Hands up if you are a human?  Okay that is everyone except you Google bots!  Well if you are human, guess what, you are liable to fall for mental fallacies.

What is a fallacy?  A fallacy is invalid or faulty reasoning that can lead to a wrong decision.  Let’s look at a simple example.  It is easy to judge a decision based on its results. However, is it always true that a good outcome resulted from a good decision?  After all, a person might get home safely one night while driving drunk, but he would be a fool to think that being intoxicated made him a better driver.

To learn more about our fallacies and how to counteract them, I highly suggest listening to the podcast Choiceology.  As described on their site:

“Can we learn to make smarter choices? Listen in as host Katy Milkman shares stories of irrational decision making—from historical blunders to the kinds of everyday errors that could affect your future. Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab, explores the lessons of behavioral economics, exposing the psychological traps that lead to expensive mistakes.”


There are three seasons of Choicology episodes available, so why not give it a listen?  I think it would be a good decision.




Failure is Thankfully Unavoidable

All knowledge workers will fail!  Guaranteed!

Nobody likes to fail.  In fact, a harsh stigma is often attached to failure.  Yet ironically failure is a natural part of life.  It is both unavoidable and necessary especially in the realm of knowledge work.

Remember that knowledge work is composed of tasks and goals that must be defined by the knowledge worker themselves.  Alas, even with their best judgement and experience, knowledge workers are often faced with a deficit of information.  Based on an incomplete picture, they are forced to make their best guess and then see how it plays out.  A knowledge worker living in fear of failure becomes paralyzed into inaction, perpetually avoiding a decision.

To counteract this problem, I agree with blogger Venkatesh Rao in that our approach to solving problems should be similar to that of software engineers.  Successful software engineers are constantly tinkering with code, testing it over and over again looking for bugs and creating situations where it will crash.  It is only after many different trails and iterations that they reach a pragmatic success.  This approach, known as “agile” has its own mantra, “Fail Early, Fail Often.”

Therefore, I believe that agility is a key factor for a successful knowledge worker.  They must be willing to learn from mistakes, course correct, and experiment constantly until they reach the desired goal.  When viewed this way failure is not a problem, but instead a necessary component of the path.  Once this is understood, failure loses it sting.  The knowledge worker can become fearless!

UC-TeddyDon’t worry about your failures, as each one is a stepping stone on the path to success.  As President Theodore Roosevelt said:

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, then to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

Only a Time Lord Has Enough Time

tardis-2311634_1280I’m a big fan of the British SF series, Doctor Who.  In the show, an alien called The Doctor flies around the universe in a time machine called the TARDIS.  While The Doctor has a deep knowledge of  temporal mechanics, alas we humans have a very poor understanding of time.  In fact, we often underestimate how much time tasks take to do even when we should know better.

In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman discusses the “planning fallacy.”  This fallacy occurs when someone routinely underestimates the amount of time it takes to do a task.  For example, if on one occasion we got all the lights and made it to work in 20 minutes, a part of our mind now believes we can always make the trip in that time.  This is despite the fact we know from our prior experience that it normally takes 30 minutes or more.

The repercussion in our daily lives is the tendency to assume we can get more done in a day than is actually possible.  This typically manifests in lengthy to do lists that never get completed.  A practical way to combat the planning fallacy is to make our to do lists shorter.  In her book, 52 Simple Ways to Get Organized, Claire Tompkins suggests the following:

“The problem with underestimating is that you believe you have more time for those things on your list that aren’t getting done, and then you feel discouraged.  Everyone’s daily to do list needs to be a lot shorter.”

She then suggests that we time our regular tasks to determine exactly how long they take.  With this knowledge in hand, we can then carefully plan our day and combat the planning fallacy.

The other way to solve the problem is procure your own time machine, but that might be hard if you don’t have a Time Lord for a friend.


How Not to Fail with a New Year’s Resolution

new year resolutionDid you make a New Year’s Resolution?  While good intentions are plentiful on January 1, it is clear that many people have dropped their resolutions before the month is even a week old.  So are New Year’s Resolutions just another pointless tradition or is there a way to make a resolution stick for the year?

