Knowledge is Power?

As the end of Olympic/Spring Break draws near, I’m staring down at my “break to-do list” is realizing there isn’t as much crossed off as I hoped there would be by this time. I do have some key tasks crossed off, but I doubt I am alone in this feeling that I could have accomplished more b now. Last week I took a few days off and it felt so good to relax that I don’t regret that decision. But pulling myself back into work mode has proved challenging. Part of the problem, I think, is distraction. The Olympics are on! In my city, no less! I have surprised myself with how much I have enjoyed tracking how our national athletes are performing — and identifying examples of psychological phenomena (e.g., hindsight bias, social comparison). Another part of the problem is that I have, yet again, fallen prey to the Planning Fallacy: the tendency for people to underestimate the amount of time tasks will take to complete. I have known about the planning fallacy for years, yet I still manage to think I can read and take notes on a chapter, for example, in a couple of hours. That I can sit down and write a 2-3 page lit review in a day or two. Knowledge of biases, it seems, may not always provide the power to combat them.

A quick glance at the literature on the planning fallacy reminds me of the nuances of accurate planning that I forgot to employ when building my to-do list. From their original article on the topic, Buehler, Griffin, and Ross (1994) identified that when estimating completion times people tend to focus on the future, rather than their past experiences with similar activities. More recent work has identified two strategies to employ while planning to combat this fallacy. First, try “unpacking” the activity — breaking it down into component parts (something past experience can help with), and using those components to guage the time it will take to complete it (Kruger & Evans, 2004). Then, form implementation intentions (e.g., “From 8-10am I will conduct a literature search and build an outline for the paper.”) to help with following through and minimizing distractions along the way (Koole & Spijker, 2000). To make the most of my remaining Olympic break moments, I will use these strategies to whittle my to-do list down to a more realistic size and keep me focused as I accomplish those tasks.

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