Warren Buffett’s Advice on How to Focus on Priorities and Subdue Distractions

If you persistently experience an overpowering sense of being besieged with tasks and responsibilities, perhaps a personal productivity transformation technique suggested by Warren Buffett may help.

Psychologist Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania shares a well-known anecdote about Buffett in her bestselling Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance:

The story goes like this: Buffett turns to his faithful pilot and says that he must have dreams greater than flying Buffett around to where he needs to go. The pilot confesses that, yes, he does. And then Buffett takes him through three steps.

First, you write down a list of twenty-five career goals.

Second, you do some soul-searching and circle the five highest-priority goals. Just five.

Third, you take a good hard look at the twenty goals you didn’t circle. These you avoid at all costs. They’re what distract you; they eat away time and energy, taking your eye from the goals that matter more.

As I’ve written before (see the world’s shortest course in time management, and detailed three-step course on time logging, time analysis, time budgeting,) the most effective time management practice involves eliminating the non-essentials—those numerous things you can and want to do—and focusing on the very few things you must do.

Idea for Impact: Success comes at a cost: the most time-effective folks I know are significantly better at dropping their second-rate objectives.

Think in Terms of Habits & Systems Rather Than Goals

Effective Goals Can Challenge, Motivate, and Energize

Most folks fail to understand how goals work: goals don’t stipulate behaviors.

Goals relate only to the outcomes and results of specific behaviors—they are not about the actions and behaviors that can bring about those results.

In other words, goals can only provide direction and can even impel you onward in the short-term, but ultimately, a well-designed system—when put into habitual practice—will always prevail.

'The Power of Habit' by Charles Duhigg (ISBN 081298160X) Developing a system is what matters to discipline and self-control. Committing to the process is what makes the difference. As New York Times journalist Charles Duhigg wrote in his bestselling The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (2012,) only a systematic approach works:

Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness or can be deliberately designed. They often occur without our permission but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. They shape our lives far more than we realize—they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.

An example of a goal: “I want to lose 10 pounds before my sister’s wedding.” A habit/system would be, “What dieting and exercising changes can I make with the aim of looking better at my sister’s wedding?”

Another example of a goal: “How do I amass $1 million before I turn 35?” A habit/system would be, “How do I develop financial disciplines and investment methods to get richer over time and achieve a net worth of $1 million by the time I’m 35?”

Idea for Impact: Only by creating habits and systems to achieve goals can you live more of the life you aspire to. As a creature of habit, when you are doing something that is routine, you don’t need to be deliberately engaged in the task in the same way as if you were doing something that is not habitual.

Everything in Life Has an Opportunity Cost

“Opportunity cost is a huge filter in life. If you’ve got two suitors who are really eager to have you and one is way the hell better than the other, you do not have to spend much time with the other. And that’s the way we filter out buying opportunities.”
Charlie Munger, Investor

Everything in Life Has an Opportunity Cost

Doing One Thing Makes You Sacrifice the Opportunity to Do Something Else of Value

In economics, opportunity cost is the cost of not choosing the next best alternative for your money, time, or some other resource.

One of the foundational principles in economics is affirmed by the popular American aphorism, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Resources are scarce. When resources (time, money, mindshare, autonomy, and all that) are scarce, selecting one opportunity necessitates forgoing other opportunities.

Life is all about values and priorities. You face trade-offs. Life requires of you to make choices among mutually exclusive alternatives. Every time you select something, you forfeit other alternatives and the concomitant benefits. The cost of something is what you will give up to get it. This is opportunity cost.

You Can Do Anything but Not Everything … What Will You Sacrifice When You Choose One Option Over the Others?

When mulling over multiple choices, the quality of any option cannot be assessed in isolation from its alternatives. The price you pay (or the sacrifice you make, or the benefits you give up) for doing what you’ve chosen to do instead of doing something else is the opportunity cost.

In sum, an opportunity cost is the cost of passing up the opportunities that a different option would have afforded.

Many costs are calculated in terms of money. However, just because you don’t have to spend money to do something does not imply that the options you face are without their costs. For example, you don’t have to spend money to go for a hike or watch a sunset, but there is an opportunity cost there too. You could have used that time to do something else you value—visiting a friend or reading a book, perhaps.

