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.
  • Judiciously Use To-Do Lists. 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.

Doing Is Everything

Many people know what they should do: lose weight, start exercising, stop smoking, get serious about managing careers, find a romantic partner, start saving money, and so on. Yet they can’t seem to make themselves do.

Doing is everything / Knowing is nothing

You know what to do, but you don’t do it!

It is told that long ago in China, a reclusive monk climbed up a tree in a forest. He settled comfortably and sat there in deep meditation, undisturbed by the outside world.

That became his everyday routine.

People from hamlets in the vicinity adopted him. They approached him with offerings and discussed their affairs. And he imparted his wisdom.

His fame soon spread everywhere. Visitors from far-flung towns trekked to the forest for his counsel.

Folks started calling him Birdsnest for the reason that he perched high up his tree.

On one occasion, the local king learned of Birdsnest and set forth to see him. After an arduous journey, the king located Birdsnest’s tree.

The king hollered at the monk trying to seek his attention. “O wise one, I have an important question to ask of you.”

The king waited for Birdsnest. No response came.

The king tried repeatedly to evoke Birdsnest, but didn’t succeed.

The king grew impatient waiting for Birdsnest.

Eventually, the king became irritated and shouted out, “I can wait no longer! Here is my question. Say, what is it that all the wise ones taught? What is at the heart of all the teachings of the great masters? What is the most profound thing the Buddha ever said?”

The king lingered around Birdsnest’s tree for a long time.

Finally, Birdsnest summoned the king. Holding a meditative poise, Birdsnest declared, “At all times, do good things. Don’t do bad things. This is all the Buddha said. This is what the wise men instructed.”

The king became infuriated.

Birdsnest continued to meditate with a gentle half smile behind his eyes. He was obviously toning down the power of the Buddha’s wisdoms.

The king screamed, “I can’t believe this impertinence! Is that all you’ve got for me? Do good things and don’t do bad things. I knew that when I was three years old, you blithering fool!”

The afternoon sun filtered in through the trees as Birdsnest looked down from his perch. His compassion and matter-of-factness radiated out from your heart. He sympathetically acknowledged, “Indeed, the three-year-old knows it. Yet the eighty year-old finds it very difficult to do!”

The Knowledge-Action Gap

'The Now Habit' by Neil Fiore (ISBN 1585425524) One of the most insidious obstacles to your success in life is the chasm between knowing and doing—between thinking about something and acting on it, between ideating and implementing.

Your ideas may be impressively simple, but accomplishing them with discipline and steadiness can be very, very difficult indeed. This is the knowing-doing gap.

Ruminate about what stops you from accomplishing the things you need to do, want to do, and know how to do, but can’t get to do. Usually, your alleged obstacles—your boss, parents, spouse, children, colleagues, situations—are but excuses. When you sincerely unearth the reasons for your putting things off, you’ll realize that, by and large, it’s you who are sabotaging yourself.

Yes, occasionally, you may face a few genuine external obstacles. Nevertheless, in the grand scheme of things, you usually have the power to overcome them or work around them.

Transform your thoughts into action

Procrastination is a Breakdown of Self-Discipline

As I have stated in my previous articles, procrastination is weakness of will. Chronic procrastination is a recurrent breakdown of self-discipline.

The overpowering emotion associated with chronic procrastination is guilt. These feelings of guilt are not just specific to the task you’re dodging, even though, at the time of procrastination, your mind may be full of qualms and repentance under the direct influence of your putting off the dreadful task. More accurately, the guilt you feel about your chronic procrastination is the outcome of not living up to your full potential and not authentically engaging in the many possibilities life presents you.

'When Things Fall Apart' by Pema Chodron (ISBN 1611803438) It takes courage to face your anxieties, to forge ahead despite your feelings, and to act. Self-improvement begins with self-reflection. And self-reflection derives from self-compassion. The renowned Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön wrote about self-compassion in her wonderfully reassuring classic When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, “The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”

Don’t hunt for motivation. As I’ve asserted in previous articles, 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.

Idea for Impact: Make 2017 the Year of Getting Things Done

Transform your thoughts into action.

Put your ideas into practice.

