It’s safe to say we all have goals we’d like to hit, but haven’t made much progress on. But why is it so easy to want to better ourselves, and so hard to actually do it?
Goal setting is difficult for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that our brains hate change. Our brains were designed to be efficient. But it takes energy and effort to break out of bad habits and work towards the things we care about.
Instead of helping us on our path to self-improvement, our minds have developed all sorts of strange mental biases and cognitive shortcuts that hold us back. And while it’s not impossible to get around them, you need to know what’s getting in your way before you can make any meaningful change.
The Planning Fallacy
What it is: When we’re overly optimistic about how long a task or goal should take to achieve (and underestimate the resources needed to hit it).
When it happens: The planning fallacy is a common cognitive bias that explains why we’re so bad at judging how long something will take to do. It’s why that project you thought would only take 15-20 minutes actually took 5+ hours
When it comes to goal setting, the planning fallacy can be especially devastating. Studies have found that seeing progress on your goals is a huge motivator. But when things take longer than we expect, it’s easy to get disheartened, think it’s our fault (or we’re not good enough), and even give up.
How to counteract it: There’s lots you can do to help counteract the planning fallacy (we wrote a whole guide about it here). But here are the basics:
- First, take time to break down the goal into individual steps. What exactly do you have to do to reach it?
- Next, use implementation intentions (i.e. saying “I will write 1000 words on Tuesday at 11am” vs. “I will write on Tuesdays”) to work through each block.
- Finally, if you still find yourself missing deadlines or being overly optimistic, use what’s called “Reference class forecasting.” This is basically a fancy word for switching your thought process from “how long has this taken me in the past?” to “how long does this type of project take people like me?”
False Hope Syndrome
What it is: When we start with an unreasonable goal and quickly give up when we fail to reach it.
When it happens: Read the majority of self-help literature out there and you’ll be bombarded with ways to “drop 10 pounds in a week” or “learn Mandarin in a month.” Our brains are lazy and latch onto any promise to hack our way through what feels like hard work. But like the old saying goes, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.
The issue is, when you set a goal that feels ambitious and the results aren’t immediately apparent, it’s easy to get disillusioned and give up. Do this over and over and you’re likely to abandon the change you want to make.
How to counteract it: In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman offers up a simple solution to False Hope Syndrome: A premortem.
“Imagine that you are [x amount of time] into the future. You implemented your plan as it now exists. The outcome was a disaster. Take five to ten minutes to write a brief history of that disaster.”
While optimism and confidence help us reach our goals, a bit of pessimism upfront can help us be realistic. This way, you’ll know when to expect roadblocks and how to work through them. Rather than let them derail your progress.
What it is: When we overestimate the effects of our goal-supportive behaviors but underestimate the effects of behaviors that don’t support our goals.
When it happens: Let’s say your goal is to write a novel. Your brain will focus more on the 2 evenings a week when you wrote for an hour or so, and “forget” the other 5 nights where you were tired and watched Netflix instead. The problem is that both behaviors affect our goal progress. You can’t only take the good without the bad.
How to counteract it: Focus on the process, not the outcome. When we only think about the outcome of the goal, we fall into the progress bias.
But, if we focus on the process (i.e. “write something every night” instead of “write a novel”) we can build a habit that supports our goal, rather than forcing ourselves to work towards it.
What it is: When we only look at people who were successful as an example and ignore all the other people who failed at something because of a lack of visibility.
When it happens: “Well X did it! And so can I!” If you’ve ever found yourself making goals based on the outcomes other people have had, you’ve more than likely been victim of survivorship bias. Rather than look at everything that needs to be done to hit a goal and where others have failed, under the survivorship bias we only look at the few who successfully made it to the other side.
This can lead to all sorts of goal setting issues. Like being overly optimistic, ignoring potential issues, or the realities of what you’re going after. Or, as David McRaney writes on You Are Not So Smart:
“When failure becomes invisible, the difference between failure and success may also become invisible.”
How to counteract it: Whenever you find yourself making decisions or setting goals based on someone else’s results look for other examples of people who weren’t successful. Where did they fail?
If you can’t find these examples (and they’re usually hard to find!) another option is to imagine yourself in their shoes at the start of an endeavour.
Were the outcomes at all predictable? If so, how? Can you replicate the steps they figured out and took? So many times people mistake luck for skill. And while you can learn the same skills as someone else, you can’t learn luck.
Sunk Cost Fallacy
What it is: When you continue to work towards the wrong goal because you’ve “already spent so much time on it.”
When it happens: Let’s say you’ve been building an app for the past few months. But one day you come across a major flaw in the code that renders what you’ve done pretty much useless. Do you keep pressing on looking for a solution? Or do you stop, reassess, and start over?
No one wants to feel like they wasted days, months, or years working towards the wrong thing. That’s why our brains like to value the time we’ve spent and use it to justify future actions. But any time spent working towards the wrong goal is a worse choice than starting over on the right path.
How to counteract it: To get past the sunk cost fallacy, you need to switch your mindset away from loss aversion (“I’m losing the time I spent on this”) to forward looking (“I’m gaining all this time to work on the right goal!”)
This is no small task. But as Dr. Robert L. Leahy explains on Psychology Today, it starts with mindfulness and asking a few simple questions, like:
- If you were observing someone else in the same predicament, would you recommend that they stay with their sunk costs or get out?
- Are you trying to prove that you are right, even if it keeps you committed to the wrong decision? Is it more important to be right than to be happy?
- Are you sacrificing other opportunities because you are stuck with the sunk cost?
What it is: When we believe that we need more information before we can take action.
When it happens: How many times have you said “I can’t do X until Y?” When it comes to working towards our goals, most of us think we need to have all the information before we can start. But according to the information bias, most of the information we seek out is irrelevant to the actions we need to take. Even worse, simply learning from experience is often a better route to take than trying to “know it all” before you start.
How to counteract it: As author and habit coach James Clear explains, learning and doing aren’t mutually exclusive. Rather than fall victim to the information bias, James says we should try to stay action-oriented towards our goals and follow the 80/20 rule:
“If you’re looking for a rule, it’s generally accepted that you should spend about 80% of your time exploiting the knowledge you already have and about 20% exploring new things and looking for a better mousetrap.”
What it is: When we only remember past events based on their emotional peak and how they ended.
When it happens: Experience is one of the greatest tools when working towards your goals. Experimenting and learning from your mistakes (or successes) is what helps you truly move forward. Unfortunately, our brains like to ignore the bulk of what we experience and only focus in on a few key moments.
We can’t remember everything, but studies have found that our brains tend to only remember the peak of something and how it ended. So if you were generally successful in an experiment, but it ended poorly, you’re more likely to discount the entire thing rather than pick out what was actually good about it.
How to counteract it: The peak-end rule is basically a recency bias—an example of our brain conserving energy by only holding onto the most recent memory. So to get over it, you need to actively go deeper into your memory.
One great way to do this is through journalling. Introspective writing like this has been shown to improve our working memory, build our confidence, and give us better insight into what actually happened.
For all their cognitive power, our brains are still vulnerable to all sorts of biases. But to work towards the goals that matter to us, we need to get past them and see things for what they really are.
It starts with awareness, but the next step is action. So as you work towards your goals, take a second, step back, and ask if you’re falling into any of these cognitive biases.