  • If you decide to invest two years and some $100,000 getting an MBA at a brand-name business school, there’s an opportunity cost; it costs you lost wages and all the things you could have pursued during that time and with that money. But you anticipate that getting your MBA will pay off by way of a better job in a better company with a better salary.
  • If you spend your weeklong vacation taking your parents to a beach destination in Florida, there’s the opportunity cost of not going to Paris with your spouse.
  • Opportunity Costs Apply to All Your Choices If you decide to wake up twenty minutes earlier in the mornings to leave home sooner to work and beat the horrendous traffic, there’s the opportunity cost of twenty minutes of extra snoozing.
  • When the refrigerator at home breaks down and needs replacement, you will have to give up buying that latest big-screen TV you’ve been coveting.
  • There’s an opportunity cost to even reading this article at this moment. You could have been watching TV, taking a nap, calling up a friend, or moving on to another article in the time you’re devoting to reading this article.

In a nutshell, even decisions that appear to be no-brainers carry the hidden costs of the options you will decline. Thinking about opportunity costs may not change the decision you make, but it will give you a more rational assessment of the full implications of your decision.

Opportunity Costs Apply to All Your Choices—Big and Small

Opportunity cost is a concept of great magnitude. It is one of those apparently simple concepts in social sciences that are difficult to master and tough to put into consistent practice. Tim Harford, the British author of The Undercover Economist offers a particularly instructive example of appreciating opportunity costs in his Financial Times column:

Consider the following puzzle, a variant of which was set by Paul J Ferraro and Laura O Taylor to economists at a major academic conference back in 2005. Imagine that you have a free ticket (which you cannot resell) to see Radiohead performing. But, by a staggering coincidence, you could also go to see Lady Gaga—there are tickets on sale for £40. You’d be willing to pay £50 to see Lady Gaga on any given night, and her concert is the best alternative to seeing Radiohead. Assume there are no other costs of seeing either gig. What is the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead? (a) £0, (b) £10, (c) £40 or (d) £50.

Answer: Going to see Lady Gaga would cost £40 but you’re willing to pay £50 any time to see her; therefore the net benefit of seeing Gaga is £10. If you use your free Radiohead ticket instead, you’re giving up that benefit, so the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead is £10.

Learn to Evaluate Life Choices Via the Lens of Opportunity Costs—The Stakes Become Clearer

Evaluate Life Choices Via the Lens of Opportunity Costs You live in a world of scarcity and must therefore make choices. You cannot avoid regret since there are opportunity costs for every choice you will make.

Everything in life is about opportunity costs. Every time you say “yes” to a choice, you are also saying “no” to everything else you may have accomplished with your time, money, and resources.

Opportunity cost is a commanding tool that you should be wise to apply to all decision-making. If you integrate this concept into your thought process, you will not only make judicious choices, but also better understand the world in which you live.

Idea for Impact: Whether you’re choosing graduate school, mulling over switching careers, starting a business, investing your money, buying a car, or frittering away your evening watching TV, considering the value of forgone alternatives will help you make better choices. Make the lens of opportunity costs the underpinning of your decision-making processes.

5 Minutes to Greater Productivity [Two-Minute Mentor #11]

How to Get Unstuck---5 Minutes to Greater Productivity

When you’re stuck—whether it’s at work, play, love, or some other facet of your life,—don’t wait for external change to come about and inspire you. As I’ve written before, motivation is glorified as a personal trait. While it is beneficial to be motivated, folks who actually manage to get things done are those who find a way to work at whatever they are interested in even when they do not really feel like doing it.

When you’re stuck, if you can take time out and reflect on your current difficulties, many opportunities may open up that can help you get unstuck.

