Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Time Management Tuesday: Can We Do Something About Completion Bias?

Last week I discussed completion bias, our tendency "to focus too much on tasks that are easy to complete -- often at the expense of the tasks that are more important." (Lindsay Kolowich) This week I'll get a little more into the subject and  whether we can try to deal with it.

Are We Talking Procrastination?

Procrastination, according to Timothy Pychyl "is the voluntary delay of an intended action despite the knowledge that this delay may harm the individual in terms of the task performance or even just how the individual feels about the task or him- or herself. Procrastination is a needless voluntary delay." Completion bias sounds similar to me. Even though the tasks we're choosing to do are real tasks (marketing tweets, researching agents or journals to submit to), if we're choosing to do them instead of taking on a more important, but harder, task, it seems as if we're using completion bias to procrastinate.

We might call it productive procrastination. We're not shopping on-line or reading up on the latest elderly actor to die, we're doing real work. What we're doing just may not be important work, or the most important work we could be doing at that particular time. We're doing these tasks because they're short and easy.

To get big, harder jobs done, we're going to have to come up with some strategies.

The Swiss Cheese Method Of Time Management

This seems like a good opportunity to recall Alan Lakein's The Swiss Cheese Method of Time Managment. Lakein's "theory was that many people put off complex tasks, hoping to have more time for them at some later date. Lakein claimed you could get started at jobs like that right away, chipping away at what needed to be done with small chunks of time. These small chunks of time were compared to the holes in Swiss cheese. With enough holes, the cheese either disappears altogether, because the job is done, or enough of it disappears to make the job seem manageable enough to work on in a more regular manner."

For a writing project, this could mean breaking a story down into its elements--character, setting, plot, point of view, voice--and working on planning one at a time instead of trying to sit down and write a whole piece at once. You can add planning scenes to that strategy and then writing those scenes one scene at a time.

All those pieces of the whole become the smaller, easier tasks we can complete and feel good about. But they are pieces of a greater whole, getting us closer to completing a bigger job.

And Then There Is The Unit System

The unit system, you will recall, is my term for working in short chunks of time.  Many time management people discuss some variation of this technique. It helps with maintaining self-control, procrastination, and all types of time woes.

In the case of completion bias, units of time could become an easier task we take on. We can't get on-board for that big revision? Can we get on-board for doing one unit on it three days this week? Every day?

If we're viewing the unit of time as a task, when we complete one, we should get the psychological buzz we'd get from completing any small task. And eventually, if we complete enough of them, the bigger task will have become smaller, just as Lakein describes with his Swiss cheese analogy.

External Supports For Willpower

Yes, we're talking using external supports for willpower here. And we're doing what I would describe as manipulating ourselves.

Go for it.

I'm going to go get my timer, so I can put in a unit on a revision.


Jen Robinson said...

I would agree that completion bias is related to, or a form of, procrastination. It's a way to put off the hard stuff while still feeling good about getting stuff done. I can remember in grad school cleaning my apartment bathroom prior to studying.

Breaking up tasks into smaller chunks will certainly help in terms of getting the bigger tasks done at all. But for me, I also don't like having a large number of different tasks on my to do list - this makes me feel stressed out, even if a lot of them are quick tasks. So, no clear answer, but I think it's helpful to be aware of the tendencies.

Gail Gauthier said...

Yeah, I like to own all my idiosyncrasies.