Over-running operating lists are known to be a common cause of cancellation of operations on the day of surgery. We investigated whether lists were overbooked because surgeons were optimistic in their estimates of the time that operations would take to complete. We used a questionnaire to assess the estimates of total operation time of 22 surgeons, 35 anaesthetists and 16 senior nursing staff for 31 common, general surgical and urological procedures. The response rate was 66%. We found no difference between the estimates of these three groups of staff, or between these estimates and times obtained from theatre computer records (p = 0.722). We then applied the average of the surgeons' estimates prospectively to 50 consecutive published surgical lists. Surgical estimates were very accurate in predicting the actual duration of the list (r2= 0.61; p < 0.001), but were poor at booking the list to within its scheduled duration: 50% of lists were predictably overbooked, 50% over-ran their scheduled time, and 34% of lists suffered a cancellation. We suggest that using the estimates of operating times to plan lists would reduce the incidence of predictable over-runs and cancellations.