  • Clearly understand your objectives and your problems. Identify what you must do to solve problems or meet goals as efficiently as feasible. Get honest with yourself and reconsider your motivations. Being realistic can allow you to think more flexibly and creatively.
  • Target the causes of your problems and the reasons behind what you are doing. Analyze your current actions to determine whether they will effectively accomplish what they should. Look for ways to simplify your goals and targets.
  • Check if your perfectionism is holding you back. Folks who tend to be perfectionist are afraid that the world is going to see them for who they really are and that they won’t measure up. Could you lower your standards?
  • Organize your options. Are there faster-but-equally-effective alternative methods to the ones you’re currently trying? Could you learn new methods or delegate parts of your responsibilities to help you save time? Could you break your work into smaller, more manageable chunks? Focus on the next small step that will move you forward and set in-between deadlines.
  • Plan your work and carry on. Initiate the most efficient action plan to get the results you want. If you find yourself uninspired, take action—even a small step. Often, beginning to do a task builds momentum and motivation kicks in within a few minutes. Doing is everything.

Idea for Impact: The most effective form of change doesn’t happen to you—it comes from within you. To free yourself when you feel limited or stuck, take a breather and organize yourself. Introspection can unlock more adaptive behavior.

Let Go of Sunk Costs

When people put their weight behind an idea or a belief, they become invested in it. They are likely to fight its corner rather than discard that idea or renounce their prior decision.

This tendency to throw good resources after bad, rather than cut losses, is the Sunk Cost Fallacy.

Quitting is Not Always Wrong

'Thinking, Fast and Slow' by Daniel Kahneman (ISBN 0374275637) People frequently become stuck with poor decisions that they keep holding on to in hopes that they will eventually prove their efforts worthwhile. Here’s Nobel laureate in economics Daniel Kahneman (author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, the bestselling exposition of human irrationality) in an interview with financial journalist Morgan Housel:

When I work I have no sunk costs. I like changing my mind. Some people really don’t like it but for me changing my mind is a thrill. It’s an indication that I’m learning something. So I have no sunk costs in the sense that I can walk away from an idea that I’ve worked on for a year if I can see a better idea. It’s a good attitude for a researcher. The main trap that young researchers fall into is sunk costs. They get to work on a project that doesn’t work and that is not promising but they keep at it. I think too much persistence can be bad for you in the intellectual world.

Don’t Become Biased Against Quitting

Sunk cost fallacy, also called the Concorde Effect Sunk cost fallacy is why people who have already wasted money on tickets to an awful movie continue to watch it to the end and waste their time instead of walking out of the cinema hall. It’s the urge to justify previous decisions using the next one—for example, when people force themselves to munch their way through an unsavory meal at a restaurant or when people waste time in dead-end romantic relationships because they’ve already devoted so much time to the relationships and irrationally hope things will improve someway.

Some leaders continue a project once an initial investment is made and found flawed because stopping the project would be tantamount to conceding that previously-allocated resources have been wasted. For this reason, the sunk cost fallacy is also called the ‘Concorde Effect’ after the Anglo-French supersonic jet. In the ’60s, even though there was never a sufficient demand from airlines for the Concorde, the British and French governments continued to subsidize the development and production of the Concorde instead of admitting that they had wasted billions on a non-viable undertaking. The airline industry had long understood that the economics of supersonic transport were dubious, which had forced Americans to abandon their preliminary studies of supersonic jets.

Idea for Impact: Let to Cut Your Losses When Something’s Not Working

Sunk cost fallacy - Know How to Cut Your Losses When Something's Not Working Sunk costs are backward-looking decisions. Don’t become excessively focused on a specific goal or outcome—you’ll become inflexible and unyielding. You’ll narrow your options and make yourself feel more limited and inhibited.

Don’t get attached to ideas and become affected by the sunk cost fallacy as your projects develop. Remain objective, identify the warning signs of losing propositions, and abandon lost causes where sensible. As the American cartoonist Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame once said, “No problem is so formidable that you cannot walk away from it.”

Book Summary of ‘The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload’

'The Organized Mind' by Daniel Levitin (ISBN 0147516315) In the best-selling The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin argues that the problem with the proliferation of information isn’t as much about the storage of the information as it is about organizing and retrieving that information. The human brain is incredible at storing data; the challenge is summoning up the right stuff at the right time, while not being distracted by the rest.

