Endless Lateness

(Feature Article)

You are ready to leave the house. Suddenly you remember that you forgot to take the keys, then a friend calls with an urgent question, the laces are torn – and now you are running headlong to the meeting, you are late and think that next time you will arrive on time. However, this does not stop. Why so?

For example, the construction of the Sydney Opera House was planned to be completed in 1963 and cost seven million dollars. But everything went awry. First, they built a not strong enough podium, which had to be redone. Then there were problems with the construction of the roof, which took six years to solve. In the end, the opening of the building was delayed for ten years, and it cost as much as 192 million dollars. So, it happened with many other grand projects.

These are all classic examples of planning fallacy – cognitive prejudice. It delays public transport, and companies do not make the expected profits.

It is the delusion of planning that forces us to make a to-do list for a day that no sane person would be able to do. Because of it, we are constantly late, even if it falls well.

As with the construction of the Sydney Opera House, when planning the road to work, we do not take into account unforeseen circumstances: that we will not be able to find the keys before leaving, the laces on the shoes will rip, we will take the elevator for a long time, we will have to wait for the bus. Therefore, we will rush to the morning meeting at full speed, although we have overcome the way to work several hundred times.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman first spoke about the phenomenon of planning error. He received the Nobel Prize in 2002 for the application of psychological techniques in economics, especially in decision-making, and his colleague Amos Tversky in 1979. They identified its main features.

Firstly, the person is too optimistic about the time required to complete the task. Secondly, this assessment is not affected by past negative experiences. If you are late once, you think that the next day it will not happen. Thirdly, an outside observer, on the other hand, will be too pessimistic about the time to complete another person’s task.

Accordingly, people consistently assume that a certain case will take less time and effort than in reality. This is called optimistic bias. We often underestimate the complexity of possible obstacles or do not take into account that they may occur. But the distrust of an outside observer is called pessimistic bias.

You probably don’t know, that on average, 40% people underestimate the amount of time they need to complete a task. There is a joke that says that the last 10% of work requires 90% of time.

Studies by other scientists have confirmed the assumptions of Kahneman and Tversky. For example, in 1994, Roger Buhler and colleagues conducted five experiments with 465 students. It turned out that in both educational and personal matters, the vast majority of them were too optimistic about the time to complete tasks.

In one study, students were asked to estimate the time to complete two major tasks next week. Students averaged 5.8 days of academic assignments and five days of non-academic assignments. In fact, they completed it in 10.7 and 9.2 days, respectively.

What is the fallacy of planning related to?

A person “blames” his previous bad timing on external factors, which, in his opinion, will not be repeated in the future, because they apply only to the previous situation and not the next. According to chronic “delays”, they will be able to control the next situation more.

In addition, people tend to exaggerate their achievements in the past and inadequately remember how much time they took a certain task. Remembering the past in a favorable light is one of the common prejudices of memory (memory bias). Therefore, it may just seem to us that we are not so late last time.

However, the force of planning error is also influenced by less studied factors: for example, cultural features or individual features of cognitive processes (ie cognitive style). Although a 2010 study found that Canadian and Japanese students underestimated the time required to complete a task in the same way, there was still too little data to draw informed conclusions.

So, how to deal with endless lateness?

To overcome the misconception of planning, the business environment is sometimes advised to present alternative scenarios. However, a 2000 study found that this method did not work. Participants assessed the impact of pessimistic scenarios even less realistically than positive ones.

Similarly, group discussion of risks does not help much, because participants feel social pressure and evaluate the task too optimistically.

So when you really need to show up on time (and in other cases as well), try to divide the big task into pieces, imagine a less positive result and add a certain amount of time to your final calculations.

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