It’s been said that the last frontier of nature that humanity has not yet conquered is human nature.
We see it all around us. Otherwise perfectly rational and capable beings making choices and mistakes that, at their core, are nonsensical.
It happens in the micro and the macro. People get into car accidents despite driving hours a day for years on end. People choose the wrong career, or the wrong partner, based on inaccurate preconceptions about their lives. And in our work lives, we procrastinate, plan poorly, over and underestimate the size of our tasks, and obsess about it all until its done.
People are late—to Zoom meetings—when they happen at the same time each day. I was late to one while writing this article.
To put it simply, we make mistakes!
That old refrain, “we’re only human,” has been repeated in our daily lives and pop culture to the point where it almost doesn’t register anymore. But it’s actually one of the most foundational sentiments when it comes to understanding why we do what we do, and what expectations are the most fair to set for ourselves.
We are only human. Our brains are the most gorgeously complex computer systems ever devised. But even they have their weaknesses.
Enter the world of cognitive biases. These are phenomenon that occur in our minds where our logic fails to help us operate or react to the world in a, well, logical way. Elsewhere, it’s been described as, at its core, “a systematic error in thinking.”
In a way, it’s as though our brain’s weakness actually lies in its power—overactive imaginations, or over-thinking simple or routine things.
“The human brain is powerful, but subject to limitations.”
It’s a vast subject with a lot of implications to consider.
(There are also way too many subcategories of these thought processes to address them all in anything resembling a brief or digestible article. Leave a comment if you’re interested in hearing more about them in future pieces!)
It can be an illuminating and a scary thing to confront—the idea that something within us, that was born with us, can break slightly, and start sabotaging us. But all obstacles—even the ones our brains create to work against us—are conquerable.
And the first step towards triumphing over them, a lot of the time, is recognizing them.
The next step is attacking them head on. Let’s do some attacking today.
Here are three cognitive biases that might be tripping you up, and a first idea of how to combat them.
The mere urgency effect
Definition: The tendency to prioritize urgent tasks over non-urgent tasks even when it doesn’t serve us in pursuing our larger goals.
Or, more simply, spinning your wheels with the day-to-day instead of ever diving into your deeper passions and dreams.
If you let that cycle reach its logical conclusion, you’ll be stuck. Stuck in a never-ending matrix of doing daily “important” tasks—constantly keeping inbox zero, delivering on projects that kick the can but never truly move the needle.
And never putting in work towards a greater reward that will truly be more meaningful to you.
It means never doing work, first of all, that leads to greater fortunes for your work or your company, or sets you out as an individual with initiative. But also, it means never starting your screenplay. Never doing the “by night” part of the “work by day, hustle by night” equation. You’ll be the proverbial accountant with the drum set in the basement, gathering dust.
The first step towards a solution: Remember the bigger picture.
It’s easy to come home at the end of a long day, order takeout, and sit on the couch. You earned it, after all. But imagine ten or fifty of those days strung out in a row. No progress.
Instead, think of your days in terms of weeks and months and years. And every little bit of progress towards your dream adds up.
So, do anything you can do to remind yourself the value and worth in chipping off whatever progress you can, whenever you can.
The Zeigarnik effect
Definition: The tendency to remember incomplete tasks more readily than completed ones.
I’ve laid in bed before, in the midst of stressful periods of work, and it felt like my head was physically burning. Thoughts and ideas would cycle through my head. Tasks—legitimate tasks that needed completing—would pop in my head and disappear into thin air before I could roll over and pull out my phone to write them down. I walked around in fear, both of all the pressing matters that were hanging over my head, and the ones I knew I had forgotten.
I’ve thought to myself, I need an endless scroll, like they had in olden times. I could take a quill and just start writing, plumbing the depths of my brain until I was out of ideas, thousands of words later.
This is no way to live. And it’s unproductive to the point of actually being destructive to our output.
But luckily, there’s a somewhat simple first step.
The problem: “I need the most endless, exhaustive, detailed to-do list of all time.”
The first step towards a solution: an exhaustive, detailed, beautiful to-do list.
Get a to-do list app. It doesn’t matter which one. It can be a piece of paper.
Make that list your everything. Write down every thought that floats through your head. You can organize it later. The important part is writing it down.
Get those thoughts out of your head by any means necessary. Because in your head, they’re left to their own devices—allowed to swirl and congeal and accelerate and grow, until they barely resemble the original thought.
it’s almost akin to the old practice of writing a letter to someone when you’re angry, and storing it in a drawer. or the practice of journaling in general. Get it out of your head, and it loses its power. It shrinks back down to its real size.
Only then, can you start whittling down that list. Then the real work begins.
The planning fallacy
Definition: The tendency to underestimate or overestimate the time it will take to accomplish a task despite evidence to the contrary.
I wrote about my own extensive experience with this phenomenon here. My assumptions kept me in a prison of inactivity, where I thought I had to devote massive chunks of my life to larger tasks. I would disappear off the face of the Earth for three or four days at a time, and emerge blinking, slightly fatter, with a mediocre piece of writing in my hand.
I didn’t even stop to consider there were other ways to break down an assignment—other ways to schedule my time. Don’t fall into the same trap.
The first step towards a solution:
Try, just for fun, to see how you might differently approach your work.
Run experiments – try to finish something hard in a small amount of time. Or give yourself a luxurious amount of time to accomplish something relatively simple and see how much polish and beauty you’re able to add to it. If it took you eight hours last time but three of those hours were spent on Instagram or Grubhub or whatever, try it in four this time.
Find what feels healthy and manageable for you. The fact that you’re looking plainly at your process and trying to affect change is all that matters.
Armed with this knowledge, you might think that the battle is already won. That after having the revelation on the therapist’s couch, all the issues begin to melt away. But our brains are fickle and sneaky machines. You might morph or adapt your tendencies to avoid detection. Or you might sub-consciously stay attached to the comfort or familiarity those mental patterns provided you.
If you’re serious about taking on cognitive biases, you’re gonna have to keep this process top of mind consistently as you walk through life.
It’ll take some vigilance, but the rewards—a more balanced and purposeful mind, productivity, calm—are well worth it.
Your article makes a lot of sense. I’ve been doing some of the activities you recommend for a long while but I’d like to make more progress.
Glad you liked it! And glad you’re working at it – it’s a hard process that can wig you out a bit if you’re not careful, haha. I recommend reading further on it! Google is a great resource.