To be efficacious, we not only need to limit the information we consume (by simplifying, limiting our sources, quitting social media, taking digital Sabbaths, etc.) but also need to develop systems to take the strain off our befuddled brains. To do this, Levitin says, we must organize our personal environments to better channel our brains’ unique approach to doing things.

According to The Organized Mind, the trick to efficiently organize and manage information is to “shift the burden of organizing from our brains to the external world.” Levitin uses the latest brain science to propose “organization principles”—methods and disciplines to regain a sense of mastery over the way we can organize our time, home, and office.

Organization Principle #1: Conquer information overload

The information age is drowning us with an exceptional deluge of data. Simultaneously, we’re expected to make more decisions quickly than ever before. To survive information overload, Levitin suggests:

  • Be much more discerning at what you allow in. Not all input is worthy of being let in. Exercise control and discipline regarding your input choices. Don’t keep what you can’t use.
  • Develop and put into practice an organization system that works for you: to-do lists, 3×5 cards, etc. Whatever that system is, it needs to offload, classify, and be easy to retrieve. A mislabeled item or misplaced location is worse than an unlabeled item.
  • Organize in all areas and facets of your life. “Too much stuff” is fatiguing, no matter which part of your life has the “too much stuff” problem.

Organization Principle #2: Quit multi-tasking and become fanatical about focused work

Quit Multi-tasking Levitin’s pet hate is multitasking, which he describes as “the ultimate empty-caloried brain candy.” Our brains are not designed for multitasking; he writes, “When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”

  • Allow no distractions when you are in “focused work mode.”
  • Limit the interruption caused by email, text messages, visitors, and callers.

Organization Principle #3: Rest more, work less

In our chronically sleep-deprived society, sleep deficit is a performance killer. The general effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive performance are well-known: scientists have documented that when we are sleep-deprived our immune system suffers, our thinking and judgments are impaired, and our fuse becomes very short.

Studies have found that productivity goes up when the number of hours per week of work goes down, strongly suggesting that adequate leisure and refueling time pays off for employers and for workers. Overwork—and its companion, sleep deprivation—have been shown to lead to mistakes and errors that take longer to fix than the overtime hours worked. A sixty-hour work week, although 50% longer than a forty-hour work week, reduces productivity by 25%, so it takes two hours of overtime to accomplish one hour of work. A ten-minute nap can be equivalent to an extra hour and a half of sleep at night.

  • A calm, well-rested mind is a fruitful mind. Don’t overlook sleep, rest, and vacation as stress busters.

Organization Principle #4: Organize your physical environment into categories so it helps your mind

Organize Your Physical Environment One principle that Levitin emphasizes repeatedly is “offloading the information from your brain and into the environment” so you can “use the environment itself to remind you of what needs to be done.” One appealing example he offers is, “If you’re afraid you’ll forget to buy milk on the way home, put an empty milk carton on the seat next to you in the car or in the backpack you carry to work on the subway (a note would do, of course, but the carton is more unusual and so more apt to grab your attention).”

  • Levitin also emphasizes the importance of putting things away in their designated places, because there’s a special part of our brain dedicated to remembering the spatial location of things.
  • Neuroscientists have proved that the human brain is good at creating and thinking in categories. “The fact that our brains are inherently good at creating categories is a powerful lever for organizing our lives.” Further, “productivity and efficiency depend on systems that help us organize through categorization.”

Organization Principle #5: Spend only as much time on decisions, tasks, and actions as they are worth.

Significantly, Levitin suggests the practice of satisficing—a decision-making approach that aims for acceptable or “good enough” results, rather than the optimal solutions:

Satisficing [is] a term coined by the Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon, one of the founders of the fields of organization theory and information processing. Simon wanted a word to describe not getting the very best option but one that was good enough. For things that don’t matter critically, we make a choice that satisfies us and is deemed sufficient. You don’t really know if your dry cleaner is the best—you only know that they’re good enough. And that’s what helps you get by. You don’t have time to sample all the dry cleaners within a twenty-four-block radius of your home. … Satisficing is one of the foundations of productive human behavior; it prevails when we don’t waste time on decisions that don’t matter, or more accurately, when we don’t waste time trying to find improvements that are not going to make a significant difference in our happiness or satisfaction. … Recent research in social psychology has shown that happy people are not people who have more; rather, they are people who are happy with what they already have. Happy people engage in satisficing all of the time, even if they don’t know it.

