Photo by Josh Riemer / Unsplash

Our brains help us accomplish amazing things. Unfortunately, they’re also really good at making us sabotage ourselves. In this case, we’re talking about cognitive biases.

Cognitive biases are the ways our brains unintentionally fool us to think we’re doing something right. Every day, our brains use heuristics (often called mental shortcuts) to help us make decisions and solve problems fast, without having to process impractical amounts of complex information.

Heuristics are mostly helpful, but they can also lead us to less productive ways of thinking and decision-making. Even if they may feel right.

Enter cognitive biases, some familiar examples being confirmation bias, herd mentality, anchoring bias, and the halo effect. Cognitive biases make for tons of interesting reading, but today we’ll touch on three that mess up your productivity (and may find all too familiar as a freelancer).

Planning Fallacy

Say you plan on finishing a task within an hour. 3 hours go by and you’re still at it, yet again. Why does this keep happening?

We sometimes tend to underestimate the amount of time it takes to complete a task. This is known as the Planning Fallacy, and can cause a ton of frustration and mess up carefully planned workdays. Especially for freelancers managing their own time.

Don’t beat yourself up about it so much though. People can still fall prey to the Planning Fallacy, even when they already have experience completing that particular task. For example: you’ve written blog posts in the past, and you know it takes you roughly 2-3 hours to finish a short blog post. Instead of basing your judgment on past experiences, you might decide to allot just 1 hour to complete the task.

In the end, you finish the blog post after 3 hours, and now have less time to work on the other tasks you planned to work on for the day. You end up either working for longer hours than expected, or moving those tasks for the next day.

The Planning Fallacy may be explained by our tendency to overestimate our abilities and the likelihood that a situation will turn out in our favor. We also fail to consider the numerous setbacks and delays we may encounter, like accidentally spilling coffee on yourself or cleaning up after your pet dog who just pooped on the carpet.

Overshooting deadlines happens to everyone. Sometimes it’s even unavoidable, so the best you can do is to consciously plan your deadlines based on past experience. Avoid relying on instinct, and instead ask yourself: “how long did it take me to finish this task the last couple of times?”

Completion Bias

Ever notice how weirdly good it feels to check off tasks on your to-do list?

Research has shown that completing tasks is psychologically rewarding. This makes us feel what’s called a Completion Bias: our tendency to seek out that specific pleasure we experience from completing tasks. That may sound like a good thing, but Completion Bias can also cause a lot of unproductivity.

Important and fulfilling tasks aren’t easy to complete. People are wired to seek pleasure with the least possible effort. Completion Bias tricks us into focusing too much on easy tasks that give us a more immediate sense of accomplishment, while neglecting harder tasks that take more time and effort to do, but are more meaningful for us in the long run.

So while you may feel a sense of accomplishment from answering those 50 non-essential emails, you’re left with less time to focus on that presentation for a major client. You’ve also just drained a ton of mental resources, so by the time you get to the tasks that do require more mental effort, you’re down to your last 15 brain cells.

There’s apparently a positive side to this. Finishing all these small tasks releases more dopamine in the brain, which helps psychologically motivate us to work on harder tasks. It also frees up cognitive resources in our brain to help us stay more focused.

Whatever the case, we find that completion bias more often ends up as procrastination disguised as productivity. The next time you find yourself falling for the completion bias, pause your work for a moment. Take a little time to go through your to-do list and ask yourself: “what is this the most important thing I need to be doing right now?” and focus solely on that. It helps to set a maximum amount of time you’re allowed to perform mundane tasks, like an hour for emails.

Some recommend starting with the hardest, most high-priority task before anything else. Some prefer to warm their brains up and get into the groove of the day by accomplishing smaller tasks first, using that small feeling of accomplishment as momentum to take on more difficult tasks. Either way, always keep in mind which tasks need your priority and which can wait.

The Zeigarnik Effect

The Zeigarnik Effect is like the Completion Bias’ just-as-evil twin stepsister. It’s our tendency to remember incomplete tasks better than finished ones.

Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, who proposed the Zeigarnik effect, observed how perfectly waiters were able to remember the most complex orders, but quickly forgot them once the bill was paid. It’s like those times you forgot everything you learned right after finishing an exam, even if you spent countless nights studying for it. Or why we seem to forget the books we read.

So how can this be a bad thing? Shouldn’t the Zeigarnik Effect push us to finish our tasks? On the flipside, the Zeigarnik Effect can also make us constantly think and feel anxious about our unfinished tasks. How many times have you promised to enjoy a weekend, only to find yourself thinking constantly about your unfinished Friday work?

We use our short-term memory to focus, but short-term memory has its limitations. The more tasks you do at the same time, the less mental resources you have to focus on each one. Unfinished, anxiety-inducing tasks work the same way, draining our mental resources and making us less effective at our work. Think about those times you couldn’t seem to focus on your current task because you kept thinking about all the other tasks you hadn’t finished yet.

Finishing your pending tasks right now may not always be an option, but simply planning your tasks and being systematic about them can help you counter the Zeigarnik Effect.

Stay dedicated to listing all your tasks down so you aren’t constantly taking a mental note of everything. Plan what tasks you want to focus on for the day, and work on them one at a time when it can be helped. At the end of the day, plan your next day’s tasks to avoid them from “lingering in your mind” after work hours.

Sometimes you can even use the Zeigarnik Effect to keep yourself motivated to finish a task. Some people are more productive when they break up major tasks into smaller phases, instead of long stretches of working. Or when faced with a huge task, you can find one small, first step to get yourself started. That simple start can be a signal for your brain that you’ve just started a task, and can help keep your momentum going.

Stay Productive with Self-Awareness!

Not everyone experiences cognitive biases the same way. Some may be more prone to experience them, others less so, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing if you do. Cognitive biases can sometimes be our default impulses because that’s just how our brains work. The key to beating them is awareness—knowing how they work, when they happen, and when to look for them can help you avoid falling into their trap.