Cognitive bias is a term used to describe some ways our brains can lead us to make poor decisions. Dr. Travis Bradberry explained it this way: “Cognitive bias is the tendency to make irrational judgments in consistent patterns.”
Wikipedia lists 175 such biases, which is hard to get your mind around. Buster Benson decided he wanted to understand these biases better, so he created his Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet, which condenses those 175 biases into a 20-item list. As I read through that list, I realized at least two of the biases can affect your time management.
Bias: In order to get anything done, we’re motivated to complete things that we’ve already invested time and energy in. The behavioral economist’s version of Newton’s first law of motion: an object in motion stays in motion. This helps us finish things, even if we come across more and more reasons to give up.
This way of thinking can be very useful if you’re working on something important: creating an emergency preparedness kit, for example. But it can also trick you into spending time on things when giving up might be a better option.
The “sunk cost fallacy” fits into this category — that’s the thinking can cause you to hold onto a bad purchase because the item was expensive. The money is gone, whether or not you keep the purchased item. Michael Davidson, writing on the Lifehack website, gave an example of how this same way of thinking can get applied to time, not just money:
“I might as well keep watching this terrible movie because I’ve watched an hour of it already.”
Or reading a terrible book that you are 100 pages into, or continuing a T.V. series on Netflix that has gone downhill, etc.
It doesn’t matter that you’ve already invested time into whatever media you are consuming. If you don’t like the movie, you can walk out of it.
Here’s another example: I’ve had ideas for blog posts here on Unclutterer that just didn’t work out. No matter how much time I had already spent on writing them, at some point I needed to realize the ideas just weren’t as good as I had thought, and move onto other ideas before I wasted any more time. But that can sure be hard to do!
Bias: We favor options that appear simple or that have more complete information over more complex, ambiguous options. We’d rather do the quick, simple thing than the important complicated thing, even if the important complicated thing is ultimately a better use of time and energy.
Information bias falls into this category: “Believing that the more information that can be acquired to make a decision, the better, even if that extra information is irrelevant for the decision.”
I thought about this as I sat with my long California ballot, with 18 propositions and a number of local elections. I tend to want to learn as much as possible about the issues so I can make an informed choice. But in some cases, I’ve realized, I don’t need every bit of information I could potentially gather. Sometimes the candidates’ stands on a few key issues tell me all I really need to know — I don’t need to understand the details of their positions on every last thing.
Other times you just need accept that you can’t get perfect information and become comfortable with the ambiguity. When I needed to replace my year-old printer that stopped working, there was no obvious best choice. But in order to have a functional printer again I needed to make the best decision I could, without taking forever to decide.
Understanding these cognitive biases helps you realize when you’re falling into their traps, so you can make other decisions and use your time more productively.