Why You Should Plan To Get Less Done
Rein in those resolutions
Long before he was a Nobel laureate, psychologist Daniel Kahneman led a team tasked with designing a high school curriculum on the science of decision making.
They met every Friday, and by the end of a year they had a syllabus outline, a few sample lessons, and several textbook chapters. At that point, Kahneman decided to do an exercise that was going to be part of the curriculum: he asked every member of the team to write down their estimate for how long it would be until they finished the project. Team members were not allowed to discuss it before they recorded their guess, so that the estimates would be independent.
The consensus was about two years. The lowest estimate was one-and-a-half years, the highest was two-and-a-half. Everyone was satisfied. Kahneman then had another thought: ask Seymour.
Seymour was a member of the team and a distinguished curriculum expert who had seen many other groups go through this same process. Moments ago, Seymour had estimated that it would be about another two years. But now he stopped to think about all those other teams. Not a single one that he could think of had taken less than seven years. None of the teams that finished had taken more than ten years, but Seymour estimated that about 40 percent never finished at all.
Kahneman’s group was unwilling to spend six more years on a project they might not even complete. They debated Seymour’s new opinion for a few minutes, and then decided to proceed, trusting the about‑two‑years wisdom of the group.
Eight years later, they finished. Kahneman was no longer living in the country, and the educational agency that had asked for the curriculum was no longer interested. Decades later, Kahneman would write that the group had fallen prey to what he and a colleague termed the “planning fallacy.”
The planning fallacy describes our natural bias when forecasting our own productivity: we focus on the best-case scenario, or something dangerously close to it. Rarely does that scenario play out.
I was thinking about the planning fallacy a lot last year. As I started in on a new book, I decided that, this time, I would be way more efficient than with the other two books. I created much more formal, systematic, daily to-do lists than I had in the past. Trouble quickly ensued.
Unsurprisingly, the best-case scenario usually didn’t play out. Maybe water got into the basement that day; maybe I was just having a harder time parsing some research paper than I’d anticipated and had to slow down, or call someone who could help. I would end up with a few unfinished items at the end of a day, so those would carry over to the next day’s list, along with new stuff. Some days, something great and unexpected would happen — an interview would run long because it was so interesting, or I’d stumble on some intriguing area of research and go down a rabbit hole — but it still meant that more tasks on the list had to get carried over to the following day.
This would happen until finally a day’s list became so obviously ridiculous in its prolixity that I would tear it up and throw it out. Each time I would reset, and each time the process would swiftly recur.
After a few rounds of this, I realized that my fungal-branching to-do lists had become sources of terror. I would flip them upside down to start the day so I didn’t have to look. I tried several different to-do list tactics I’d read about, none of which really helped, because when the bottleneck in the process is me (or you), it doesn’t really matter how splendidly the lists are categorized.
Anytime I try something new, I consider it an experiment, so I reflect early and often. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was falling prey to the planning fallacy on a daily basis, and that it was making the to-do lists entirely useless, and leaving me frustrated at the end of each day. The solution, fortunately, was pretty simple: put way less stuff on each day’s list.
Now I put one single thing atop the day’s list that, if accomplished, will mean the workday was a clear step in the right direction. Perhaps I’ll put a bonus thing or two lower down, but I want to leave room for mental meandering and rabbit holes, as well as for the occasional water in the basement. I’ve found that, rather than acting like a check-list, the to-do list has basically become a beacon — a reminder of the thing I should be focusing on. (And on the off chance that I somehow find myself ahead, I don’t seem to have trouble coming up with other things to do.) When it was a list with a dozen items, I had a tendency to start with the easy ones so that I could check something off, not the important one or two.
I was thinking about all this recently in the context of New Year’s resolutions, and how I love the idea of resolutions, the drive for self improvement, and the ambitious goals. But I expect they often fail the same way that my early to-do lists failed, mired in the planning fallacy until it becomes so ridiculous that the resolver gives up entirely.
So, this year, if you’re prone to the planning fallacy, perhaps consider resolving to resolve to do less. You just might get more done.
Thank you for reading, and I hope you’ve had a wonderful start to the new year. In case you were doing more important things over the holidays (I can’t imagine!) and missed the last post of 2023, check out Range Widely's year-end awards. You wouldn’t want to miss categories like “Best Quote for One’s Own Obit.” (Spoiler: Charlie Munger.)
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