The 7 Habits of Highly Ineffective People

June 14, 2010 BY danariely

The thing about habits is that for good and bad they require no thinking. An established habit, whether getting ready for work in the morning or having a whiskey after, is a pattern of behavior we’ve adopted—we stick to it regardless of whether it made sense when we initially adopted it, and whether it makes sense to continue with it years later.  From a human irrationality perspective this means that something we do “just once” can wind up becoming a habit and part of our activities for a longer time than we envisioned.

To get some insight into this process, consider the following experiment:  We asked a large number of people to write the last two digits of their Social Security number at the top of a page, and then asked them to translate their number into dollars (79 became $79), and to indicate if in general they’d buy various bottles of wine and computer accessories for that much money. Then we moved to the main part of the experiment and we let them actually bid on the products in an auction.  After we found the highest bidders, took their money and gave them the products we calculated the relationship between their two digits and how much they were willing to pay for these products.

Lo and behold, what we found is that people who had lower ending Social Security numbers (for example 32), ended up paying much less than people who had higher ending Social Security numbers (for example 79).  This is basically the power of our first decisions: if people first consider a low price decision (would I pay $32 for this bottle of 1998 Cote du Rhone?) they end up only willing to pay a low amount for it, but if they first consider a high price decision (would I pay $79 for this bottle of 1998 Cote du Rhone?) they end up willing to pay a lot more.

So this is the double-edged sword of habits, they can save us time, energy and unpleasant thinking, but on the other hand, it’s all too easy to start down an unwholesome path. Now onto “ The 7 Habits Of Highly Ineffective People”…

1) Procrastination. Joys untold attend this particular bad habit. And it’s one people indulge in all the time, exercise, projects at work, calling the family, doing paperwork, and so on. Each time we face a decision between completing a slightly annoying task now and putting it off for later, battle for self-control ensues. If we surrender, procrastination wins.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with delaying unpleasant tasks at work from time to time in order to watch a (crucial) football game at the pub with friends.  But, the problem is that as we get close to our deadline we start thinking differently about the whole decision.  As we stay up all night to finish a task on time we start wondering what were we thinking when we succumbed to the temptation of the football game, and why didn’t we start on the task a week earlier.  Moreover, as with all habits one procrastination leads to another and soon we get used to watching deadlines as they zoom by.

2) The planning fallacy. This is more or less what it sounds like; it’s our tendency to vastly underestimate the amount of time we’ll require to complete a task. This hardly needs illustration, but for the sake of clarity, recall the last time you delegated time to a complex task. Cleaning your flat from top to bottom (couldn’t take more than two hours right? Wrong.); finishing the paper or project at hand (who knew the people in department X could be so impossibly slow?). The problem is that even if we try to plan for delays, we can’t imagine them all. What if the person you’re working out a deal with gets hospitalized? What if an important document gets deleted or lost? There are infinite possible delays (procrastination of course being one of them), and because there are so many, we end up not taking them into account.

3) Texting while driving. Let me start by saying that in my class of 200 Master’s students, 197 admitted not only to doing this regularly, but also to having made driving mistakes while doing so. Also, one of the three abstainers in the class was physically blind, so we should not really count him as a saint, and who knows maybe the other two were liars. Texting while driving is clearly very stupid.  If we were not intimately familiar with our own Texting behavior, we might think that it’s insane to think that anyone would knowingly increase their chances of dying 10 fold rather than waiting a few minutes to check email, but this is the reality.  Moreover, the issue here is not just Texting, it is much more general than this particular bad habit.  The basic issue has to do with succumbing to short-term desires and foregoing long-term benefits.  Across many areas in our life, when temptation strikes we very often succumb to it (think about your commitment to always wearing a condom when you are not aroused and when you are).  And we do this over and over and over.

4) Checking email too much. If it seems that there’s too much about email on this list, I assure you, there isn’t. Checking email is addictive in the same way gambling is. You see, years back the famous psychologist B.F. Skinner discovered that rats would work much harder if the rewards were unpredictable (rather than a treat every 5 times they pressed a bar, one would come after 4, then 13, etc). This is the same as email, most of it is junk, but every so often, it’s fantastic: an email from the woman you’ve been chasing for instance. So we distract ourselves from work by constantly checking and checking and waiting to hit the email jackpot. And to be perfectly honest, I’ve checked my email at least 30 times since starting writing this article.

5) Relativity in salary. The fatter a sea lion is, the more sea lionesses he has in his harem. He doesn’t need to be immense, just slightly bigger than the others (too fat and he won’t make it out of the water). As it turns out, it’s the same for salaries; we don’t figure out how much we need to be satisfied, we just want to make more than the people around us. More than our co-workers, more than our neighbors, and more than our wife’s sister’s husband.  The first sad thing about our desire to compare is that our happiness depends less on us, and more on the people around us.  The second sad thing is that we often make decisions that make it harder for us to be happy with our comparisons: Would you prefer to get a 50,000 pound salary where salaries range from 40,000-50,000 or a 55,000 pound salary where they’re between 55,000-65,000? If you’re like almost everyone, you’d realize that you would be happier with the 50,000 pound salary, but you would pick the 55,000.

6) Overoptimism. Everyone, except for the very depressed, overestimates their chances when it comes to good things like getting a raise, not getting a divorce, parking illegally without getting a ticket. It’s natural—no one gets married thinking “I am so going to be divorced in 4 years”, and yet a large number of people end up getting divorced.  Like other bad habits, overoptimism is not all bad.  It helps us take risks like opening a business (even though the vast majority fail) or working to develop new medicines (which take many years and usually don’t pan out). Ironically overoptimism often tends to work out well for society (new restaurants, cures for disease) while endangering the individuals who take them (financial ruin, stress-induced insanity).  Sadly we are often overoptimistic – my most recent example of this was just a few hours ago when I sat down to write an essay entitled: “The 7 Habits Of Highly Ineffective People.”  If I only didn’t go out last night…..

Irrationally yours