Organization Principle #6: A Zen mind is an organized mind

Conquer Information Overload Beyond the productivity hacks and the tweaks, Levitin suggests a spiritual composure in favor of mental organization. He advocates practicing Zen-like mindfulness not only to relieve the anxiety that comes with worries over undone tasks and unease over future uncertainties, but also to allot more of your limited attention to the present moment.

  • Instead of seeking to cope with information overload and travel at warp speed, focus on the things you can do to put yourself on the right path to better wellbeing—one thought, one bite, one task, one project, and one breath at a time.

Recommendation: Read Daniel Levitin’s ‘The Organized Mind’

In today’s “age of information overload” you may find yourself continuously distracted and swamped with demands for multitasking. Daniel Levitin’s fascinating The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload explains how to organize your mind, systematize your home and office, and gain control over your life.

Even if The Organized Mind is somewhat meandering and ill-organized (which is ironic for a book getting organized,) Levitin discusses noteworthy capabilities and limitations of the human brain and how to effectively deal with them.

Idea for Impact: Develop a comprehensive plan to audit, simplify, and structure how information flows through your life. Develop personal habits and organizational systems to lead your mind effortlessly to good decision-making. As Levitin suggests, “The task of organizational systems is to provide maximum information with the least cognitive effort.”

Hoarding and Learning to Let Go

I recently happened upon A&E channel’s reality TV program Hoarders, now in its ninth season. Hoarders shows appalling footage of homes jammed floor-to-ceiling with bewildering amounts of mess. With help from therapists, professional organizers, and “extreme cleaning specialists,” hoarders featured on the show learn to pare down their stacks and cleanup their homes and offices.

Hoarding usually accompanies varying levels of anxiety. Hoarding both eases anxiety and produces it.

Hoarding: Harmless Collecting v/s Serious Disorder

Hoarding ranges from mild to severe. Compulsive hoarding is the unwarranted and excessive accumulation of things as well as the unwillingness and the inability to dispose of them. Hoarders believe that their collections will be needed or will have value in the future.

Beyond normal collecting behaviors and hobbies, hoarders amass vast quantities of possessions that fill up and disrupt functional areas of their homes and offices. They stack stuff everywhere—attics, basements, desks, countertops, garages, bathtubs, stairways, cupboards, and nearly all other surfaces they can no longer be used for their intended purposes. When there’s no more room indoors, hoarders expand their clutter into yards and vehicles, and even get storage rentals. They frequently shift items from one hoard to another, without shedding anything.

Hoarders often fail to recognize it as a problem, making treating their hoarding a challenge.

Understanding Hoarders: The Psychology of Hoarding

Hoarders usually have an extreme attachment to their possessions, and oppose letting others borrow—even touch—their possessions. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the definitive catalog of mental disorders used by American mental health professionals, calls “the inability to discard worn-out or worthless objects even when they have no sentimental value” a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD.)

Hoarding behavior typically has physical, emotional, social, financial, and legal hurtful consequences. Hoarders have trouble making decisions. They often suffer from chronic procrastination, and have considerable difficulties getting things done.

Hoarding usually accompanies varying levels of anxiety. Hoarding both eases anxiety and produces it. Hoarders feel emotionally secure when surrounded by the things they collect. The more they hoard, the more shielded they feel from the outside world and the more they become isolated from their family and friends. But, sure enough, they feel ever more alarmed at the prospect of having to discard or clean out their hoarded stuff.

