3 Cognitive Biases That Sabotage Our Productivity

Humans are bad at making good decisions. We act against our rational self-interest all the time.

Published on
26 May

As Dan Ariely insightfully observed, "We are not only irrational but predictably irrational—we make the same mistakes again and again." Our cognitive biases affect our decision-making. These automatic irrationalities shape our lives every day in ways big and small, from how we spend our time to where we get our news.

Luckily, predictability has a silver lining: it means we have the power to change.

Our predictable irrationality can be observed, understood, and hopefully avoided when desired. By recognizing and understanding our cognitive biases, we can take steps to counteract them and make better choices.

The groundbreaking work of Israeli psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman has illuminated many of the cognitive biases that affect our decision-making. Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize in economics for his work with Tversky, has emphasized that "we're blind to our blindness. We have very little idea of how little we know. We're not designed to know how little we know."

In fact, our brains evolved for instant gratification in a hunter-gatherer world.

But today, we live in a "delayed-return environment" that requires a new mindset. That’s why it’s so important to take the time to become aware and understand our cognitive biases while also actively seeking to overcome them.

So how do we adapt?

By hacking and rewiring our brains. But in order to do that, we first need to understand the cognitive biases preventing us prioritizing long-term rewards and success. The top three biases that impact our productivity are:

1. Procrastination Bias, aka "that's a future me problem":

This cognitive bias leads us to delay tasks, even when we know it will result in worse outcomes in the long run. By constantly putting things off, we compromise our productivity and create unnecessary stress.

2. Planning Fallacy, aka "I can do that in an hour":

This bias occurs when we underestimate the time and resources required to complete a task. As a result, we may not allocate enough time for projects, leading to missed deadlines and decreased productivity.

3. Confirmation Bias, aka "I see what I want to see":

This cognitive bias causes us to selectively search for and interpret information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs. By favoring information that aligns with our views, we limit our ability to make informed decisions and consider alternative solutions, which can hinder productivity.

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Our brains evolved for instant gratification in a hunter-gatherer world. But today, we live in a "delayed-return environment" that requires a new mindset.

Procrastination Bias, aka "that's a future me problem"

We all struggle with procrastination. The tendency to choose a smaller, immediate reward over a larger, future one is deeply ingrained in our nature. Procrastination is not just about laziness or poor time management; research indicates that procrastination is a complex cognitive bias that can stem from our fear of failure, our need for immediate gratification, or the perception that a task is unpleasant or overwhelming.

Moving past your fear of failure

There are so many unknown unknowns. A fear of failure is natural. And it’s so easy to get caught up in the "what ifs" while overanalyzing every decision.

Doubt is removed by action.

You have to keep trying things and showing up. You'll be surprised at how quickly that doubt starts to fade away, replaced by the satisfaction of progress and achievement.

Try the 2 minute rule to start moving: start on anything tangentially related to your primary task. The power of motion will give you traction. Staring at a blank screen? Try writing random sentences for two minutes and watch how your thoughts begin to flow.

Delaying immediate gratification

Sometimes what we need to do isn’t fun. We’d all rather be entertaining ourselves with our favorite pastimes. This tendency to value immediate rewards more highly than future ones is why it’s so difficult to appreciate the long-term benefits of completing a task.

So, here's a little trick: picture your future self. Studies have shown that individuals who perceive greater continuity between their present and future selves are more inclined to make decisions that consider their future selves.

Imagine yourself at the end of the day going to bed completely satisfied. Now reverse engineer and picture what you did today to make that happen. Create an implementation intention, which involves specifying when, where, and how you will complete a task. Visualize enjoying the process and building up the delayed reward in your mind.

By reframing how you think about your future self and rewards, over time you’ll focus more on enjoying the journey and become less dependent on immediate gratification.

Conquering overwhelm

Sometimes we procrastinate simply because we don't enjoy the task at hand.

To combat this, try breaking the task into smaller, more manageable steps, and set achievable goals for yourself. This can help make the task feel less daunting and more enjoyable. The Pomodoro technique can be helpful here to keep you focused on the sub-tasks.

When nothing works, identify the reasons why the task is important to you and remind yourself of the benefits of completing it. You can also use external rewards or incentives or an accountability partner to encourage yourself to get started and stay on track.

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Doubt is removed by action. You have to keep trying things and showing up.

Planning Fallacy, aka "I can do that in an hour"

Studies have shown that individuals tend to be overly optimistic when estimating task completion times.

Track your time

To counteract the planning fallacy, track your time. It’s easier to make accurate estimates when you can compare it to similar tasks that you have done in the past. Data makes it easier for you to be more objective when planning your time.

Plan your days with the Eisenhower Matrix

Which you should definitely be doing: plan your days! The Eisenhower Matrix can help with that. Originated by Dwight Eisenhower, who was known for his prolific productivity, said "What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important."

You should be living in the Decide quadrant (Important, but not yet urgent). That's where the productivity magic happens! Spend more time planning dedicated sessions for deep work for the tasks you need to do. Spend your energy in understanding how to use your time and plan out what what’s on your plate.

Do pre & post-mortems

Do a pre-mortem and a post-mortem. Beforehand, anticipate potential problems before they occur and develop contingency plans. Afterwards, review your progress and compare it to your initial estimates to identify patterns and adjust your future predictions accordingly.

Understanding your time and how you use it will help you become more aware of potential pitfalls and better prepared to address them, ultimately resulting in more accurate estimates and improved productivity.

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You should be living in the Decide quadrant (Important, but not yet urgent). That's where the productivity magic happens!

Confirmation Bias, aka "I see what I want to see":

Confirmation bias can really mess with our productivity! We get hung up on what we think is important and end up spending way too much time on stuff that doesn't matter. We can get stubborn about trying new strategies or ideas, even if they might help us achieve our goals better. We can get over-confident about what we're doing, only to realize later that we climbed the wrong mountain. To mitigate the negative effects of confirmation bias on personal time management, it's crucial to actively pursue diverse perspectives, remain receptive to feedback, and engage in mindfulness and self-reflection.

Seek out diversity of thought

Share your work, seek feedback, encourage open discussions, and expose yourself to alternative viewpoints to expand your understanding and make better-informed decisions. Engaging in critical thinking and challenging your assumptions can also help to minimize the influence of this bias.


You can also reduce confirmation bias by practicing mindfulness and self-reflection. Being aware of your thoughts and emotions can help you recognize when your judgment might be clouded by personal beliefs or preferences.

Foster a growth mindset

Fostering a growth mindset—a belief in the capacity for personal development and improvement—can encourage you to be more open to feedback and new ideas. Create an environment around you that promotes seeking facts, challenging the status quo, and encouraging continuous improvement.

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Realizing that we have these mental traps is a great start, but just knowing about them isn't enough to keep us from falling for them again and again.

What we need to do is create habits, set up systems, and change our mindset to outsmart these cognitive biases our brains naturally follow.

We might not ever be totally rational, but we can definitely set ourselves up to make better choices when it comes to our time.

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