Strategies for Time Estimation

Have you ever asked a three-year-old how long it takes to cook dinner? Estimates may range from 5 minutes to 27 hours. Have you ever asked a teenager to guess your age? I’ve been told I’m 23 or 54. Students are not always good at time estimation.

When working on time management strategies, we often focus on planning, prioritizing, and motivation. However, the ability to estimate time is absolutely essential for any type of time management. If students do not understand how long a minute actually is, then any attempt at time management is doomed from the beginning.

Subjective Time vs. Measured Time

Phrases like “soon” or “in a while” are the enemy of effective time management strategies. There can be a big difference between how long it feels for time to pass (subjective time) and the actual duration of time (measured time). By teaching students the difference between subjective time and measured time, you’ll be helping them build the time estimation abilities they need to manage their own time.

The Minute Game

One classic strategy to teach this difference is “The Minute Game.” Have students put their heads down and then raise their hands when they think a minute has passed. Then repeat the game under a variety of conditions (e.g., while watching a funny video, talking to friends, holding their arms out, or standing on one foot). This game teaches students that a minute can feel very different depending on the circumstances, so measuring how much time actually passes is key.

Estimating Time

Once students understand the difference between subjective time and measured time, start estimating! Have students estimate the time they’ll need to complete a homework assignment, and then measure the actual time it takes. Did it take longer? Shorter? Why?

It’s tempting to time all sorts of academic tasks, but my students often balk at timing their homework. Instead of fighting that battle, we pick other, more unconventional things to time. How long does it take to tie your shoes? To eat a granola bar? To walk home from school? When my students choose the things they time, they are more willing to engage with time estimation activities that will help them develop a sense of time in all areas of their lives.

Once students have a better sense for the passage of time, they can then learn strategies for prioritizing their work and planning short- and long-term assignments more effectively. As for my age, I’m not sure if they’ll ever get that right!


  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director