Alleviating Hoarding: Reducing the Chronic Stress from Clutter

'The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up' by Marie Kondo (ISBN 1607747308) If you’re a hoarder, take small steps to tidy up. If you feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of your possessions and the decluttering task that lies ahead, remember to take small steps (try my “10-Minute Dash” technique to overcome procrastination and get a task going.) Under the supervision of a trusted companion, tackle one small area at a time. But, psychiatrists recommend, don’t let someone else (a friend, domestic help, or organizing professional) clean for you—long-lasting behavioral changes necessitate talking through the process as you make decisions. Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo’s bestselling self-help book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, suggests that you should appraise (“touch”) each of your belongings one at a time to determine whether they “spark joy”—if they don’t, thank the belongings for their service and get rid of them. Sort items to one of a very few categories—“trash,” “donate,” “sell”, and “must keep.” If you haven’t used something in a year, toss it out assuming that you’re unlikely to find it useful in the near future. Idea for Impact: Reducing clutter and getting organized takes time, patience, and courage. If necessary, find a cognitive behavior therapist that specializes in treating hoarding disorders to delve into why you feel compelled to hoard and learn how to discard and organize your possessions.

If you have a hoarder in your life, don’t be embarrassed, sad, or angry with the hoarding habits of a loved one. Don’t force the hoarder to change—your loved one may change for a short time, but unless there is a compelling reason for change, she will go back to her natural state. To be effective in the long run, resist the urge to clean up for her. If the underlying behavioral patterns aren’t remedied, the hoarder will likely replenish the clutter or even intensify the hoarding behavior to make up for the loss. Even if the hoarder doesn’t realize the chaos she’s imposing on her family, friends, pets, and neighbors, try to help her or get help for her. Nevertheless, understand that you can control only your efforts—not the results—despite doing your best. Idea for Impact: Avoid enabling your loved one’s hoarding behavior. Offer to help her if she needs it, but expect change to be a long and slow process. Temper your expectations—changing this problematic behavior is her journey and her battle to fight. If all else fails, seek help from a cognitive behavior therapist that specializes in helping families and friends of hoarders.

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize [Two-Minute Mentor #9]

Focus on What You Want to Achieve Many of humankind’s greatest feats are accomplished by people who have a singular desire that becomes the foundational element for everything they do.

The 13th-century Turkish poet-philosopher Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, undoubtedly the most celebrated mystical poet in the Islamic world, purportedly advocated being absorbed in the task: “There is one thing that we all must do. If we do everything else but that one thing, we will be lost. And if we do nothing else but that one thing, we will have lived a glorious life.”

Don’t Have Too Many Irons in the Fire

  • Ask yourself this question: “What is my one thing—the singular objective that could make the most positive impact and meaningful shift—either on the present moment, or on my life as a whole?”
  • Just as the comical and wise Jiminy Cricket accompanies Pinocchio on his adventures serving as his official conscience, have a persistent voice persistently prompting you, “Are you doing your thing?”

Focus on What You Want to Achieve

The ability to prioritize, focus, and achieve is one of the most useful skills you can master. Learn to focus fully on the task at hand, and shut out everything else. As I mentioned in my world’s shortest course in time management, focus on things that you must do and avoid everything else.

It is truly amazing how much possibility, joy, and fulfillment you can add to your life when you shift your mindset to realizing and focusing on your one thing—in whatever timeframe you’re taking into consideration.

Keep your eyes on the prize.

Everything Takes Longer Than Anticipated: Hofstadter’s Law [Mental Models]

Think of your weekend days. You typically wake up and think of all the free time at hand. You plan a day of leisure. You intend to run some errands and get a few things done around the house. Yet, at the end of the day, you’ve done barely half of what you originally set out to do.

People Habitually Underestimate the Time Tasks Take

Almost everything that humankind has ever wished for—from renewing a driver’s license to achieving peace between countries at war—seems to have not completed within the time originally planned.

As the following case studies will illustrate, interruptions, deferrals, and delays characteristically result in cost overruns, benefit shortfalls, and disputes.

