Skip to content

Experiencing the planning fallacy: How long does it take to make a cup of coffee?

The planning fallacy is that people think they can plan, ha ha.

Eliezer Yodkowsky – more here

How long does it take to make a cup of coffee? Shrug your shoulders and make a quick guess – the type of guess you’d make if you didn’t think it was a trick question and you knew no-one was going to check your answer. Write it down.

Now – well, once you’ve finished reading, but before you get up – start a timer on your watch or phone.

Then go! Make a (decent) cup of coffee as quickly as you can. Don’t take your phone. Don’t stop to talk or to go to the toilet. Don’t offer to make coffee for anyone else. Concentrate exclusively on making a (decent) cup of coffee as quickly as you can.

Then come straight back here and stop the timer. Go!

How long did it take you?

Do I feel lucky?

Now imagine that you might…

  • feel compelled to check your messages or read the news while making coffee;
  • exchange greetings with someone on the way;
  • feel uncomfortable not offering them coffee or tea or their complicated idiosyncratic beverage of choice;
  • need the loo;
  • check your messages while going to the loo;
  • need to rinse your mug;
  • have to open a new pack of coffee (or grind it);
  • have to hunt for the scissors first;
  • spill any one of the substances you use to make coffee at any stage and need to clean it up (bonus points if your milk boils over in the microwave);
  • want a little snack;
  • need to make two trips to deliver drinks and snacks;
  • reminisce about something in your distant past;
  • think about something in your near future;
  • need to help someone or tidy something on the way;
  • or write something down on returning to wherever you were so that it’s out of your mind before you do the next thing.

And then ask yourself: “Assuming that I might be feeling a bit slow, and that a few of the things above happen, and that I want to return to my desk feeling relatively calm and orderly, is ‘about five minutes’ really enough time to make a cup of coffee?”

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...