Anchoring Bias: A Productivity Stumbling Block

Anchor Chains

David Allen’s GTD productivity system recommends a weekly review of all your tasks, projects, and obligations. Here on this blog I’ve also recommended reassessing your situation on a reasonably frequent, regular basis. Doing some sort of frequent review of your circumstances is not just a way to steal some of your time or help you procrastinate doing something important: reviews help you combat a natural human tendency called anchoring bias.

Anchoring bias is the penchant most of us have to give more importance or primacy to the first information we collect; it describes our frequent inability to adjust our assumptions when confronted with new information.

Anchoring Example

A good example of this would be in salary negotiations when you’re interviewing for a new job. If the interviewer asks you your former salary and you give them a number, he or she will keep that number in mind and expect to either keep you happy with it (if it’s low) or negotiate you down (if it’s high). If you mention something too high, it might even ruin your interview because they may think you’re too expensive, even if you’re willing to take a much lower salary. Similarly, if the interviewer mentions that pay starts and $20,000 but can range up to $60,000, you’re likely to expect closer to $20,000 (even if the interviewer later mentions that few employees are on the low end of the spectrum).

When it comes to productivity, anchoring bias is a problem when you give primacy to a problem or method that you encounter before you have all the information, or when the available information is always changing. You may have a list of priorities, but as time goes on evidence accrues that indicates your top priority really isn’t that big of a deal. If you made it your top priority before a bunch of new tasks came in, you’re likely to keep it as your top priority even if the new tasks are more important. If you don’t review all your obligations on a frequent basis, you can end up chained to outdated anchors.

Avoiding Anchoring Bias

When you conduct a review, in addition to looking for new projects you haven’t planned out or broken down, you should also be looking for inconsistencies between the information you have the priorities you’ve set. Taking a step back from things and looking at the facts may help you realize that creating that important new product isn’t as important as updating the current one.

Reviews can also help you recognize when and where you could improve your means and method of getting things done. Maybe you have several tasks that have a lot in common—maybe a user manual and a press release both need a basic description of the new product written—and you may be able to organize your work so you can reuse things you’ve already created. By thinking about things out of chronological order on a frequent basis, you have a chance to adapt the way you approach different tasks and problems. These sorts of adjustments are the things that will keep you consistently on the ball and in control of the things you’re committed to do.

Image by Michal Marcol via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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