  • Sydney’s Opera House was originally forecast in 1957 to be completed in 1963. The magnificent performing arts complex formally opened only in 1973 and cost 15 times the original budget.
  • Hofstadter's Law: Boeing 787 Dreamliner Delays and LossesWhen Boeing first launched its 787 Dreamliner aircraft in 2004, it ambitiously planned for first flight in September 2007. After six delays in the design and prototype phases, the 787 first flew only in December 2009. First aircraft delivery was scheduled for 2008, but didn’t happen until September 2011, more than three years behind schedule. Then, after a series of early in-service technical and operational problems, Boeing embarked on serious drawn-out repairs on 787s. Following yet more production delays, the 787 started flying full-fledged only in 2013. The innumerable delays and cost overruns associated with the 787 program became a financial nightmare for Boeing’s investors. Boeing took nine years to get the Dreamliner off the drawing board and into mature service at a total development cost of $32 billion—twice as long as the company’s original estimation and more than five times more expensive.
  • Less than 50 days before the start of last year’s Summer Olympic Games in Brazil, the state of Rio de Janeiro declared a “state of public calamity” citing severe delays and acute cost overruns. The New York Times reported, “The city is a huge construction site. Bricks and pipes are piled everywhere; a few workers lazily push wheelbarrows as if the Games were scheduled for 2017.”

Hofstadter’s Law: We Chronically Underestimate the Time Things Take

Hofstadter's Law: We Chronically Underestimate the Time Things TakeThe American cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter conceived an ironic and recursive rule to characterize the observation that everything takes longer than planned.

Hofstadter’s Law states, “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s law”

Hofstadter first discussed this law in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a book popular among American computer programmers.

Underestimating Task-Time Means Constantly Rushing to Finish Things

According to planning fallacy, when people predict the time it takes to complete a task, they make their estimations by considering the various steps they have to take, but fail to imagine the pessimistic conditions where things could go wrong.

Project Delays: Hofstadter's Law, Planning Fallacy and Optimism BiasIn other words, thanks to optimism bias, people are generally too optimistic about the time it takes for them to complete a task, even when they are explicitly asked to think about potential obstacles.

Hofstadter’s Law also alludes to,

  • Superiority Bias where people overrate their own positive qualities and abilities—and underrate their negative qualities—when compared with others. “This takes three hours for the average Joe, but I am smarter, and I can do it in two hours.”
  • Beneffectance Bias where people perceive themselves as selectively accountable for the desired—but not the undesired—outcomes. “Last week, this took me 45 minutes, but the delay was because of conditions beyond my control. Today, I have full control; so I should take just 20 minutes.”

Idea for Impact: The problem with unforeseen delays is that you can’t foresee them, no matter how comprehensively you plan

Though somewhat silly in its recursive character, Hofstadter’s Law observes that, irrespective of how carefully you plan, every project will be prone to something unanticipated that will hinder its timely completion. The law’s recursiveness affirms that, even if you know a project may overrun and build that expectation into your planning, the project will overrun even your new estimated finish time.

Zeigarnik Effect: How Incomplete Tasks Trigger Stress [Mental Models]

Zeigarnik Effect: How Incomplete Tasks Trigger Stress {Mental Models}

People Remember Incomplete Tasks Better than Completed Tasks

When you listen to a song that’s unexpectedly cut off in the middle, your mind will repeatedly inject your thought stream with bits of the song in an attempt to remind you that you’re not yet “done” listening. But, once you listen to that song completely, your mind moves on.

Psychologists identify this tendency for interrupted tasks—and thoughts—to be evoked better than completed tasks the Zeigarnik Effect.

Ruminating about Unfinished Tasks Causes Anxiety

Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik who reported Zeigarnik Effect when working with research advisor Kurt Lewin at the University of BerlinThis phenomenon was first reported in the 1920s by the Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik. Working with her research advisor Kurt Lewin at the University of Berlin, Zeigarnik observed that restaurant waiters seemed to remember a complex order just so long as the order was in the process of being prepared and served, but not after it was finished.

Zeigarnik Effect and Cliffhangers

Zeigarnik effect is in force when an episode of a TV series ends with a cliffhanger leaving the audience in suspense until the next episode. Teachers who conclude their lectures by posing a perplexing question stimulate the class to think about the answer until the next class.

In another prominent use of the cliffhanger and the Zeigarnik Effect as a literary device, the English novelist Charles Dickens released most of his novels in the form of serial publications, i.e. in monthly or weekly installments. Dickens’s cliffhangers initiated such anticipation in reader’s minds that his American fans would gather at New York City’s docks for the latest installment to arrive by ship from England. The installment format also allowed Dickens to rework his character development and his plots depending on audiences’ reactions.