Don’t let excuses, apologies, indolence, or a lack of motivation get in the way.

Knowing is nothing.

Doing is everything.

How to Boost Your Willpower / Book Summary of “Willpower” by Baumeister & Tierney

'Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength' by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney (ISBN 0143122231) In previous articles, I have discussed a key differentiating trait I’ve observed in successful people: they get things done not by pursuing motivation but through discipline, self-control, determination, and willpower. They actively seek a way to work at whatever must be done even when they do not really feel like doing it.

In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (2011,) New York Times science writer John Tierney and Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister discuss the virtues of self-control, and the concepts of ego depletion and decision fatigue. This informative tome is grounded in thirty years of academic research into willfulness and self-discipline.

Willpower starts with the assertion that intelligence and willpower are your two best predictors of achieving success in life. You may not be able to meaningfully increase your intelligence, but you can surely enhance your capacity for self-control. Parenthetically, when people were inquired about their failings in life, a lack of self-control was consistently at the top of the list.

The book’s central theorem is the much-debated “strength model of self-control.” This “muscle metaphor” states that willpower is like a muscle that tires out—or runs out of energy—as you use it, but can be fortified through practice.

How to Boost Your Willpower

Here are some prominent insights and tips from Willpower:

  • You have a limited amount of willpower, which, in the short term, depletes as you use it and must be replenished. Each instance of applying willpower (e.g. repressing your thoughts and actions, working intensely, stressing at work, making decisions, and dealing with difficult people) drains the same psychological reservoir of self-control. Expending willpower in one sphere of life leaves you less able to exercise self-control in another.
  • Just as muscles can get overworked and become tired and feeble until they can recuperate, the exercise of self-control causes fatigue.
  • Willpower is fuelled by blood glucose. Therefore, acts of self-control drain the glucose. When glucose is low, self-control failures are more likely. Restoring glucose to a sufficient level usually improves self-control. Willpower can be restored by boosting blood sugar. Foods like white bread, potatoes, white rice, and sugared snacks cause boom-and-bust cycles of willpower since these foods are quickly converted into glucose. Vegetables, nuts, raw fruits, and cheese are converted more slowly, and therefore provide ‘fuel’ more progressively.
  • Being in a tidy room seems to increase self-control and being in a messy room seems to curb self-control.
  • Your daily supply of willpower is limited. If you exhaust most of your willpower during the day at work, you will have less self-control, tolerance, and imperturbability when you come home to family. Many marriages go bad when stress at work is at its worst: people use up all their willpower on the job; their home lives suffer because they gave much to their work.
  • When your willpower is low, you’ll find it more arduous to make tougher decisions. Moreover, during decision-making, you’ll be more reluctant to eliminate some of the options you could choose from.
  • In the long term, practicing willpower strengthens it, just as a muscle develops stamina and power when consistently exercised. Even small, inconsequential acts of self-control—avoiding slouching, for example—can strengthen your capacity for self-discipline in the long term.
  • Ego Depletion and Decision Fatigue When you resist one temptation but cannot resist another, your egos have been fatigued by the exercise of willpower. Conversely, you can resist temptations across the board when your ego has been strengthened by exercise.
  • Stress instigates many negative emotions because stress depletes willpower, which consequently diminishes your ability to control and overcome those negative emotions.
  • The best use of willpower is in setting priorities and getting things done. Given you have a limited amount of willpower on a given day, you’re best served by budgeting your willpower and spending it where and when you need it the most.
  • Clear, attainable goals combined with rewards strengthen willpower. Monitoring goals and committing yourself publicly to your goals can help you counteract weakness of will.
  • Live as much of your life as possible on an autopilot. Eliminate distractions, temptations, and unnecessary choices. Simplify. Develop routines and cultivate habits that you can eventually do robotically.
  • Organize your life to decrease the need for willpower. Conserve willpower for demanding circumstances.

Recommendation: Read Willpower. This New York Times best seller is filled with guidance about how best to deploy willpower to overcome temptation and how to build up your willpower ‘strength’ with small—but regular and methodical—exercises. Even if somewhat academic for a self-help book, this worthwhile volume is filled with resourceful research, practical advice, and enthralling stories of people who’ve achieved personal transformation owing to the strength of their will.

