The Planning Fallacy [Why People Struggle With Goals]


We are going to go over what is called the Planning Fallacy — or why people struggle with goals…

….and why they keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

But what exactly is the Planning Fallacy, and how can you avoid it?

Imagine the following scenario:

Even though you start out with the best intentions—and with a lot of time on your hands—you usually turn in assignments and complete tasks right before they are due.

Why?

It might seem like a helpless situation…

Except, that it’s not.

  • The truth is:

There are a few scientific findings that will reverse this nasty habit of procrastinating until the very last second.

They will make all your upcoming tasks and assignments a lot easier to complete.

Without procrastinating.

We will go over them all…

…but to begin the process of unlearning procrastination, we must first go over the following:

Why People Struggle With Goals

A full-size picture that outlines the header of the planning fallacy, or why people struggle with goals.

Imagine that you have an assignment that is due in two weeks.

You have all the time in the world to complete it, and make it world-class.

  • The only problem is:

Since you have all the time in the world, no one will get hurt if you do that one tiny thing on your to-do list before you start working on your assignment.

But then:

You don’t start working on your assignment.

As the days fly by, you come up with all kinds of meaningless tasks, mundane chores, and urgent, but not important, errands that you must complete, do and run before you can focus on your big assignment.

This makes you procrastinate even harder.

In fact:

You procrastinate until the night before the assignment is due.

Again.

The Uneasy Feeling of Missing Your Deadline

A quote from Daniel Kahneman: "The planning fallacy is that you make a plan, which is usually a best-case scenario. Then you assume that the outcome will follow your plan, even when you should know better."

Now panic enters the picture, and you can’t seem to figure out where to begin.

Also, you are disappointed, angry, and even surprised at how you could end up sitting there. Again.

You pour coffee down your throat and force yourself to write something way below your standards, and you submit it with an uneasy feeling in your gut.

These feelings of unease and disappointment linger for days, and you can’t understand what went wrong.

Here’s the upside:

  • You are not alone.

It’s a part of human nature.

We have all been the victim of The Planning Fallacy where we overestimate our abilities to complete a task on time, while also underestimating the time we need to spend working on the assignment.

Let’s see how it works, and unearth the strategies on how to overcome it and produce quality work on time.

  • Without procrastinating.

The Planning Fallacy

A header that says The Planning Fallacy.

Initially presented in 1979 by the phenomenal researches Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, The Planning Fallacy is a common optimism bias where you underestimate how much time you will need to finish your assignment.

And overestimate your own abilities in meeting your deadline.

This “habit,” or optimism bias, makes you procrastinate until it’s almost too late.

And once you finish your task, you are left with a feeling that you could have done better.

Faster.

You ask yourself how you ended up scrambling together this sub-optimal piece of work when you promised yourself that:

  • This time, it would be different.

Although there is a plethora of research and reasons why this occurs, there is generally one thing that causes you to keep falling prey to the Planning Fallacy.

Over, and over again.

The reason is the following:

How And Why People Struggle With Goals

An excerpt from Wikipedia about Optimism Bias.
A screenshot from Wikipedia about a planning bias.
A print screen from Wikipedia about Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, and their findings regarding the planning fallacy.

The reason why you keep falling for it is that you neglect the lessons of past experiences.

Here is what that means:

  • The most useful and relevant information people have in their hands is the knowledge about their behaviors and outcomes from their past.

For them, it’s easy to plan for the future.

They can come up with all kinds of colorful plans on how “this time, it will be different.”

And when “this time” turns out to produce precisely the same outcome as last time, they are blind to their own involvement in creating this outcome.

Instead, they blame it on circumstances outside of their control, and start planning the next project where, again, “this time, it will be different.”

As you might have guessed by now, this is an illusion; it’s an optimism bias that clouds your vision and makes it impossible for you to steer your ships in the right direction.

Basically:

It becomes impossible for you to stop procrastinating, and get things done.

But why does this happen, and how can you reverse it and always deliver on time?

Why Does The Planning Fallacy Occur?

A quote talking about the cognitive bias the planning fallacy.

The Planning Fallacy happens because people are too optimistic about how quickly they will finish an assignment — despite a lifetime of experience telling them otherwise.

In their past, people have endless numbers of unmistakable signs that reveal everything about their abilities to complete a task on time.

Past projects that were either delivered seconds before the deadline or were late and produced with sub-optimal quality and effort.

