few weeks can end up dragging on for months. This can cause you to go over budget, result in increased labor costs, and leave your customers unhappy.
Project managers use estimated time to complete (ETC) projections to estimate time effectively. In this guide, we go over exactly what ETC is, how to properly estimate timing, and more.
What is Estimated Time to Complete?
A project’s ETC is an evaluation of the amount of time required to complete all its tasks. It helps you plan out the tasks you need to complete and ensures everyone knows how long they have to work. ETC is more accurate than simply guessing and gives you more confidence when it comes to setting a budget, allocating resources, and scheduling employees.
ETC should be calculated as early as possible in the project lifecycle to ensure it’s as accurate as it can be.
The Importance of Proper Time Estimates
Firstly, setting proper time estimates helps your team avoid delays so you can deliver completed projects on time. You need to be able to meet deadlines consistently in order to build trust with your customers so they’ll continue to request your services. ETC can help your team manage their time efficiently so that all projects meet or exceed client expectations.
Accurate time estimations also help you budget appropriately and ensure you have the right employees available to work on certain tasks as projects move forward.
Additionally, ETC can help you create detailed schedules. These schedules can include task deadlines based on your projections, as well as information on what each person is responsible for doing. Your employees will be more productive, and you’ll be able to manage them more effectively.
Without an accurate ETC projection, you risk budgeting incorrectly, missing deadlines, and overworking your employees in an effort to catch up. Delivering projects late or over budget can disappoint your clients and damage your reputation. In some cases, a poor time estimate can make it impossible to complete a project altogether.
Tips for Estimating Time Correctly
Improper time estimation can be costly and dangerous, but here’s what you can do to estimate time correctly.
Review data from past projects
Looking over data from past projects can help fine-tune your time estimates. You can review past project timelines, notes, files, invoices, and anything else that might help you understand how long each project took to complete. Then, you can use that information to guide your current ETC projections.
Make sure you’re reviewing similar projects to ensure the information is relevant and helpful. Also, note any new technology or processes that you’ve implemented that may make your current project easier to complete.
For example, if you find that a similar past project took 150 hours to complete, you might estimate that your current project will take 150 hours as well. However, you may note that your business has brand-new software that cuts scheduling time down from 5 hours per week to just 1. You can then adjust your time estimate accordingly.
Break projects down into individual tasks and create to-do lists
Without full knowledge of all tasks and requirements related to a project, you’ll find it challenging to estimate time to complete.
To make this easier, you can break projects down into smaller tasks and create lists of what needs to be done each day. When you have your to-do lists laid out, estimate the time it will take to complete each task. For example:
Monday, June 1
- 9 am meeting with client – 1.5 hours
- Write project proposal – 4 hours
Tuesday, June 2
- Proposal presentation – 2 hours
Wednesday, June 3
- Create budget – 1.5 hours
- Budget approval meeting – 1 hour
Thursday, June 4
- Email client with approved budget – 10 minutes
Friday, June 5
- Work site inspection – 6 hours
- 5 pm dinner with clients – 2 hours
In this example, the first week of your project will take 18 hours and 10 minutes to complete. Continue to plan out project tasks for each day, then add up the time to get an ETC projection.
Use three-point estimating
This method involves making three estimates on project time: the best-case scenario, the worst-case scenario, and the most likely scenario.
The best-case scenario estimate is if everything goes according to plan with zero issues, and the worst-case estimate is if everything that could go wrong does go wrong. The most likely estimate is one that accounts for only a few hiccups along the way.
Three-point estimating is often the safest way to estimate timing, as it helps ensure you’re prepared no matter how a project goes. That being said, it does take a lot of effort. Many project managers will end up using the average of all three scenarios to arrive at an actual estimate.
Use the Time Estimation Formula
Three-point estimating goes hand in hand with the Time Estimation Formula. This takes your best-case scenario (A), most-likely scenario (B), and worst-case scenario (C) in order to give you an estimate of when you’re most likely to finish a project (E).
The formula is E = (A+4B+C)/6.
Let’s say your best-case scenario time for a project is 150 days, your most likely is 175 days, and your worst-case is 225 days.
E =150 + (4 • 175) + 2556
E = 179.16
We can see from the formula that the project is likely to finish in just over 179 days.
You can also use the standard deviation formula of SD = (C-A)/6 to get a larger range for how long your project is likely to take.
Let’s use the standard deviation formula in the above example.
SD = 226 – 1506
SD = 12.5
A standard deviation of 12.5 means the project will likely fall somewhere between 12.5 days longer and 12.5 days shorter than the 179 days that the time estimation formula states. As a result, the project is most likely to take you between 166.5 and 191.5 days to complete.
This method involves analyzing tasks individually and going over how much time each is likely to take. Then, you simply add up the time of the individual tasks, and you’re left with the total estimate for the entire project.
For example, imagine you have one task that will take 1 week, one that will take 5 weeks, and one that will take 2 weeks. Your total time estimate for the project will be 8 weeks.
This can be a very accurate way to estimate hours for projects, as it forces you to look at each specific task first and then the project as a whole.
With this method, you figure out how much time you have to work on a project, then split that time up among the project’s tasks.
You might consider using historical data to get a sense of how long the entire project should take and make your estimates from there. Or you might estimate time to complete based on a client’s specifications.