The Curse of Teamwork: Groupthink

The Curse of Teamwork: Groupthink

Many teams tend to compromise their decisions for the sake of consensus, harmony, and “esprit de corps.” The result is often a lowest-common-denominator decision upon which everybody in the team agrees. This predisposition for a team to minimize conflict and value conformity is the psychological phenomenon of Groupthink.

'Victims of Groupthink' by Irving Janis (ISBN 0395317045) In the 1970s, American psychologist Irving Janis defined Groupthink as “a mode of thinking that people engage in when deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.” Janis argued that Groupthink “undermines critical analysis, legitimizes ignorance, reinforces collective biases, and promotes a group self-image of infallibility.”

Negative Effects of Groupthink in Teamwork

Teams are prone to Groupthink and a variety of other detrimental decision-making approaches, but are seldom aware of it.

  • Groupthink suppresses dissent Individuals resign to group pressure, thereby conforming their opinions to a decision that they believe will achieve consensus. Groupthink discourages dissenters from “rocking the boat.” Over time, nonconformists are gradually shunted aside or excluded from the team altogether.
  • Groupthink engenders self-censorship. Individuals who disagree with the chosen course of action remain silent because they reason they cannot change others’ minds. Consequently, the team tends to focus its discussions on ideas that everyone agrees about rather than ideas that everyone disagrees about.
  • Groupthink gives team members greater confidence in their collective decisions than their individual decisions. Therefore, Groupthink leads individuals to publicly endorse ideas and decisions that they view as common for the group, even if they personally have reservations about them.
  • Groupthink stifles creativity and independent thinking. When individuals are unwilling to bring up and confront difficult issues, the team fails to examine alternative viewpoints that could be contentious. This leads to irrational and flawed decisions.

Antidote to Groupthink in Teamwork

Negative Effects of Groupthink in Teamwork An awareness of Groupthink and other group dynamic biases combined with some hands-on intervention, self-reflection, and control can help teams make better decisions.

  • Create an organizational environment where individuals can freely voice their ideas, challenges, and concerns. Individuals must feel comfortable with taking interpersonal risks, admitting hesitations, and challenging one-another. Absent an inclination to avoid conflict, a team can easily discuss and debate different perspectives.
  • Think about the right information required to make sound decisions. Consider the strongest counter-argument to every idea.
  • Do not suppress disagreements or dominate the dissenters. Carefully examine the reasons and implications of alternate viewpoints.
  • Divide a team into sub-teams or partnerships and set each sub-team to work on a problem independently. Encourage them to take into account the plusses and the minuses of each idea.
  • Designate one team member as a devil’s advocate to argue enthusiastically against all contemplated ideas. This can force the team to discuss and debate the concomitant merits and demerits of different ideas. In Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats process (see my book summary), the devil’s advocate wears the “black hat.”
  • Invite outside consultants and subject-matter experts to discuss key issues and review decisions.
  • Appoint a moderator who can engage the team collectively and individually by gathering all points of view, giving feedback, and challenging the team’s thinking. Ideally, the moderator should be an independent third party who can be comprehensive and forthright.
  • Step back regularly from the team’s deliberation process to reflect on the effectiveness of the team’s decision-making and intervene where necessary. In the Six Thinking Hats process, De Bono suggests adding reflection time at the end of each meeting to analyze the process’ effectiveness.

Idea for Impact: Sometimes, Teamwork is Overrated

Don’t get me wrong: teamwork can be very powerful, but only when teams consist of individuals who have the right expertise and who are willing to voice their forthright opinions, dissent, and build consensus. Avoid teamwork when one person or a partnership with complementary skills and styles may achieve identical objectives.

To prevent Groupthink, establish an environment where speaking up is encouraged and rewarded. Welcome disagreements, avoid dominating dissenters, and contemplate the strongest counter-argument to every idea.

