Sometimes it feels like the unfairness of life is what’s holding you back, but what if I tell you it’s a much more subtle enemy: Cognitive Biases. According to The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology: “A cognitive bias is a systematic pattern of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment.”

In simpler words, they are particular shortcuts that your brain makes which can significantly affect your views on the world and hinder your progress.

First, let’s get on the same page

The word progress seems a bit too broad when left for the imagination. So, let’s put things in perspective, imagine crossing one small task off of your to-do list. Feels exhilarating, right?
That is precisely how you should view progress, moving in a direction that gets you closer to your goal.

The shortcuts your brain is taking, aka cognitive biases

With that being said, your brain often paves the road to success while still trying to preserve its executive power. This leads it to fall prey to many systematic errors, called Cognitive Biases.

Many of these biasses are often why your recipe for sustainable progress is a disaster.

Planning and Optimism biases: The problem with your to-do list is hope

You already have ten tasks on your to-do list, but you go ahead and add the 11th one anyway. Thinking, what’s one more task?

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Underestimating the time, it would take you to complete a task is called the “Planning Fallacy” bias. Coupled with the “Optimism Bias,” your brain creates an overzealous estimation of your time and abilities.
This reoccurring hiccup in judgment is powerful enough that we often recognize it’s deceit, yet still, choose to follow it.

Habit to adopt:

Developed by Nobel prize psychologist Kahneman and his collaborator mathematical psychologist Tversky, “The reference class forecasting” can act as the perfect remedy for your to-do list dilemma.

It essentially means comparing what happened in your past similar experience to the current situation and developing your plan accordingly. This can be called taking the outside view.

Habit to drop:

Instinctively your brain will be itching to take the opposite “inside view.” Stick to your guns and learn to tune out the voice telling you that this time things will be different or that this situation is unique.

Confirmation bias: Everything proves what you already know

The “Confirmation Bias” can lead you into never challenging your present beliefs or pre-acquired information. If you only focus on information that confirms what you already know, you won’t be able to go far now, will you?

This mindset is one of the most common to creep into your every-day decision-making process. Your brain’s logic is succumbing to conflict, and conflicting beliefs can only mean more time and effort to make a decision, so it merely dodges the bullet.

Why fight it? It might not be necessary to challenge your confirmation bias for every decision but adopting the conflict mindset every once and a while can open your eyes to new ideas and opportunities. Two vital building blocks that fuel progress.

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How to fight it?

  • Be on the lookout for constructive conflict.
  • Surround yourself with a diverse variety of individuals to lower your resistance for different opinions.
  • Don’t take it personally.

Functional fixedness: My way or the high way

The cognitive bias “Functional Fixedness” can be summed up in our belief that objects can only serve one specific function. Your unwavering compliance that a pen is only for writing can be more dangerous for your progress than you think.

This linear understanding of your surroundings come with a lot of missed opportunities. Creatively utilizing the available resources can save you much effort and help you cultivate a sought-after problem-solving skill.

To overcome the setbacks of depleting time, energy and resources, you need to think about functional fixedness and then think the absolute opposite to solve your problem.

Want to get started?

You have a screw that needs to be finished putting into place, but all you have is a piece of string and a coin. What do you do?

The Functional Fixedness approach: Look for a screwdriver, wasting time & effort in the process.

The opposite: Finish screwing it with the coin

Tip: This technique can also get you through many interview questions.

Negativity Bias: The magic mushroom is to blame

You must be wondering what does a mushroom from a Super Mario game has to do with progress. Let me clarify

a) In Finding the mushroom, you become a bigger Mario. b) In the event of any setbacks, you lose that magic power and return to your small Mario status.

Even though both actions seem to be symmetric in impact, the negative effect of losing the power of the mushroom has a considerable effect on our psychological state according to the “Negativity Bias.”

Need more proof?

Which one resonates louder inside of you, the very thoughtful compliment you received earlier today or that tough appraisal feedback your manager gave you over a year ago.

Need a way out?

This one is all about awareness. Be aware of the fact that negative emotions have a stronger psychological effect on you and mindfully choose to hinder its ability to sway your decision or perception of the current situation.

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Dunning-Kruger effect: You are full of it

Dunning Kruger” bias says that inexperience leads to overconfidence. If your preconceived idea about your skills doesn’t come into friction with experience. You will end up unskilled, unaware and thinking the world of yourself.

Overconfidence can lead to people believing in you and the perceived set of skills you boast about. Which in turn reinforces your own beliefs about yourself. The equation is simple: I say I am adequate, people believe I am adequate then I must be so.

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Don’t let the orange power fool you:

Misplaced confidence might get you to move upwards, but that is not the same as moving forward. According to physics what goes up must come down, but you never hear of things going backward unprovoked.

Washing the orange off:

  • Use as measurable standards of performance as possible
  • Beware of beginnings; that is usually when you think you know it all
  • Take Kruger’s word of advice “Be competent, always be learning.”

Cognitive biases are the enemy but only if they are left unchecked. Staying on top of your biases requires just a bit of self-awareness to catch yourself in the act and some self-discipline to stop it.



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