Business ideas that never took off, and creative projects that ended up being just talk, talk, talk.

Despite these cold hard facts, people still manage to be optimistic about their future abilities when it comes to delivering a high-quality assignment well before the deadline.

Why?

The reason is the following:

Enter the Inside View — of The Planning Fallacy

A print screen from a study about an optimism bias.
Inside the planning fallacy: The causes and consequences of optimistic time predictions.

The reason why people repeat this mistake is that they take, what is called, an “inside view” instead of choosing an “outside view” when they are contemplating how much time will be needed to finish a project.

Especially when it comes to a demanding and highly rewarding one.

If they manage to finish the project at all, that is.

But what is an “inside view” and an “outside view;” and how can you change your perspective and avoid falling prey to this optimism bias when you want to accomplish your goals on time and with outstanding quality?

First, you must understand what the “inside view” is so that you can avoid it.

Read on:

The Inside View — Why People Struggle With Their Goals

The Inside View of the optimism bias, and why people struggle with goals.

When people choose what we call the “inside view,” they are considering the following:

  • They focus on the unique features of the assignment.
    Then they imagine a series of steps that lead them from point A to point B — they look at the project as something completely unique.
  • They think of where a solution to the problem can be found, completely ignoring the data telling them about all the other times this “strategy” has failed — because the project isn’t unique.

The consequence of thinking this way?

People focus primarily on their abilities and resources in solving the problem.

They envision obstacles and hurdles and come up with plans on how to overcome them once they block their path.

Why does this thinking make people struggle with their goals, and make them turn in assignments later than they envisioned?

They think this problem is unique and needs completely new ways of solving it.

That is because the “inside view” is easy, highly accessible, and colorful, filling them with all kinds of pleasant hormones that make them feel as though they will complete their task on time.

As we shall see, they rarely do.

The Statistics of Why People Struggle With Goals

"The tendency to hold a conident 
belief that one's own project will proceed as planned, even while knowing that the vast majority of similar projects have run late, has been termed the planning fallacy." — Rogert Buehler.

When students were asked to predict when they would complete an academic assignment, they predicted that they would finish it four days in advance of their deadline.

The reality?

Interestingly, when the students were asked about their past experiences with turning in academic assignments, they admitted that they usually finished it one day before the deadline.

In Canada, taxpayers thought that they would send in their return a week earlier than they had done the years before.

What happened?

They completed their returns the same time they had done the previous years, just a few days before the deadline.

The reason why this occurs is that people are ignoring the information, the truth, they have at hand from their past experiences.

Their past reveals everything about their behavioral patterns.

It also tells them about the strategic decisions for minimizing the risk of procrastinating and instead deliver on time, and with world-class quality.

So how do you avoid this trap, and how does the “outside view” work in your favor when you want to prevent the Planning Fallacy from getting in your way?

Here is how:

The Outside View — How To Overcome The Planning Fallacy

A header that says the outside view, which is a part of the optimism bias.

Compared to the “inside view,” where you look at things from an unrealistically optimistic point of view regarding your future accomplishments, the “outside view” is where you dismiss this scenario.

It’s where you focus on the task at hand, and instead pursue a data-driven strategy.

  • You imagine the final outcome of the task at hand.

Then you weigh it against other situations where you had a similar experience so that you can have a clear vision of what the goal might be like this time, and devise the proper strategies to make it work the way you want.

Everything based on the data of how you have tackled this kind of work before, and how likely it is that you will do well and deliver on time.

  • You are looking at yourself, and your assignment, as if you were someone else critiquing your project and your plans.

Some of this data comes from your own past experiences, and some of the information comes from your background working with other people.

For example:

If you need to write a 2,000 word-paper, you immediately think back to other times where you had to turn in a writing assignment.

You think about how that went, and then you plan this next task more realistically with that information in mind.

Where and when did you procrastinate, and how can you strategize so that you don’t do it this time, using your past experiences as a guideline?

Predict The Future By Thinking About Your Past

An excerpt from The Outside View — Why Big Brown Was a Bad Bet on the Planning Fallacy bias. This is a solution to the question why people struggle with goals so that they can move on with their lives.
Excerpt from Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition by Michael Mauboussin.

What this thinking does is that it reminds you of past experiences, which help you make unbiased predictions regarding the task at hand.

You compare what you are about to do with how it went the last time you found yourself in a similar situation.

If you can use this way of thinking, you will be able to plan and predict your outcomes more pragmatically.

