Margin for Error: Why You Should Underestimate Your Abilities and Overestimate Your Needs

It happens so often. Just this morning I caught myself when I was responding to a freelancing gig: I was quoting optimal deadlines and costs.

For one self-imposed deadline, I wrote 2 days. For another, I wrote 6.

Then, I re-read the email and thought, why am I not giving myself any breathing room? Why am I assuming there won’t be any unforeseen setbacks?

I did the same thing with the budget.

Again, I thought, why the hell am I leaving myself no margin for error on a custom design? Why am I leaving myself no recourse for unexpected costs?

I immediately recalled the words of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I believe it was in Antifragile that Taleb said we constantly do this to ourselves.

I think his illustration involved hailing a taxi.  We would have a meeting at 11:00 am and then hail a taxi at 10:30, knowing in optimal conditions that it’d arrive at 10:55 am while leaving our appointment at the mercy of optimal traffic – and as we all know traffic has a way of being suboptimal.

We quote perfectionist estimates to ourselves and others even though we’re not perfect and even if we were, we don’t live in a perfect world.

For example, maybe I am capable of having 5 major ad campaigns up and running in 2 days but what if Facebook puts my account on hold? What if my designer runs late with the logo?

Happens All the Time

I can cite example after example where I’ve given myself almost no margin for error. Sometimes I was able to pull it off and other times I wasn’t.

Today, I stopped myself;  I backed off the deadlines and gave myself cushion.

In some cases, it’s easy to see why we’d quote the best possible times.  The job might have stiff competition or the other party might have strict demands.

But this morning, it made no sense.  I had no impositions.  I didn’t need the job.  I was backing myself into a tight corner and hoping I could fight my way out – for no reason.