4 Cognitive Biases that Affect Productivity (and How to Tackle Them)

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Aristotle defined humans as rational beings who tend to make decisions driven by logic. This assumption comes from the idea that when confronted with two options, we plump for the choice we believe will maximise well-being. The extent to which we are rational or irrational creatures is still highly contested — as are the cognitive biases thought to affect us.

Here’re a few examples of my own irrational decisions.

  • I’ll work on a task that needs to be finished in 3 days, rather than putting that on hold in favour of working on something that’s due by lunchtime tomorrow.  
  • I’ll watch another episode of my favourite series rather than going to sleep as I know I should.
  • I’ll have no sugar in my coffee, but then think nothing of having a massive slice of cake with it. After all, I need some fuel to write the next piece, don’t I?

The argument that we’re irrational’s gaining traction, isn’t it? If we’re all irrational animals for a good chunk of the time, it makes sense to look into a few cognitive biases which affect our productivity.  

Here, we’ll focus on 4 key biases, though there are more we’re subject to, which I may explore with you in a later post.

Later, we’ll explore the planning fallacy and how to avoid it. First, let’s investigate the urgency effect.

Photo by meo on Pexels.com. Representation of cognitive biases.

The Urgency Effect

Nowadays, most of us always have a lot on our plates. So how do we begin to prioritise when everything seems equally important?

The urgency bias suggests we’re more likely to concentrate on time-sensitive tasks over truly important ones.  

Important tasks tend to be more time-consuming, complex, and have no specific deadline. Thus, we focus on doing things with easy to reach, visible goals. We often believe that urgent tasks are valuable. This fools us into thinking that they should take priority over more crucial projects.

But what does this mean for our efficiency?

The quest for inbox zero is a perfect example of the urgency effect in action. We feel the need to respond to emails at once and stop whatever we’re working on to do so. By putting essential tasks on the back burner to do this, we end up not making the most of opportunities to do meaningful work and thus hinder our own productivity.

A great way to sidestep urgency bias is to use the Eisenhower Matrix to help you prioritise and separate urgent tasks from important ones. Here’s a little more detail I put into an earlier post.   

Next, let’s talk about the Zeigarnik effect.

The Zeigarnik Effect

Named for the Russian psychologist who first noticed it, Bulma Zeigarnik, this effect posits that people are more likely to remember unfinished tasks than completed ones. She first saw this in wait staff who could more easily recall open orders than closed ones. This natural tendency can be a good thing, reminding us to finish incomplete projects before starting something new. The problem arises when unfinished tasks begin piling up and our attention becomes divided. When this happens it’s harder to enter a state of ‘flow’ and do meaningful work. This can kick off a downward spiral of distracting, intrusive thoughts impinging on your focus, leading to poor performance and lower productivity.  

This one has a nasty habit of following us home, which can make it difficult to switch off from work and relax. This can potentially have negative consequences for family time, personal relationships, and your sleep routine. Problems in these areas could indirectly have a bad effect on your efficiency.

However, you can avoid this trap and learn to use the Zeigarnik effect to your advantage.

Here’re some ways I’ve found you can do that.  

Make an early start on important tasks when you can.

  • It doesn’t matter if you’re deadline isn’t for a while, making a start can really boost your motivation. Even just doing a little work on a task at the start will kick off the Zeigarnik Effect and you’ll remember to do a bit more, then a bit more, until your task is complete.
  • If you’re struggling, you can use time blocking to divide small chunks of your time up and devote them to working on your most important task.
  • By making an early start on projects, you can help others out too. For instance, if you plan a meeting the day before, give people notice and send out an agenda, there will be a chance for your co-workers to think about it. Thus, you can give yourself the best possible chance that you’ll receive productive feedback which will increase team efficiency.

Take short breaks while working to refresh your attention.

  • As beneficial as deep work is, our attention span is finite (typically an hour or two at most).
  • Taking short breaks while in the midst of deep work may sound counterproductive, but a 2015 study — involving workers on an assembly line —  found that taking short breaks of just a couple of minutes at a time can help refresh the mind so that you can focus for longer and recall useful information more easily.
  • By extension, it could be argued that this is the case for any type of focused work. The trick is to do something unrelated to your task for a short time. This could be something as simple as making a drink or doing some stretches.
  • You get even more out of this effect if you take these breaks at key points, to keep your mind engaged and interested in the work you’re doing.