FiveThirtyEight is a web site most famously devoted to politics and elections.  However, they also include unique stories on a wide range of topics.  Last week they posted thoughts on New Year’s Resolutions from Christie Aschwanden.  The article reported some interesting insights into how to succeed with them.  For example, Christie writes:

I dug into the literature and talked to some psychologists, and what I discovered is that science can’t tell me exactly what to resolve, but it has narrowed in on a few tricks that can help me succeed. The first, perhaps most crucial thing to do is pick a goal that you’re truly committed to. Not just something you think you should do, but something you truly want to do, said Marina Milyavskaya, a psychologist at Carleton University. “Wanted goals are much more likely to be attained,” she said.

Read more advice for resolution success on the FiveThirtyEight web site.

The Endowment Effect

yellowcupThe pursuit of efficiency often requires a cleanup of our physical spaces.  While clearing out clutter should be easy to do, in practice it is hard to throw away objects we own.  For example, maybe you got a mug at a conference six years ago.  The conference was unmemorable and the mug is an awful yellow color.  As you are considering parting with it, a colleague asks if they can have it.  You quickly decline and put it back on the shelf.   This is a direct experience of the Endowment Effect.

The Endowment Effect is the hypothesis that people ascribe more value to things merely because they own them.   In studies, people want more money to sell an an item they own than they would ever be willing to pay for it new.  Plus, there is often a sentimental value attached to the item, which makes it even harder to part with.

If the Endowment Effect is an obstacle when clearing out clutter, it might be useful to adopt a strategy similar to the one used to avoid the Sunk Cost Effect.  Look at the item as if it were on a store shelf and ask yourself if you would buy it today.  If not, get rid of it.  Another approach is the KonMari Method.  Hold the object in your hand and ask yourself it is sparks joy within you.  If not, discard it.

In order to experience the strategic value of clear space, it is necessary to discard unused items from your world.   Consider these strategies for your next office cleaning session and see the results.

Beware of Sunk Costs

Imagine you paid twenty dollars for a ticket to a local amateur play.  The day of the show, a friend surprises you with a free ticket to an exclusive concert featuring your favorite musician.  Do you choose to go to the play or the concert?  When behavioral economists run this type of experiment, they find most people will stick to the less attractive option (the play) because they paid for the ticket.  This is an example of the sunk cost fallacy in action.

Our minds are easily trapped by sunk costs.  According to Investopedia, a sunk cost is a cost that has already been incurred and thus cannot be recovered.  While this concept is often discussed around investments of money, sunk costs also include time and resources.  Think of how often an organization will add patches to clunky system instead of ditching it to build a new one.  People will stubbornly remain committed to a project that is going nowhere because of all the work put into it, even if results remain elusive.

dollarsandsenseRemember, a sunk cost is not recoverable, which gives rise to the famous expression, “Chasing good money after bad.”  The trick is to evaluate the current status of a project, investment, or commitment in light of where it stands now and ignore past contributions.  This way, it is possible to stay nimble and take advantage of better opportunities when they arise.

More information on sunk costs, especially around money, can be found in the book, Dollars and Sense: How we Misthink Money and How to Spend Smarter, by Dan Ariely and Jeff Kresisler.

Head in the Cloud

There is an amazing paradox happening right now.  Due to the massive growth of the Internet, people have access to more information at their fingerprints than can ever be consumed in a thousand lifetimes.  However, it seems as if misinformation and lack of understanding are proliferating just as quickly as new Facebook accounts are activated.  In fact, people almost seem to have a worse understanding of the world than their pre-Internet grandparents had!

headinthecloudIn this book, Head in the Cloud, author William Poundstone explores the question of whether all this online information is only serving to make us less informed.  Online information is easier to skim, but hard to dive into deeply.  Poundstone specifically highlights a phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect which can lead people to overestimate their own level of knowledge in a subject area.

“Those most lacking in knowledge and skills are least able to appreciate that lack.  … The Dunning-Kruger effect requires a minimal degree of knowledge and experience in the area about which you are ignorant (and ignorant of your ignorance).” (p.10 & p.12)

In short, a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Read more by picking up a copy of the book from your local library.