How cognitive biases sabotage our productivity

In the 1970s, two Israeli psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman concluded that human beings work against what favors them the most. 
There are about 100 cognitive biases – persistent mental errors – that distort our decision-making in all sorts of ways every day. These mental errors shape our lives every day in ways big and small.

Let’s learn about 7 such cognitive biases that sabotage our productivity.

The Mere Urgency Effect a.k.a. Why we let unimportant tasks take over our days

Humans have a tendency to prioritize tasks that are time-sensitive over tasks that aren’t time-sensitive. This in spite of the fact that rewards of the non-time-sensitive task may be objectively greater. In other words, urgency trumps importance every time.

What can you do about it? 

  • Use the Eisenhower Matrix to prioritize your tasks: Categorize your tasks into urgent/not urgent and important/not important categories. The matrix helps you decide what to do with a task depending on which quadrant it falls into.
  • Set aside your most productive 2-4 hours each day for your most important work.
  • Set aside specific time blocks for answering email. 

Give your important tasks a deadline. Commit to an external deadline.

The Zeigarnik Effect a.k.a. Why we can’t stop thinking about everything we need to get done

The Zeigarnik Effect refers to the human tendency of remembering incomplete or interrupted tasks better than completed ones. 

Each incomplete task the brain reminds you about takes up a bit of your attention. One needs to find relief from the Zeigarnik Effect so one can mentally disconnect in hours away from work.

What can we do about it? 

  • Write your tasks down. Keep a handy To-do list. 
  •  Create a system to organize and regularly review your tasks. 
  •  Plan for the next day before you stop working for the day.
  • Find a small way to just get started. Start by accomplishing small tasks.
  • Look back and check your progress.

The Planning Fallacy a.k.a. Why we miss deadlines

The Planning Fallacy refers to the human tendency to underestimate the time it will take to complete a future task despite knowing that similar tasks have taken longer in the past.

What can we do about it? 

  •  Break projects down into smaller parts and estimate how long each will take.
  • Keep extra time in hand when you plan out the time each work will require. 
  • Use historical data to make better predictions. Learn from your past experiences, and manage your time according to that. 
  • Limit the scope of work. If projects can still fall behind, reduce the scope of work midway to yield good results overall. 
  •  When you’re going to miss a deadline, communicate that early and often. The earlier you can let people know, the better they’ll be able to adjust their own plans.

The Sunk Cost Fallacy a.k.a Why we want to finish what we started, even when we shouldn’t

The Sunk Cost Fallacy describes our tendency to continue in an endeavor as a result of past investments in it.

What can we do about it? 

  •  Make opportunity costs explicit. Make the opportunity cost clear and focus on that. 
  • Keep track of your quarterly list of commitments. Set a specific timeline to periodically map out the big picture of where your time is going and where you want it to go.

The Present Bias a.k.a. Why we procrastinate, eat junk food, and don’t save for retirement

The Present Bias describes our tendency to choose a smaller, immediate reward over a larger reward in the future.

What can we do about it? 

  • Help out your future self. Make starting a task easier by planning and preparing for it in advance. 
  • Find ways to make the “right” thing a little more pleasant. 
  •  Reframe how you think about rewards. If you can’t overcome the Present Bias, find a way to work with it.

Imagine your future self. At the beginning of every day, imagine yourself completely satisfied at the end of the day.

The Complexity Bias a.k.a. Why we overcomplicate our lives

Complexity bias describes our tendency to prefer complicated explanations and solutions over simple ones.

What can we do about it? 

  • Develop a bias for action over research. Try things, see how they work, and slowly improve over time. 
  • Choose the system you’ll stick with. Look for systems that work with your natural inclinations. 

Apply Occam’s Razor. Occam’s Razor states that, when faced with two possible explanations for the same evidence, the one that requires the fewest assumptions is most likely to be true.

The Hedonic Adaptation a.k.a. Why we aren’t happy

The Hedonic adaptation is our tendency to quickly return to our normal levels of happiness after both positive and negative external events. 

What can we do about it?

  • Set many smaller goals instead of one big one. 
  • Enjoy the process, not just the outcome.
  • The outcome won’t make you happier, but the act of showing up every day can. 

Pursue strong social connections. Pursue big, ambitious goals, but don’t neglect the people who will celebrate with you when you achieve them.

A good start to beat the cognitive biases is being aware of their presence. Even when we are not absolutely rational beings, we can try to make better decisions for ourselves in the future.


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