How to Avoid Biting off more than you can Chew

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We’ve all been there; your professor asks you to do something and, without batting an eye you say, “I’ll have that done by this afternoon, no problem.”

Yet, once you start working on it, you realise there is no way you will finish on time. Not only will you not be done by this afternoon, but you might also not be done by tomorrow either. Then the stress kicks in, you’re going to need to ask for an extension…yikes!

Aptly named the planning fallacy, this bias leads us to inaccurately predict how much time, money or energy we will need to complete a future task. As a result, we make decisions or promises that ignore realistic estimates. In other words, our optimism and lack of foresight puts us in a predicament.

Our predisposition to underestimate how much a task will require comes from our tendency to focus on the positive, especially when our abilities are on the line. In a 2004 study, when university students were asked how they think they would perform on an exam, they all said they thought they would perform better than 84% of their classmates.[1]

The point is, when we set out to complete a task, we are likely to focus and imagine ourselves succeeding, rather than considering the potential pitfalls and therefore we overestimate how long, how much money or how much energy it’ll require.

How to avoid the traps set by the planning fallacy Merely being aware of the planning fallacy is not enough to protect ourselves from it.

There are two things we can consider when planning that might just do the trick: singular information and distributional information. Singular information is evidence relating to the specific task you’re considering, and distribution (or outside) information refers to evidence relating to similar tasks you completed in the past.

Easy right?

The problem is, because planning is inherently future-oriented, we naturally look forward, failing to consider similar past experiences. Yet, it’s critical that we think about our past to temper our expectations and to keep our optimism bias under control.

Being optimistic is an excellent human trait, but its also the planning fallacy’s fuel.

This dreaded fallacy has another weak spot; specific plans of action and breaking up big projects into smaller components. This forces us to think about our goals more realistically and less optimistically, thus keeping the planning fallacy under control.

So, next time your professor asks you when you think you can complete a task, look to the past when planning for the future and break it down into smaller tasks.

  1. Lovallo, D., & Kahneman, D. (2003, July). Delusions of success: How optimism undermines executives’ decisions. Harvard Business Review.

About me
Alexa I am a doctoral candidate in Experimental Psychology. I hold a BA in Psychology from McGill University and received my Master’s degree in Experimental Psychology at Concordia University. I am also the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Concordia’s Journal of Accessible Psychology (CJAP) as well as the Co-Founder and Liaison for Concordia’s Journal of Psychology and Neuroscience (CJPN).

I examine how and why decision-making strategies changes across the lifespan. My work aims to understand the neural mechanisms behind these changes in order to support the more complex strategies in children and the elderly. My doctoral research is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) as well as by Concordia University.

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Alexa Ruel
Alexa Ruel
Post doctoral Researcher

My research interests include decision-making strategies and cognitive control changes during healthy aging.