Lessons from Charlie Munger: Destroy Your Previous Ideas & Reexamine Your Convictions

Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger at Berkshire Hathaway's 2016 Annual Meeting (Screenshot from Yahoo! Finance webcast)

Reexamine your deep-rooted ideas

Here is one of the many nuggets of wisdom from the 2016 Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting. At the 4:39:39 mark in the meeting’s webcast by Yahoo! Finance, Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger discuss an effective strategy for persuasion and argumentation:

Charlie Munger: We try and avoid the worst anchoring effect which is always your previous conclusion. We really try and destroy our previous ideas.

Warren Buffett: Charlie says that if you disagree with somebody, you want to be able to state their case better than they can.

Charlie Munger: Absolutely.

Warren Buffett: And at that point you’ve earned the right to disagree with them.

Charlie Munger: Otherwise you should keep quiet. It would do wonders for our politics if everybody followed my system.

Actively seek counterarguments to consolidate your arguments

Munger’s advice comports with the following wisdom on using critique for reasoned judgments and critical thinking:

  • 'A Rulebook for Arguments' by Anthony Weston (ISBN 0872209547) Professor Anthony Weston, a contemporary exponent of critical thinking, wrote in his Rulebook for Arguments, “If you can’t imagine how anyone could hold the view you are attacking, you just don’t understand it yet.”
  • The great Roman philosopher and orator Cicero wrote in his influential work De Oratore (55 BCE, Eng. trans. On the Orator,) “The man who can hold forth on every matter under debate in two contradictory ways of pleading, or can argue for and against every proposition that can be laid down—such a man is the true, the complete, and the only orator.” [See my previous article on how to argue like the Wright brothers.]
  • Advocating observable evidence and rational investigation, the great English natural philosopher Francis Bacon wrote in his Novum Organum (1620,) “The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else-by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusion may remain inviolate.”

You cannot effectively argue for your side if you don’t comprehend the arguments of the other

'Poor Charlie's Almanack' by Charlie Munger (ISBN 1578645018) Once a belief is added to your collection of viewpoints, you indulge in “intellectual censorship”—you instinctively and unconsciously protect and defend it. You cling to your beliefs instead of objectively reassessing and questioning them. Moreover, owing to confirmation bias, you seek narratives that convey to you what you want to hear, substantiate your beliefs, and entitle you to continue to feel as you already do.

An important constituent of critical thinking is taking your beliefs and opinions apart methodically, analyzing each part, assessing it for soundness by means of arguments and counterarguments, and then improving it.

When you stop arguing against an opposite perspective and try arguing for it, that is to say when you can switch your point of view briefly, you will witness a profound shift in your thinking. Your own convictions may look different when seen from the opposite perspective. Justifying the counterarguments can help you reinforce your own beliefs and attitudes.

Idea for Impact: Only when your deep-rooted convictions and viewpoints are challenged by contradictory evidence, will your beliefs actually get stronger.

Make Decisions Using Bill Hewlett’s “Hat-Wearing Process”

“Reasons pro and con are not present at the same time”

My previous article about Ben Franklin’s T-Chart method in making difficult decisions quoted him mentioning this as a key challenge of fact-collecting and decision-making:

When difficult cases occur, they are difficult chiefly because while we have them under consideration all the reasons pro and con are not present to the mind at the same time; but sometimes one set present themselves, and at other times another, the first being out of sight. Hence the various purposes or inclinations that alternately prevail, and the uncertainty that perplexes us.

Bill Hewlett’s “Hat-Wearing Process”

Bill Hewlett's Bill Hewlett, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard (HP,) developed an effective “hat-wearing process” in his decision-making. When confronted with a challenge, Hewlett used a three-pronged approach to take the time to reflect, collect input from others, and develop a sound judgment about the matter at hand.

  1. Whenever an HP employee approached Hewlett with an innovative idea, he put on his “enthusiasm” hat. He listened, expressed enthusiasm, appreciated the creative process, and asked wide-ranging but not-too-pointed questions about the idea.
  2. A few days later, Hewlett wore his “inquisition” hat and met the inventor. Hewlett asked many pointed questions and meticulously examined the facts and the virtues. He critically examined the idea, but adjourned without a final decision.
  3. A few days later, Hewlett wore his “decision” hat and met with the inventor. Hewlett discussed his opinions and conveyed his decision with logic and sensitivity.

