Tips For Estimating

March 6, 2021

No matter what type of job you have you will be asked to provide an estimate of when you will be able to complete a task. You may be asked to estimate how long will it take to create a document, or complete a project. Everyone hates estimates. I don’t think I have ever come across a person that enjoys estimates. If you are new to estimates or have trouble creating estimates, this post will provide some pointers that I use when creating estimates.


  1. Everyone hates estimating.
  2. You probably won’t have all of the details so use the information that you know.
  3. Create bucket sizes.
  4. Try to breakdown larger tasks into smaller tasks to make more precise due dates.
  5. Practice giving estimates to become better at them.

You don’t need all of the details

One of the biggest complaints that I have heard regarding estimates is not having enough information to give an accurate estimate. Chances are you will not have all of the details when asked for an estimate but chances are you will have a general idea of how long the task would take you. Having a general idea of something and all of the details are two different things. So give your estimate based on your general idea, aka “gut feeling”, of how long it will take to accomplish. You will be surprised how good your gut is at providing estimates. That is not to say that there won’t be things that are overlooked or surprises that can destroy your estimate, but trying to account for theoretical scenarios that more than likely won’t happen will not add any value to your estimation.

Have Bucket Sizes

The first thing I do when creating an estimate whether it is in my head, on paper, or on my computer is to put things into buckets. Buckets help me categorize how much effort I think the work will be. Buckets aren’t meant to provide very precise estimates but to start with a timeframe in which the task can be accomplished. This helps to know if the task is feasible within the given timeframe or if the task needs to be broken down further.

These are the buckets that I use:

Small: Represents 1 day to 1 week's worth of work. Tasks in this bucket are tasks in which I know what needs to be done and how to accomplish the task.

Medium: Represents 1 week to 1 month's worth of work. Tasks in this bucket are tasks in which I may know the details but I more than likely only have a general idea of what needs to be done

Large: Represents 1 to 6 month's worth of work. Tasks in this bucket I may have a general idea about or I need more information about.

X-large: This bucket is meant for things that either I have no idea how to accomplish and/or need to be broken down a lot more.

It is important to note that these buckets are specific to the way that I like to breakdown my estimates and your buckets should be specific to you. Your buckets may have different sizes and rationales. Also, T-shirt sizes may make more sense to you.

Be More Precise

While buckets are good for having an idea of when a task can be completed, eventually you will be asked to provide a date of when you expect to complete a task. This is where precision comes in. The smaller the timeframe or the smaller the bucket the easier it is to be more precise about the deadline. It’s much harder to give a specific completion date for tasks that will take months to complete than tasks that can be completed in a couple of days.

Tasks that take longer than a month I try to break up into several small or medium bucket tasks. From there I can get an idea of a specific date by making a timeline based on how the broken down tasks align. This also helps to keep track of progress and whether I am ahead or behind schedule.

I try to avoid Friday deadlines especially if it involves other people, because who wants to be the person asking people to complete a task on a Friday when they should be winding down for the weekend. I also tend to think about uncompleted Friday tasks over the entire weekend when I should be refreshing myself and not thinking about work. And for that same reason, I try to avoid Monday deadlines also. If given the opportunity I try to make tasks due between Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Practice Makes Better, Not Perfect

Estimation is a skill that you don’t perfect but rather improve. To become better and get more comfortable at estimating, you have to practice. Practice by creating personal estimates for yourself. The more you estimate the easier it gets.