For instance, you might estimate that the project will take 12 weeks to complete, based on your experience with past projects. You can divide that time up into a certain number of days or weeks for each project task. One task might take 3 days, while another might take 2 weeks.
Overall, top-down estimating can be a quicker and simpler approach, as you focus more on the project as a whole and not each task in detail.
Use parametric estimating
This method involves figuring out the time required for a single task and then multiplying that time by the number of similar tasks involved in the project. Many tasks in a project are similar, and this method allows you to make accurate estimates without having to analyze each one.
For example, say a similar task in the past took you 10 hours and you need to complete 12 of these tasks for your current project. Therefore, a good ETC would be 120 hours.
Since parametric estimating requires you to group similar tasks together to estimate project time, some variation can occur—especially if the tasks aren’t as similar as you originally thought. Still, this method can be helpful as long as you know the tasks and what they require.
Use comparative estimating
Comparative estimating (also known as analogous estimating) is when you determine how long similar past projects took to complete, and then apply these insights to your current project.
For instance, you can estimate that a current project will take 4 months to complete if you and your team spent 4 months on a similar project in the past.
You can estimate time quickly and easily using this method, but accuracy can suffer if your current project and the past project you’re referring to have different requirements.
For example, a past project may have required 1 work site inspection, while your current project needs 2. That would add extra time to complete your project, so you would need to factor that in to your total time estimate.
Track time spent on tasks and projects
Tracking time tells you exactly how long specific tasks and projects take to complete, and can show you what tasks you and your team spend the most time on.
It’s as easy as starting a timer when a task starts, stopping it when it’s done, and recording the amount of time that was spent. You can also use a digital app, like Connecteam, with a time clock that automatically records time down to the second.
By tracking time, you can easily adjust your current estimates based on the actual time it takes to complete tasks. For example, say you estimated that a certain task would take 12 hours to complete. But you’ve been tracking time and see that it’s actually taken 15 hours. You can
Similarly, tracking time ensures that your team isn’t falling behind on tasks. Let’s say that you estimated 40 hours for one project task, but your team has recorded 20 already and the task isn’t halfway done yet. This could signal that your team needs to work more quickly. You can speak with them and see how to make that happen.
Additionally, tracking time provides you with accurate time records that you can review when making future time estimates.
Account for wasted time
Keep an eye out for the time you spend on other things while working on a project. You’re bound to chat with your team members, check emails, grab something to eat or drink, or otherwise get distracted.
Avoiding time waste altogether is simply unrealistic, so it’s better to work it into your total estimate. You can do this by creating a list of common activities you do each day while working on a project. Then, estimate the amount of time each takes.
- Chatting with coworkers – 30 minutes
- Two smoke breaks – 30 minutes
- Grabbing a cup of coffee – 15 minutes
- Checking emails – 25 minutes
- Grabbing a snack near the job site or office – 20 minutes
- Lunch break – 30 minutes
That works out to 150 minutes, or 2.5 hours, of time each day not spent actively working on a project. This means that you work productively for 5.5 hours each day, if you work 8-hour days. Knowing this can help you create more precise time estimates.
Add in extra time for emergencies
When creating project plans and figuring out timing, it’s important to schedule additional time in case you end up needing it. Plans with tight turnaround times that don’t allow for flexibility can fall apart when just a single issue arises.
For example, factor in extra time to address challenges like labor shortages, equipment failures, power outages, inclement weather, and even certain resources being unavailable.
Involve your team and seek expert opinions
Consulting with your employees can help ensure that your estimates are reasonable and accurately reflect the time it takes to complete projects. To get their thoughts, you can hold meetings, have one-on-one calls or discussions, or send out polls or surveys.
For instance, you may estimate that a project will take 200 total hours to complete, but your team might feel that 250 hours is a more realistic estimate.
Involving your team in time estimates makes employees feel valued and capable. This then makes them more engaged, which improves employee satisfaction. Additionally, they’ll be more motivated to work hard and stick to a project’s timeline if they’ve helped to create it.
Also, don’t hesitate to reach out to experts or specialists who have worked on similar projects. People with specialized experience and knowledge can give you a better sense of how long a project should take.
Track progress and review your timeline after project completion
You should make an effort to track progress throughout each project. This way, you can quickly adjust your time estimate if any issues come up. The right task management tools—such as checklists, on-to-go task assignment, and task notifications sent straight to employees’ devices—can make tracking easy.
Plus, tracking progress lets you compare how projects are actually going against your estimates. This helps make future time projections more accurate.
Finally, when a project is done, review its timeline in detail. Look at each task and ask yourself the following questions:
- How long did it take?
- How much money was spent?
- Were the goals/objectives met?
- Who worked on the task and how did they perform?
- How satisfied was the team and/or client with the task?
This can give you a clear look at the actual project duration and overall success compared to your estimate. You can easily identify any differences between the estimate and the outcome and make decisions on how to address them in your next project.
Without knowing how to correctly estimate time, you could end up with failed projects. Your projects can run over budget, and you can miss important deadlines. Poor time estimating ends up wasting a ton of time and money, and leaves customers less than thrilled.
No matter what kind of projects your business takes on, using estimated time to complete (ETC) projections can help you better predict how long it will take to complete projects. Your employees will have a better understanding of what they need to do—and by when—and you’ll maintain a strong reputation by consistently delivering projects on time.