How good are you at dancing or singing? Without any sort of objective measure, a common method to try and determine our ability is by using peer comparison. We watch those around us participating in similar activities and estimate our relative performance. The only problem, as discovered by research psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, is that when we use peer comparison to judge our own performance we are most often wrong, and sometimes by a significant margin.
Have you ever had to justify a decision? Have you ever looked back at a decision and wondered what went wrong or how you might improve? Each of us, whether for legal, professional, or personal reasons, have at some point faced these questions. And while many times you might have been able to provide a clear answer, most certainly there were times when you were less than certain. This is where A.P.E. can help, a decision tool that uses a straightforward, three-step model of; assess, plan, and execute, to break down the decision process.
In pursuit of our goals, one of the most painful decisions we can face, is the possibility of failure. And given that we are hardwired to avoid pain, it is not uncommon for us to adopt a philosophy that to quit, to surrender, or to otherwise disengage from a goal is “unthinkable,” or “not an option”. This same philosophy is reinforced in certain cultural beliefs, such as in the power of positive thinking, the law of attraction, or in the unquestioned wisdom of a popular celebrity.
When struggling to achieve a particular goal, consider incorporating the use of pre-decisions to increase your chances of success. In over 94 studies the use of pre-decisions has shown to help get you started, keep you focused, conserve cognitive resources, and if for some reason you do become distracted, pre-decisions can help get you back on the right track.
The power of memory is elusive. It is difficult to quantify, yet it is undeniable that memories are often times what we yearn to create. The goals you set are also almost always tied to creating memories, or at least they should be, as the power of memory can help you maintain your motivation.
Salient vs. Gist Memory
Consider the difference of setting a goal to run the Boston Marathon verses the more general goal to lose ten pounds.
By Dr. Bobby Hoffman
Companies often devote massive resources toward employee education under the assumption that enhancing employee skill sets is beneficial for both the individual and the organization. The corporate investment in employee development is based on the company’s expectation of enhanced skill sets, increased productivity, and a positive relationship between training hours and profitability.
However, training employees comes with a price. One intangible cost is worker negativity and lack of enthusiasm toward training participation. Post-training repercussions include complaints about time away from work and the perception that little personal gain resulted from the developmental experience.
Here are four research-supported strategies that enhance training motivation:
With driverless cars on the horizon there is renewed interest in a classic ethical dilemma, the trolley problem. What decision would you make?
You spot a trolley barreling down the track towards five workers. There is a lever you can pull to switch the trolley over to another track, but there is a worker on this track as well. You quickly assess and other than the lever, there are no other feasible options. It is either one life or five lives. Do you pull the lever?
If you’re like me, it’s fairly common for certain items on your to-do-list to linger, taking much longer to accomplish than you had originally planned. In some cases the item never gets done and mysteriously fades away, not making it onto the “revised” list. Why? It is not as if creating to-do-lists is a novel concept.
The Planning Fallacy
One explanation is based on psychological research conducted by Daniel Kahneman and Amost Tversky. Back in 1979, they discovered that research subjects had a tendency to underestimate the amount of time required to accomplish a task. This cognitive bias is most often referred to as, “The Planning Fallacy.”
Since 1979 hundreds of studies have replicated their findings. One such study took place at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. College students were asked by researchers to predict how long it would take to write their thesis. The average estimate was just over 34 days. The students were also asked to guess how long it might take if everything went smooth, as well as to estimate how any potential delays might impact their original estimate. Respectively, the average estimates were roughly 27, and 48 days. In reality, the average time it took for students to turn in their thesis was 55 days, a full week past even the worst-case estimate and over 50% longer than the base estimate.
And time is not the only thing we underestimate, we also tend to underestimate resources that might be required. In a 2002 study, homeowners that were planning to remodel their kitchens were asked to estimate how much it would cost. The average estimate was $19,000, while the average cost was actually $39,000, over double the original prediction.
The planning fallacy is not limited to individual judgments, but groups and organizations as well. Have you ever heard stories of government projects where a hammer ends up costing over $400, or a $600 dollar toilet seat? While these types of inflated prices are not entirely products of the planning fallacy, it is undoubtedly a factor. What about the case of the Sydney Opera house? In that case, a $7 million dollar project ended up costing $102 million and took 10 years longer to complete than originally projected. For some actual research data, there was a 2005 study of railway projects that showed that over a period of 30 years, four out of every five projects significantly over estimated how many passengers would end up using the system.