  • At first, this might feel boring and even colorless.

But once you see how much better this approach works when you want to complete tasks well before the deadline, you will be amazed at how much work you will manage to cram out — and the high-quality work you’ll produce.

Your predictions will be on point, and so will your work.

Never again will you miss a deadline, force yourself to stay up all night only to produce mediocre results, and feel uneasy for the rest of the week.

But…

…if this works so well, and seems relatively straightforward, why don’t more people use this method when they are planning upcoming tasks?

There is a simple answer:

Why People Struggle With Their Goals And Use The Inside View

Why we fail to achieve your goals.

The reason why people struggle with goals, don’t complete tasks on time, and fail to plan correctly when the next assignment comes around is that…

…the “inside view” seems more compelling, natural, and appealing.

Basically:

It’s more fun, and easier to use.

The “outside view” is much more relevant, useful, and strategic when it comes to making unbiased and wise decisions.

But it’s also harder and less fun, which puts a lot of work on the part of the brain that handles planning, complex cognitive behavior, decision making, and postponing gratifications.

Or in the words of Robert Sapolsky:

A quote by Robert Sapolsky: "It makes you do the harder thing when it's the right thing to do.."

How And Why You Imagine A Rosy Future

A Harvard Business Review article by Daniel Kahneman and Dan Lovallo. It talks about why people struggle with goals and why they can't complete tasks on time.
Delusions of Success: How Optimism Undermines Executives’ Decisions

What this basically means is that:

It’s harder for your brain to process, perform, and commit to the “outside view.”

That is why people fail, and that is why people are struggling with goals when, in fact, they want to win.

  • Another angle to this problem:

Research has shown that people usually choose the “inside view” even when the “outside view” information is available.

For example:

When the participants of an experiment were asked to think aloud about a project, 74 percent of their thinking was about the future.

Here’s what’s even scarier:

Only three percent of the participants spontaneously considered the potential problems during this experiment.

And only seven percent of them would even consider information relevant to the “outside view.”

Quotes from a study by David Dunning.

That is:

The previous experiences that could be used in this project, and prevent them from procrastinating and miss their deadline.

What are, then, the practical steps for avoiding these cognitive mistakes?

How To Combat The Planning Fallacy — and NOT Struggle With Goals

A quote about the optimism bias the planning fallacy.

To combat this tendency, you must catch yourself whenever you are trying to choose the path of least resistance, “the inside view,” when you are planning your next assignment.

  • Slow yourself down.
  • Think deeply.
  • Review your past.

It will reveal a surplus of information that is readily available for you to use, and analyze so that you can make better, more strategic, and unbiased decisions in the future.

That is: If you are brave enough to take apart your past and use it in the future.

Don’t fail like average people; rise above the masses by examining your past, and use that information to succeed in the future.

No matter how colorless this approach may seem, it contains the information that will help you make better decisions, complete better work, and ship long before the deadline robs you of your sleep.

Avoid the easy path like the plague — think hard about your behaviors in the past, and a whole world of strategic options will unfold so that you can become more productive, professionally desirable, and useful to others.

Summary of the Planning Fallacy — How Not To Struggle With Goals

A picture that says the summary of the article why people struggle with goals.

To summarize this optimism bias, and how you can work around it, you want to avoid the following:

Don’t focus on the unique features of the task at hand. Avoid thinking of steps to take that will lead you from a starting point to a solution. Don’t think of your resources and abilities when it comes to completing a task. Try to avoid falling prey to the bright and dazzling glare of this seemingly effortless approach. It’s an illusion that will pull you down.
  • To combat this bias, you want to do the following:
Pursue a data-driven strategy. Review your past experiences, and use them to make unbiased decisions in the future. Resist the urge of not using this model due to its perceived colorlessness; you will make better decisions using the “outside view.” To predict the future, you are better off recalling your past and using its straightforward relevance for the task at hand rather than solely focusing on how the future might unfold. This is why people struggle with goals.

If you can get in the habit of using the outside perspective when you are making plans for the future, you will be far better off than your peers.

You know, those who are still dreaming of a glittering project being delivered well before the deadline, only to find themselves drinking 10 cups of coffee in panic, pulling an all-nighter to get the assignment done on time.

So finally:

  • Get to work.

And the next time you come face to face with a deadline, abstain from thinking of the future and instead force yourself to examine your past.

Nothing will be more important to you in your productivity game.

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