The optimism bias — what it is, and how to beat it so you can finish your book
“It’ll take me a week, max, to do the final edit on my book,” I declared.
Oh, how I’m laughing, hollowly and bitterly, as I toil into my third week. As usual, I’d underestimated how long the final editing process would take.
Just as I do when I calculate how long it’ll take me to get to the airport, how long it’ll take to shear the TinySheeps, and how long it’ll take to weed the vegetable beds.
On my hard drive languish at least three unfinished books. And countless unfinished projects, all of which I know I’ll complete at some point. Honest.
Everything takes longer than I think it will.
Imagine my delight when I discovered I’m not alone, it’s not my fault, and there is something I can do about it.
Listening to the Freakonomics podcast last week, I learned all about why our brains are wired to be irrationally optimistic, the problems this causes, and what we can do about it.
Whether your project is a giant railway infrastructure, a cottage renovation, or writing your book, it will inevitably take way too long and cost much more than you budget. It’s because you suffer from the planning fallacy — with a healthy dose of optimism bias and overconfidence thrown in.
These cognitive oddities are amusing; but they’re also frustrating as hell. The planning fallacy is our tendency to underestimate how long it will take to complete a project — while knowing that similar projects have taken longer to complete in the past.
Flying In The Face Of Facts
Our optimism bias causes us to make hopeful predictions about our abilities in the face of facts and knowledge that strongly suggest we won’t manage whatever it is we’re doing.
Even though the optimism bias can cause us to make stupid decisions — like not getting regular health checks, not saving for the future, and betting too much money on a bad investment — without it, we may never have left the cave.
If we want to make progress, we must be able to imagine a better future and believe we can achieve them. This type of optimism helps motivate us to chase our goals. Economists at Duke University found that optimists work longer hours, tend to earn more, and tend to save more. And they’re more likely to remarry after they divorce (the triumph of hope over experience, as Samuel Johnson put it).
Optimism is good for us in the present, even if the rosy future doesn’t necessarily come true. It keeps us feeling calmer and more content, lowers stress, and improves physical health. A study of cancer patients showed pessimistic patients under the age of 60 were more likely to die within eight months than similar optimistic patients.
And neuroscience suggests optimism is hard-wired into our brains. Optimism is a good thing for individuals and for the survival of our species.
When Evolution Scuppers Us
But what about when it scuppers our projects? Like writing a book?
One of the problems is working with other people. When you work with clients or collaborators, there are so many more opportunities for someone to throw a spanner into your engine, adding extra time to projects.
When we’re working alone, we tend to overestimate our abilities. We’re overconfident about what we can achieve. And we don’t take into account our human skill at procrastinating. We put off what we know we should do, that will bring us future rewards, in favour of doing unimportant stuff that’s instantly gratifying.
What can we do about it?
I recently finished reading Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, and I thoroughly recommend it. It’s a manifesto for living a more meaningful and more intentional life through only using technology when it serves.
During the daytime, my smartphone lives in a different room in “do not disturb” mode. Only a handful of people can call me before 5 pm, and they know only to do so in an emergency.
I removed most of the social media apps from my phone. The one that caused me the most trouble was Facebook — I find myself mindlessly scrolling and getting more and more anxious and agitated.
(A happy side-effect of minimising distractions is I’m now less anxious generally. Social media makes you anxious, fact fans.)
Here are my suggestions for you:
- Put your phone in another room and only pick it up during specific times, say between 12.30 pm and 1.30 pm, and after 5 pm. Nothing is so urgent you need to answer it now (unless you work in emergency services of some kind).
- Remove social media and news apps from your phone so you have to log into your laptop or desktop to access social sites. You’ll be amazed at how not-important it becomes, and you’ll still be able to keep up with the stuff that matters.
- Turn off notifications on your laptop or desktop. If you get a ping every time an email lands, it’s almost impossible to ignore it. Instead, check your emails at specific times of the day and deal with them then. If you allow notifications to suck you in, you’ll get dragged into other people’s plans instead of living your own life.
- Install an app like Freedom on your laptop to restrict access to certain sites. I can only access Facebook and other social media before 8 am, between 12.30 and 2 pm, and after 5 pm. That’s more than plenty.
Staying Within Deadline And Budget
Everything always takes longer than you think it’ll take. Trust me on this. Here are my top tips to help you write your book (or do any other project) on time and within budget.
- Look back at similar projects you’ve worked on in the past. How long did it take you? How much did it cost? This project will almost certainly be similar.
- If you’ve never written a book before, or done a similar project, pick a deadline — then add on an extra 50% in time and money.
- If you’re working with others, talk to them about the optimism bias so everyone’s prepared for the project to take longer than they might like.
- Build in extra time to allow other people to throw spanners into your engine, so you can deal with their spanners without derailing your project.
- Ask for help if you need it. If you know it’ll take hours and hours to do something someone else could do fast, get them to do it. Invest a little cash to win yourself a lot of time. You can always make more money; but once the minutes of your life have gone, you’ll never get them back.
Being an optimist is wonderful — it keeps us going and helps us strive to be better and do better. Just don’t let your optimism destroy the book you’re writing or the project you’re working on.
And remember, next time you’re panicking and running late, and someone tells you you’re selfish, that’s not necessarily the case. The problem is, you’re terminally optimistic. Of course, now you know about the optimism bias, it means you can plan for it. Give yourself an extra half-hour. Then you’ll never be late again.
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If you want to learn more about how to write, self-publish, and market a book for your business, snaffle yourself a copy of How The Hell Do You Write A Book? Then check out the blog and podcast for more articles and guides. If you want a little (or a lot) more help, find out how you can work with me.
Vicky Fraser is the founder of Moxie Books and author of How The Hell Do You Write A Book and Business For Superheroes. She helps business owners write life-changing books, connect with readers and new customers, and grow their businesses. When she's not doing that, she's hanging from a trapeze by her feet.