There are a number of theories that try to explain why we are so bad at estimating into the future. One theory is that it is a self-serving bias to be a bit overly optimistic, that while our beliefs might be less than accurate, it helps provide the initial momentum required to take on a challenge. In doing so, our memory of past events is less than accurate. When we recall past performance, any delays we tend to attribute to external factors that we safely label as, “Not my fault.” These are factors that we rationalize were beyond our control and therefore should not influence future predictions. At the same time, we tend to discount any factors related to our personal performance and rationalize an increase in our abilities to stay motivated or a renewed commitment to the goal.
Another theory is not as positively framed, but offers to explain our tendency to be poor planners based on known limitations of our cognitive abilities. The theory suggests that in making future predictions, individuals construct a mental narrative or general story that has them accomplishing the task. This story will only include the major elements that are known variables. Small, individual distractions and mishaps that will occur, such as an unexpected phone call are not factored into the equation. Given these small distractions are by and large unknowns, any estimates will understandably be incorrect. It is not bias, rather an inability to account for all the variables.
There are a number of ways to try and deal with the planning fallacy. Two of the methods are based on scientific research and the last fix is common practice in the field of project management.
-1- Anchor and Adjust: According to some research, the best way is to anchor your future predictions based on objective past performance. If the last time you went on a diet you lost an average of 1 lb. a week, that’s what you should use to estimate the next time you want to lose some weight. This does not mean to ignore projected changes or benefits of a new idea, method or process, but to use past performance to anchor and then adjust.
-2- List Delays: Another evidence-backed technique is to intentionally consider setbacks. A study in two thousand and four showed that estimates were more accurate after participants considered three obstacles that might impede their progress. To use this technique, simply do the same…anytime you set a goal or are trying to estimate the time or resources required to finish a task, include a step where you create a list of any potential delays.
-3- Add-X: Similar to listing delays, this method can help by starting with the base assumption that any projected timeline is by default underestimated. The question then is how much time do you add? For a defined task that is simple with no hidden variables add 10% to the original estimate. For an ill-defined task that is complex with unknown variables add 50% to the original estimate. If it is a novel task never before attempted, add 100%.
The Add-X method is understandably a judgment call, as what is a simple task for one person is a complex task for another. If I try to repair my own car I don’t have the knowledge or skills. It is a complex task with plenty of unknowns for me. If a repair manual I find online says it should take an hour to fix, I should probably go ahead and plan for it to take double the amount of time. On the other hand, for a professional mechanic it is a simple task without unknowns. Still, the mechanic should add at least 10% to account for any unexpected distractions or mishaps.
The next time you are creating or updating your to-do-list, think about the planning fallacy. Think about the science behind our natural tendency to over estimate what we can accomplish and underestimate the time and resources it will take to accomplish the goals we set. While ultimately there is no known method that actually eliminates cognitive bias all together, there are techniques that you can use to try and offset the planning fallacy.
Whether you or someone you know is headed back to school or you have set a goal that involves learning, like speaking a foreign language, there is a wide range of strategies you can use that will help you to learn more efficiently, maximizing your time and effort. In this article I want to share with you 7 of these strategies, backed up by scientific evidence.
Strategy One: Spaced (Distributed) Practice
You can boost your ability to retain information by scheduling several small study sessions, spacing them out over time. This has proven more effective than the age-old practice of “cramming.”
To get the most out of spaced practice, make study sessions shorter and give yourself plenty of time between sessions. Instead of a single five (5) hour marathon session, break it down into one (1) hour sessions that take place over several days or a week. If you are studying multiple subjects, break it up so that you are rotating between subjects.
The reason spaced practice is so effective is that it helps you to focus on the more important concepts, prompts the need to recall from previous sessions, and limits the time available to become distracted by irrelevant material.
The most challenging aspect of spaced practice is having the discipline to create a schedule and then following through. If you find it difficult to stick to your schedule, consider adjusting the frequency or take a look at your overall workload.
Strategy Two: Concrete Examples
Learning has proven more effective when a person learns in context, being able to visualize how they can apply what they are studying in the real world. This can be more or less difficult dependent on the extent to which a person can attach what they are learning to a concrete example.
