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Estimating Project Time

How long does it take you to finish a job you've done numerous times before like breaking down, cleaning, and relubing winches? You won't know until you take the time to quantify the process.
I have yet to meet the sailor who is not a cockeyed optimist when it comes to estimating the time to complete a boat enhancement or repair project—and I include myself in this gathering. After several decades of messing about in sailboats, I know better than a lot of boat owners just how long most jobs are going to take, yet when it comes to doing things on my own boat, I invariably yield to wishful thinking and schedule less time than the task requires.

There is something to be said for that old saw about a pessimist never being disappointed. When you underestimate the time required for planned work on your boat, you build failure into every job. Sure you can go back on Sunday and finish the task, but by late Saturday the joy is likely to be gone out of the project. Let's face it, you had counted on finishing it by then and you did not. And if you had planned to sail on Sunday, you'll end up doubly disappointed. All it would have taken to avoid this negative result was a more realistic time estimate.

Does this really matter? You bet it does. The pleasures of sailing are nearly always tempered by the burden of maintaining a boat. Often what chases once-enthusiastic sailors off the water has little to do with sailing. The less you enjoy messing around on your boat and/or the less pride of ownership you feel, the more likely your are to join the growing ranks of ex sailors. That is too bad, because sailing is one of the few truly rewarding activities that age does not deprive us of. You can sail for the rest of your life, finding fresh challenges and insights every time you go out. Few of us will claim to enjoy changing the engine oil or sanding the bottom, but it is possible to take pleasure in some of the other aspects of boat husbandry—if you don't spoil it with unrealistic expectations. The more enjoyment you can find in the non-sailing part of owning a sailboat, the longer you are likely to enjoy the sailing part.

Larger tasks, like replacing the steering system, regularly take more than twice the time we estimate for them beforehand.
So how do you arrive at a realistic time estimate? For repetitive jobs, like servicing the engine or treating the teak, time yourself one time. Don't fall into the trap of remembering how long the job took the last time; a sailor's memory tends to be selectively optimistic—so make a written record. Write down the exact time you arrive at the boat to start the job, and then make a second entry when the job is finished, the tools put away, and you are ready to leave. Now you know precisely how much time to allow the next time you repeat this particular task.

Keeping a maintenance and improvement log is an even better idea. Along with the date and a cryptic description of the job, log the start and finish times. Good, work-completed records are valuable in other ways, but if you include times, you will be able to schedule an adequate time allowance in the future by looking in the book.

Unfortunately, many—perhaps most—of the “improvements” we make to our boats are non-repetitive. When you decide to paint the topsides, build a shelf, or install a three-step regulator, you may have little if any experience to draw on for estimating the time the job will demand. So what do you do now?

Start with a Conscientious Guess (CG). This only takes a couple of minutes longer than the more traditional Wild Ass Guess (WAG), but it will give you a far more useful result. For the CG, you need to break the whole job into its components, and then make your best guess of the time each task will require. Let's take painting the topsides as an example. Quickly jot down the steps involved. Your list would look something like this:

"Start with a Conscientious Guess. This only takes a couple of minutes longer than the more traditional Wild Ass Guess, but will give you a far more useful result in the long term."

  • Wash
  • Strip Graphics
  • Degrease
  • Dewax
  • Sand
  • Repair gouges
  • Fair repairs
  • Mask
  • Prime
  • Sand
  • Glaze
  • Mask
  • Prime
  • Sand
  • Mask
  • Paint
  • Sand
  • Mask
  • Paint

    Now imagine how long each of these steps will take you and write down your best guess. Don't try to do anything special here. You know how fast you work, so if you think you can sand your hull in an hour, that is your estimate. Your list will now look something like this:

  • Wash                .5
  • Strip Graphics   .5
  • Degrease           2
  • Dewax              1
  • Sand                 1
  • Repair gouges   2.5
  • Fair repairs;      3
  • Mask                .5
  • Prime                1
  • Sand                 1
  • Glaze                3
  • Mask                .5
  • Prime                1
  • Sand                 1
  • Mask                .5
  • Paint                 1
  • Sand                 1
  • Mask                .5
  • Paint                 1

    Here is where you recover the price of admission. While few of us are very good at doing accurate estimates, my experience suggests that we are nearly all fairly consistent in our optimism. For example, anytime I estimate the time for a job, large or small, by the time I gather up the materials, deal with the unexpected, and take care of the details I failed to account for in my estimate, the actual time is about 2.5 times my estimate. A 10-minute job nearly always takes me closer to 25 minutes and a one-week job actually takes me two and a half weeks. This is what we can call the K factor. In our example, multiplying 20 hours by 2.5 will get us far closer to the actual amount of time that painting the topsides will take. The formula for this is CG x K = SCG (Scientific Conscientious Guess).

    Most jobs aboard smaller boats ordinarily take less time, but there are plenty of exceptions to that rule.
    I am not asserting that all your jobs will take two and a half times longer than you estimate, although my K factor of 2.5 is typical enough that I recommend you use it to start with. The appropriate K factor for you will depend on how optimistic you are in your estimates and on how skillfully and efficiently you work. If you find that your jobs finish sooner than this method predicts, reduce the K factor, but don't be shocked if you have to adjust it the other way. Nearly everyone is surprised at how large this number turns out to be.

    Use my K factor or dial in your own, and I guarantee that you will consistently feel better about every job you take on. This trick doesn't actually provide more sailing time, but it feels like it does. And that's almost as good.


  • Don Casey is offline  
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