How Optimism Can Lead to Missed Deadlines

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Amused smiling businessman holding papers from the piles on his desk.
Photo: H. ARMSTRONG ROBERTS/Corbis

Your significant other’s birthday is coming up. This year, you’re going to think of and purchase a gift early, not like every other year, in which you’ve procrastinated and rushed to buy something, anything, at the last minute. It’s the same kind of thinking that might happen Friday evening when you bring work home with you, fully intending to get things done over the weekend, despite knowing that every previous weekend you’ve failed to do so. 

Both are examples of something called the planning fallacy, the human tendency to be overly optimistic about how long it will take to complete tasks. Despite the good intentions behind this mode of thinking, it’s something that often leads to procrastination and missed deadlines, writes Dean Burnett in The Guardian today. Burnett explains:

T]he human brain has a bizarrely optimistic slant when it comes to estimating how long things will take to do, and invariably underestimates. As well as this, it has a tendency to attribute previous failures to meet a deadline to external causes, e.g. “I know I turned up at the funeral with a Get Well Soon card, but that’s because the World Cup was on”. These optimistic assumptions tend to dominate planning and performance until the deadline encroaches, and the actual reality of the situation is harder or impossible to ignore.

Burnett points out that this quirk of human psychology gives a reason to appreciate deadlines — they’re often the only reason people ever get anything done. 

How Optimism Can Lead to Missed Deadlines