In a discussion about the corporate culture of enthusiasm and creativity that the founders engendered at Hewlett-Packard, cofounder David Packard recalls in The HP Way (see my review / summary) that even if the decision went against the inventor, Bill Hewlett’s “Hat-Wearing Process” provided the inventor with a sense of satisfaction that Hewlett had carefully considered the ideas.

Idea for Impact: Make Considered Decisions

Use the “hat-wearing process” to listen to and mull over facts about a decision to be made, collect input from others, develop perspective that comes only with time, and make sound, thoughtful decisions.

Compliment with Edward de Bono’s ‘Six Thinking Hats’ thought process to stimulate creativity.

What Will You Regret?

'The Top Five Regrets of the Dying' by Bronnie Ware (ISBN 140194065X) You’ve probably read about an interesting study by Bronnie Ware regarding the most common regrets of people in their deathbeds. Ware, a palliative nurse who counseled the dying in their last days, studied a cohort of people between the ages of 60 and 95. One question she asked her patients was, “what do you regret in your life?” The answers were remarkable: the regrets of the dying had nothing to do with their wealth, possessions, or status. They regretted most missed opportunities in their life—not having tried something, not having taken that chance, and not having stepped out of their comfort zones when they knew they wanted to do something and could have done it.

  • “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
  • “I wish I didn’t work so hard.”
  • “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”
  • “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
  • “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”

Ware published her studies first on a popular internet article and later expanded it into a mediocre book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.

Wistful feeling of missing out on life’s pleasures

Younger people shared comparable sentiments on regretting not taking chances to have fun. Ran Kivetz of Columbia University and Anat Keinan of Harvard University conducted a study of how college students felt about the balance of study/work and amusement during their winter breaks. Immediately after the break, the students regretted not having studied enough, not working, and not saving money. However, a year later, they regretted not having enough fun and not traveling.

Further along, when the students regrouped for their 40th reunion, they had even stronger regrets about not fully using their college breaks to travel and enjoy life. Kivetz explained, “People feel guilty about hedonism right afterwards, but as time passes the guilt dissipates. At some point there’s a reversal, and what builds up is this wistful feeling of missing out on life’s pleasures.”

Long-Term Regrets Are Usually About Not Taking More Risks

Regrets take two forms: regrets of co-mission (regrets regarding things you did that you wish you hadn’t) and regrets of omission (regrets regarding things you didn’t do that you wish you had.) As people get older and look back at their lives in retrospect, they tend to ruminate more about the things they didn’t do but should have. Deciding not to take gap year and travel around Asia, shying away from telling that girl you love her, holding a grudge against a sibling for years, not learning to surf, and other what-ifs will come to dominate your pangs of regret.

It's Easier to Live With Disappointment Than With Regret

It’s Easier to Live With Disappointment Than With Regret

As you grow older, you will realize that the only things you regret are the things you didn’t do—things that you didn’t commit to when you had the opportunity. The following three quotes echo this life-lesson:

  • “I don’t regret a single ‘excess’ of my responsive youth. I only regret, in my chilled age, certain occasions and possibilities I didn’t embrace,” wrote the American writer Henry James at age 70 to English novelist Hugh Walpole
  • “The best advice I got from my aunt, the great singer Rosemary Clooney, and from my dad, who was a game show host and news anchor, was: don’t wake up at seventy years old sighing over what you should have tried. Just do it, be willing to fail, and at least you gave it a shot. That’s echoed for me all through the last few years,” said the American actor and activist George Clooney
  • “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover,” wrote H. Jackson Brown, Jr., the American bestselling author of the inspirational book Life’s Little Instruction Book. (He possibly incorporated a famous quote attributed to Mark Twain.)

Idea for Impact: You will Come to Regret Your Inactions Far Longer than Your Actions

A fascinating way of looking at life is to think about your life and your career in the context of future regret-avoidance. Regrets for the things you did are likely to be tempered by the passage of time, but regrets for the things you do not do will be upsetting in retrospect. Therefore, contemplating about what you may come to regret in the future could transform you into taking different actions today.

One key to helpful decision-making is to forestall subsequent regret. Many of the questions you will grapple with in life are about taking risk—stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something new. You know what you want to try but you’re not sure if you should try it.

