The Blink Factor: Do You Know How Much Time Things REALLY Take


Once upon a time, we were building a website for a client who wanted to save time and money by supplying their own photographs rather than paying a professional photographer to do custom work. Being agreeable – the customer is always right, right? I said sure.

This was a decision I later regretted when I saw the images the client provided. They weren’t horrible, exactly, but they weren’t anywhere close to being good, much less good enough to be used for marketing purposes. So I called the client and said that if we wanted to go forward with the images, I’d need to have our designer touch-up the photos to properly remove shadows from poor lighting and enhance the color for impact.

They agreed and my senior designer put his Photoshop skills to work. Transforming those substandard images into pictures we could use – the process took two hours. This upset the client. “There’s no way a little thing like that should have taken so long,” they protested.

Do you know what happened? We’d run right into the “blink factor”.

The “Blink Factor”

Have you ever heard the phrase, “Time flies when you’re having fun?”

It turns out that time can move pretty quickly in a number of situations. You may have experienced this yourself when you’ve sat down to work on an administrative task connected to your business, such as ordering some inventory or looking over employee time sheets. A task that you thought would only take a few minutes winds up consuming over an hour – perhaps even an entire afternoon.

How does this happen?

Cognitive researchers, the folks who study how we take in and process information about the world we live in, have identified two distinct processes people use to estimate how long it will take us to complete a given task.

When we estimate how long it will take us to perform a physical task, such as walking to the corner store for a cup of coffee, we’re using implicit time processing. When we estimate how long it will take us to perform a mental task, whether it’s tedious in nature, think data entry, or creative, think writing content, designing an ad or programming a website – we’re using explicit time processing.

While people tend to be fairly consistently accurate when using their implicit time processing skills, there’s a universal tendency to underestimate when we use our explicit time processing skills. We think mental work takes less time than it actually does whether we’re doing the work ourselves or someone else is doing it.

I coined the phrase  “blink factor” to explain the disparity between how long a mental task takes to complete and how long we, or more importantly our customers, think it should take. Obviously, the “blink factor” can introduce confusion or tension into an otherwise good working relationship.

Beating the “Blink Factor”: Know Yourself

Data is your friend. As a business owner, you should be tracking how you use your time. Being able to look at objective records that detail how long it takes to perform given tasks will enable you to provide more accurate time frame estimates to your clientele.

Don’t guess. Know. Find a cloud-based application or app for your phone to help you. In-house we use a project management application like Basecamp. Other tools we like are Toggl, Harvest and Clockodo. These tools can provide you with objective, reliable data that will make it easier for you to accurately project how long a task will take.

Beating the “Blink Factor”: Communicate With Customers

Knowing how long a task will take is only half the battle when it comes to beating the “blink factor”. You need to let your customer know how long the job will take as well. Managing expectations is essential to customer satisfaction.

That’s why we now put a detailed cost breakout into every proposal, sharing how long each element of our process will take to complete and what that will cost. The time to discuss whether your team works fast enough should happen before the job begins – not while the project is in process.

Having an accurate time frame discussed and agreed upon gives us a baseline to come back and refer to in case the “blink factor” threatens to disrupt your project. Integrating time tracking into your daily routine will deliver significant rewards in terms of customer satisfaction.

That’s how you beat the “blink factor”.

Here’s a fun blink test using stock photo searches. Before you head to a stock site, identify the type of photo you want to find, and be creative. Note before you go to the stock site identify how much time you think it should take. Then set your timer. How much time did it really take? This little exercise can give you an insight into why time slips away for so many creative professionals.

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