Write a to-do list for your next working day at the end of your current one.

  • Research conducted by the BBC in 2013 supported the discovery of Masicampo and Baumeister. They found that simply planning can help free your mind from distracting thoughts about uncompleted tasks, so that you can relax, and return refreshed after an interval.
  • You can use the writing of to-do lists at the beginning of the day to help you focus better on the task or tasks at hand.

If you try out these tips to make the most of the positive aspects of this cognitive bias, you will have taken a massive step towards being as productive as you can.

Shortly, we’ll touch upon the last cognitive bias we’ll cover in this post, the sunk cost fallacy. Now though, it’s time to explore the planning fallacy.   

We’re forever underestimating how long it’ll take us to finish something, even if we have had earlier experience of a similar task having taken us longer than expected.

The Planning Fallacy and Efficiency

I touched upon this one in an earlier post. We’re forever underestimating how long it’ll take us to finish something, even if we have had earlier experience of a similar task having taken us longer than expected. This optimistic view leads us to set a completion date ahead of the deadline.

This spurs us on to start work on a daunting project because we believe it’ll take less time than it will. If we do not meet the self-imposed early deadline, we’re vulnerable to feelings of guilt, anxiety, and stress.

Now, let’s look at ways we can be realistic and set the sort of deadlines that help us get more done and doesn’t hinder productivity.

  • Split large tasks into smaller more manageable ones so that you’re more likely to have a realistic idea of how long they’re going to take.
  • Celebrate small wins as you go to help stay motivated.
  • Be careful not to over stretch yourself. If you’ve got a lot already on your plate for the next fortnight, it isn’t feasible to take on any more big, time-consuming tasks until two weeks have elapsed. You can visually map out all the tasks you have to do to help yourself better understand what kinds of projects you can reasonably expect (or be expected) to take on and those you can’t.
  • You can use apps like Asana or Google calendar to help do this.  
  • Use time tracking apps, to help give you a more exact idea of how long it takes you to complete a project. One of the best ways I’ve found to do this, is by creating a Pomodoro cycle in Todoist.  

Sunk Cost Fallacy

We’ve all experienced this one. Once you’ve devoted an amount of time to something, it’s natural to think that all that time will have gone to waste if we abandon it. We all tend to persist once we’ve reached a certain point, regardless of how unclear the outcome is. Often, we seek rewards of some sort when we undertake a task, so dropping a task and forgoing those rewards when we’ve devoted our resources to it can seem impossible. That’s the sunk cost fallacy in a nutshell. The type of sunk cost can vary, it can be measured in money spent, time dedicated, or energy spent.

Why do we keep doing it though? In part because the society we live in has primed us to. In much of the English-speaking world, we’re encouraged to push through struggles, to never quit, and that our reward for our perseverance will be our eventual success. But this is a misconception. Sometimes, failing at something is the most logical thing we can do.

Here’re some ways you can surmount the sunk cost fallacy.

Weigh the opportunity against the cost.

  • The cost is how much you’ll have to invest in something (time, money, energy) and the opportunity is what you’d receive if you took the next best choice available to you. 
  • Assessing your options by evaluating the potential benefits will help you focus more on what advantages making a different choice may offer, rather than concentrating almost solely on what you stand to lose by making it.
  • Work out what you will be giving up if you keep investing more in a course of action.

Review your commitments every so often.

  • Periodically evaluating the potential advantages and drawbacks of continuing to do something will help you manage your time and energy more efficiently.
  • You can set reminders in task management apps to check in on your progress and weigh the opportunity cost, by building decision points into your plan. For example, you might choose to set one each quarter.
  • You can use time management apps like ClickUp, Ally or Asana to help include decision points in your plan.  

Summary

We’ve covered a few common cognitive biases that can influence how productive we are. Now that you’ve learned a little more about them, you’ll have the confidence to try out some of the tips I’ve shared here. Soon, you’ll be conquering all these biases and well on your way to becoming more productive than ever!

Published by Lizzie

Lizzie here. I'm a freelance copywriter and editor based in the UK. I'm also passionate about volunteering and hold a MA in History from the University of Warwick. I've written for a multitude of fantastic websites and companies, including a legal automation software company, a dog training site and more. Check out my reviews on Fiverr and Upwork for more info!

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