Zeigarnik Effect and Cliffhangers

Zeigarnik Effect and the Need for Closure: Task Management

Psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik’s research showed that the human mind hates unfinished tasks. Zeigarnik theorized that incomplete tasks incite “psychic tension” in you, which can be a persuasive impetus to complete the task. As long as you leave the task unfinished, your brain is in an uncomfortable position. Thoughts of the task serve to remind your brain of what it needs to do to get “comfortable” once again. As soon as you complete the task, this tension is alleviated, and in so doing, your brain lets the mind to release thoughts of the task from consciousness.

In other words, much mental effort is required when your tasks are interrupted or are still in the process of being completed.

From a time-management perspective, uncompleted tasks and unmet goals have a propensity for popping into your mind and worrying you persistently until the task is completed and the goal reached.

Emptying Your Mind of Nagging Tasks to Get Things Done

'Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength' by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney (ISBN 0143122231) According to John Tierney and Roy Baumeister’s Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, further research in cognitive psychology has suggested that the Zeigarnik effect exists not just until you actually finish a task but also until you make concrete plans related to the task.

… turns out that the Zeigarnik effect is not, as was assumed for decades, a reminder that continues unabated until the task gets done. The persistence of distracting thoughts is not an indication that the unconscious is working to finish the task. Nor is it the unconscious nagging the conscious mind to finish the task right away. Instead, the unconscious is asking the conscious mind to make a plan. The unconscious mind apparently can’t do this on its own, so it nags the conscious mind to make a plan with specifics like time, place, and opportunity. Once the plan is formed, the unconscious can stop nagging the conscious mind with reminders.

According to Willpower, one research study asked students to think about an important exam. Half of the students were asked to put in writing specific plans of what/where/when they would study. Later, all students were asked to do a word association test. The group of students that did not write any study plans produced more word associations related to studying because studying was still on their mind; the group who did write down their study plans did not exhibit a comparable bias during the word association test.

Emptying Your Mind of Nagging Tasks to Get Things Done

The Zeigarnik Effect is the central theorem in David Allen’s legendary “Getting Things Done” method for task-management works.

Allen reasons that the dominant cause of everyday anxiety is that you are never truly sure of all the ‘things’ you’re supposed to do. You know you’ve got things to take care of and haven’t. Therefore, your mind keeps incoherently revisiting all that’s important but not yet completed. These “open loops” occupy much of your cognitive effort and debilitate your attention, causing anxiety, sapping your energy, and draining your willpower.

The primary benefit of using Allen’s Getting Things Done system is to reduce anxiety by emptying your mind of nagging tasks, filing away (or writing down) everything that must be done, placing them into a processing system, and scheduling chunks of time to single-mindedly do important things.

Human Mind Hates Unfinished Tasks

'Getting Things Done' by David Allen (ISBN 0670899240) According to the Zeigarnik Effect, unresolved and interrupted tasks thieve the attention of your brain until you have a clear—if subconscious—proposal of what you’re going to deal with them.

Just the simple act of capturing a task that reaches your head can achieve that sense of completion. Even if you haven’t completed the task, you’ll know that you’ve accomplished what could be done up to the moment.

Here’s three clever ways to use the Zeigarnik Effect to your advantage:

  • Use the Two-minute ‘Do-It-Now’ Rule. See my previous article on this task management discipline—in a nutshell: act immediately upon a contemplated task if it can be completed in less than two minutes. Don’t add it to your to-do list.
  • Make a Concrete Plan. Whenever you have a task in mind, stop doing whatever you’re doing, take a blank sheet of paper, and invest one minute to plan and record how you intend to tackle the task. If you intend to write an essay, write an outline; if it’s a report, start the list of contents.
  • Use To-Do Lists Judiciously. Establish and peruse a trusted system to capture your projects and tasks, and the commitments you have to yourself and others. According to David Allen’s Getting Things Done, your human brain is an ineffective and unreliable repository of all the things you try to cram into it. All this “stuff” collectively clutters your headspace. Getting all your stuff out of your head and into a trusted system can bring about a profound sense of relief.