There are primarily three ways to take learning from the abstract to the applied:
Regardless of how you connect what you are learning to a real world application, the thing to remember is to try and attach it to a concrete example. Getting people involved by providing a concrete example helps both in understanding and retrieval of the material.
“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin
Strategy Three: Dual Coding
Have you ever heard that pictures are worth 1,000 words? With the explosion of the Internet more and more research is proving that combining words with visuals helps people better retain information. The process of using text with visuals is called dual coding and it can come in a variety of forms:
For example, if you are trying to learn anatomy, such as the kidneys, liver, lungs, heart, and brain, then having a diagram of the human body can help over using flash cards that only contain text. According to research, pictures are processed 60,000 times faster than text and visuals are processed using an area in the brain associated with long-term memory, while text uses working or short-term memory.
When using dual coding, start by initially connecting text with a visual reference and work your way up to more advanced techniques, drawing the visual from memory. This is can be especially useful in multi-media learning.
Strategy Four: Elaboration
This strategy asks how or why something works in a certain way. From the original question you begin to dig deeper, searching for additional resources and materials that can help provide answers. The process of elaborating helps you build a better understanding.
When using elaboration it can help to compare and contrast opposing ideas. You may want to seek out opinions and have discussions with friends or colleagues. In a technology rich environment you can use the Internet to access previous research on the subject.
When using elaboration, there are at least two things to keep in mind:
Strategy Five: Interleaving
This strategy works great in conjunction with spaced practice. Interleaving is the intentional switching and rearranging of topics during a study session. Study one topic or subject for a short period of time and then switch.
Interleaving is best used when topics have some crossover or similarities. For instance, when studying to learn a foreign language you may (a) read a short story, (b) memorize new vocabulary, (c) practice conjugating verbs, (d) have a practice conversation, etc. In a study session you may want to split up a long session into a,b,c, then d,c,a, then b,d,a. By mixing up the topics and switching periodically it will help you to make connections between the material and gain a better overall understanding.
Be careful not switch between topics too often. A good rule of thumb is to spend at least 45 minutes, but it really depends on what you are trying to learn.
Interleaving can also be used with subjects that have limited crossover, such as studying biology and then economics. While making connections between diverse subjects is not likely, switching gears can help promote critical thinking skills.
Strategy Six: Retrieval Practice
This is a great strategy to begin a study session, by first reviewing any previous material. In Robert Gagne’s, 9 events of instruction, stimulating the recall of prior material is an important aspect of helping to learn new material.
The best way to use retrieval practice is to leave all of your books and materials from a previous study session closed. Take out a pen and paper and either create a list or draw as much as you can remember. For instance if you are studying anatomy you might be able to draw a body and place organs in roughly the correct locations, even if the names of the organs escape your memory.
Another way to practice retrieval is by using flashcards or quizzes. Dependent on what you are trying to learn the material may already come with some pre-made tests. If you are studying with a friend, you can take a few minutes to quiz each other on the main concepts or ideas.
Strategy Seven: Gamification
The last strategy you can use to help improve your learning is called gamification. This is where you take the material you want to learn and use different techniques to turn the lessons into a form of game. This can be combined with other learning strategies to help boost motivation. For instance, if you have decided to use retrieval practice, instead of a simple quiz, you might decide to create a home version of the popular television game show, “Jeopardy”.
More advanced forms of gamification use the learning objectives and materials to provide various incentives, such as leveling up, badges, unlocking rewards or in some cases imposing some form of penalty.
Gamification taps into the affective components of learning. A person can become more motivated to learn if they feel a sense of accomplishment as they level up. Conversely, some types of gamification harnesses loss aversion, the psychological fear of losing a reward previously gained.
There is a balance when using this strategy to make sure you are not too distracted by the game, in lieu of actually learning the content. I remember playing Oregon Trail, a game designed to teach about settlers crossing the American West. One aspect of the game allowed for hunting, which became a distraction over learning concepts more central to that time in U.S. history.
Whenever you set a goal that involves learning, consider using strategies that can help you maximize your effort. There is no reason for you to pursue any serious goal without taking some time to develop a solid plan to help you achieve your goal in less time or using fewer resources.
I want to take a moment to credit learningscientists.org for this article. Six of the seven strategies discussed in this article have free posters that you can download here, for free.
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Richard Feenstra is an educational psychologist, with a focus on judgment and decision making.
Bobby Hoffman is the author of "Hack Your Motivation" and a professor of educational psychology at the University of Central Florida.