The best things in life may happen just beyond your comfort zone. Don’t ruminate excessively before making a decision. Make a habit of embracing the adventure of uncertainty by taking low-risk actions. Being wrong and failing costs very little in the long-term. You can bounce back faster than you imagine.

Slow down, reassess your options, and question if the choices you’re making at the moment are part of a life-trail you’ll come to regret sooner or later.

Problem Reversal: How to Solve a Problem By “Standing It on Its Head”

Problem Reversal

Fixed Mental Set or Fixation

Psychologists use the terms ‘fixation’ and ‘fixed mental set’ to describe a person’s inability to see his/her problem from a fresh perspective. Fixation impedes problem-solvers from approaching problems from a different angle and from finding novel solutions.

Fixation is a persistent impasse in problem-solving in which predispositions towards a previously-reliable process, unwarranted postulations, unjustifiable assumptions, conventional thinking in identifiable contexts (called Einstellung Effect,) or recent experiences block awareness of possible solutions that may exist within other contexts. A period of rest, entertainment, or exposure to an alternative environment frequently can dissipate fixation.

Problem Reversal in Problem-Solving

If you’re stuck on a problem and can’t solve it because you’re fixated on a reliable process, try reversing the problem to reframe your thinking and consider alternate perspectives.

Solve a Problem By

As the following three case studies illustrate, reversing a problem simply involves taking a problem and turning it on its head.

  • A top-level executive at a large American corporation loved his job, his company, his employees, and his salary. However, he despised his boss. The executive and his boss were both long tenured; neither was likely to move out of their jobs anytime soon. The executive decided to find a new job at a different company. A headhunter assured the executive that a new job could be easily arranged. While speaking to his wife in the evening, the executive realized that he could easily reverse the problem. So he returned to the headhunter the next day and provided the boss’s name. Within days, the headhunter found an appealing new job for the unwary boss, who accepted. The executive then got his boss’s job and was even more content with his career.
  • A herd of sheep was moving slowly along a narrow country lane that was surrounded by high banks. An ambulance in a great hurry came up behind the herd and requested the shepherd to move his sheep to the side so that the ambulance could drive through. The shepherd declined because getting the ambulance past the sheep would be slow and he wasn’t sure of keeping all his sheep out of the way of the ambulance on a narrow lane. Instead, he reversed the problem: he got the sheep past the ambulance. He asked the ambulance to halt and then gently turned the herd round and guided it back past the stationary ambulance.
  • An ethical used-car salesman loathed his job because he felt compelled to sell cars with problematic features to unsuspecting buyers. He was eager for a career change, but the only thing he knew was cars. Therefore, he reversed his problem: he started a new business of locating, inspecting, and recommending used cars to prospective buyers. For a reasonable fee, he helped car buyers by scrutinizing used cars, listing current and prospective problems, and offering an estimate for repairs. His business boomed and he was much happier than he was as a used-car salesman.

Idea for Impact: Solve Problems by Reversing Them

When you’re stuck and can’t see how to solve the problem at hand, try reversing it or “standing the problem on its head.” Reversal as a problem-solving technique can free you from old ways of looking at problems.

How to Prepare an Action Plan at a New Job [Two-Minute Mentor #6]

Winning at a new job by preparing a plan for action

Meet with all the people your new role interacts with—bosses, peers, suppliers, internal and external customers, and your employees.

Inquire what they expect to see you accomplish in five weeks, five months, and five years. Ask,

  • “What should we continue to do?”
  • “What should we change?”
  • “What should we do?”
  • “What shouldn’t we do?”
  • “What are the two or three levers that, if pulled correctly, can enable us to make the biggest impact?”

Synthesize their responses and prepare a one-page “plan for action.” Keep it as simple as possible for all your constituencies to understand and buy-in.

Communicate your proposals across your organization: “Here’s what I heard from you. Here’s what I think about it. Here’s our list of priorities and an action plan.”

For more guidelines on preparing an action plan, see my article on doing a job analysis; it’s part of my three-part (parts 1, 2, 3) series of articles on how to write a job description for your present position.