Avoid these 3 behavioral time traps

Human beings do some silly behavioral stuff.

Let’s begin with the story of four Wall Street Bankers power lunching at the esteemed NYC Bistro Balthazar. Fresh off of a gi-normous M&A deal, they order the Mouton Rothschild 1989 wine at an eye-popping price point of $2,000.

Unbeknownst to them, they receive an $18 Pinot Noir. There had been a mix-up in the kitchen – a tale of swapped (yet identical looking) decanters. Even more surprisingly, was that the beneficiaries of the mistake – a couple seated a few tables away – also didn’t realize that their $18 Pinot, was actually a $2,000 Bordeaux.

The tl;dr (courtesy of this fantastic post from Kent Hendricks) is that when it comes to expensive wine, people have no idea what they’re drinking. Hendricks goes on to elaborate on more wine-related behavioral blunders, including:

  • When people don’t know the price, they like cheap wine just as much as expensive wine
  • People can’t distinguish any wine from any other wine (at rates greater than 50/50)
  • Price has a vastly out-sized effect on the perceived quality of wine
  • High price is evidence of high status, and even if fabricated, has an out-sized effect on a wine drinker’s self-perception

Why we sabotage our own productivity

When it comes to time management, it turns out that even the most ardent productivity enthusiasts fall victim to common behavioral biases. These include:

  • The Mere Urgency Effect
  • The Planning Fallacy
  • The Present Bias

Let’s examine each of these behavioral blunders and tactics to avoid them.

Mere Urgency Effect

To understand this first bias, look no further than your own email inbox. As you open your laptop, you are presented with two options: start a year-end review for your biggest client or chop some wood towards Inbox Zero. The mere urgency effect dictates that humans choose objectively worse options (email) over objectively better options (client presentations) when “the unimportant tasks are characterized by spurious urgency (e.g. an illusion of expiration).”

In Bridget Schulte’s essay How busyness leads to bad decisions the BBC reporter explains how our brains are “wired for novelty,” which leads to the following perverse consequences:

We actually love being interrupted with every random ping and ding of a new message. And humans enjoy feeling busy and productive. Combine time scarcity with that pull of novelty and our busyness craving and it’s easy to see how we end up focusing our time and attention on whatever’s right in front of us, which, these days, is email.

There are two simple strategies to combat this egregious mis-prioritization: First, the trusty Eisenhower Matrix can help distinguish the urgent from the important.

The Eisenhower Matrix: Prioritize Like a President — Go Be More Co

Next, pair the matrix with Mark Twain’s advice on doing your highest leverage activities first:

If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.

(And you can also join us on 12/15 to master David Allen’s time-tested Getting Things Done System.)

Present Bias

A group of researchers asked people if they preferred $100 today, $120 in 12 months, or $144 in 24 months. Despite these payoffs being dramatically more than anything found in stock markets, they found that about half of respondents would take less money if they could have it immediately.

Meet the Present Bias (the yin to Delayed Gratification’s yang), which explains our tendency to give stronger weights to payoffs that are closer to the present. It’s the reason we procrastinate, eat too much sugar, and don’t invest in our retirement accounts.

Combating this bias involves connecting with and being on the same page as your future self using realistic goals, keystone habits and a set of values to guide you towards your True North.

Planning Fallacy

The Planning Fallacy is why we suck at planning and consistently miss deadlines. The ToDoist blog describes this behavioral bias as:

Our tendency to underestimate the time it will take to complete a future task despite knowing that similar tasks have taken longer in the past. Homeowners underestimate how much time renovations will take. Writers underestimate the amount of time they’ll need to complete a novel. Product managers underestimate how long a new feature will take to build.

There are multiple effects at play here. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky explained this effect by “envisaging that planners focus on the most optimistic scenario for the task, rather than using their full experience of how much time similar tasks require.”  The psychology professor, Roger Buehler attributes it to wishful thinking, “people think tasks will be finished quickly and easily because that is what they want to be the case.”

(I feel seen.)

To combat the Planning Fallacy, entrepreneur, neuro-science researcher (and RadReader) Anne-Laure Le Cunff offers some simple tactics:

  • Taking an outside view: Base your estimates on external sources (like interviews)
  • Conducting a pre-mortem: Imagine your project was late and work backwards to identify the cause of the delay.
  • Questioning your motivations: Are there subjective reasons such as internal politics, a personal deadline such as a holiday trip, or external pressure that may lead to unrealistic deadlines?

Hopefully by now these time traps are no longer unknown unknowns. And you can step right over them (while enjoying some cheap wine).

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