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Do you find yourself ignoring the writing you need to be doing? Or avoiding thinking about what went wrong in the past? You may be suffering from recency bias….
Even if you don’t know it by name, I’ll bet you’ve experienced recency bias. That’s the formal name for the human tendency to remember recent events over more distant ones.
You have displayed recency bias every time you thought a movie should win best picture at the Oscars because you saw it in January, or you bought a particular stock because you just read about it in the news, or you selected a job candidate because she was the last person you interviewed.
In fact, recency bias played into our unpreparedness for the COVID-19 pandemic. Here is what Bloomberg Opinion columnist Tyler Cowen had to say about it in a column in January:
“The view that America was unprepared for a pandemic is another example of recency bias,” he wrote. “The AIDS epidemic, which has killed possibly 35 million people worldwide in the last four decades, should have instilled the need for better planning, but many Americans saw that disease as something unlikely to happen to them. Major generalized pandemics, meanwhile, were perceived as something of the distant past. Yet the more accurate, longer-term reality is this: Pandemics have recurred, albeit with varying lags, throughout human history.”
Recency bias, which was identified by the relatively new field of behavioural economics (in which Nobel-prize winning Daniel Kahneman — author of the best-selling book Thinking Fast and Slow — is a leader) seems to most seriously affect investors and business executives. But it also has an impact on writers as well.
I know because it used to affect me, too.
If you’ve ever had a bad writing experience, those negative feelings will colour your attitude towards the writing you do in the future. And bad experiences are far more powerful than happy ones. Similar to the Gottman ratio predicting successful relationships (”Happy couples have at least five positive interactions for every negative one”) happy writers also need at least a 5:1 ratio of positive experiences to negative ones.
I have worked with many writers who’ve exhibited a response somewhat like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to the job of putting words on the page. Why? A teacher, a boss or a supervisor said something indelibly hurtful or mean to them, and they’ve never recovered from it. The thought has then percolated at the back of their minds, sometimes for years, and it haunts them every time they try to write. I call this recency bias on steroids.
But even those who are lucky enough to have avoided long-term trauma can find it exceptionally difficult to recover from a recent writing project that’s gone bad. Why? Because we’re reluctant to focus on our own lack of success and we want to ignore bad news. Instead of figuring out what went wrong and learning how to change it, we push it out of our minds and hope it won’t happen again.
Roughly 25 years ago, I felt that way about writing. I was an excellent editor who preferred to steer clear of the other side of the equation. As a result, I avoided writing. Trouble was, when I decided to leave the newspaper business and become a freelancer, I knew I’d have to start writing again.
I had no interest in a day-to-day life that made me miserable, so I resolved to change my I-hate-writing attitude. So, I spent six months of reading, researching and experimenting, before I finally uncovered my biggest barrier: I was editing while I wrote. As soon as I broke that habit, I not only doubled my writing speed, I also turned writing into something I enjoyed doing.
More recently, I dealt with another long-term bad habit: my chronic lateness in getting my financial books to my bookkeeper. This is a job I’ve struggled with for more than a decade and had made significant progress with it in the last several years. But last summer, I had to deal with a serious family crisis and my invoices, receipts, bits and bobs — everything financial — accumulated in a wire basket on my desk. Until early January, when I knew I couldn’t avoid it any longer.
But here’s what was different this time: Over recent years, I’ve built such robust systems that I was able to plow through the basket in two days, find missing receipts in one more and get everything to my bookkeeper weeks ahead of schedule. (The business tax deadline in Canada is end of February.) Score: one positive experience.
Recency bias — whether it’s really recent, or something that’s accumulated over many years — needn’t doom you to unhappiness. Examine your most recent negative writing experience. Do your best to see what caused it, and then try changing your methods so it doesn’t happen again.
Make the choice to flip your ratio of positive experiences to negative ones and you, too, can become a happier writer. Let me know if I can help.
Have you ever been paralyzed by fear of writing? Don’t let this nasty psychological barrier make your life miserable or cost you missed income. I’ve developed an affordable 18-video series that will help you banish the fear. Plus you’ll get membership to an online group of others facing the same challenge. Have a look at it here.
My video podcast last week addressed how much money book authors can expect to make. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.
Do you suffer from recency bias? How do you try to cope? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Carole Audet, the winner of this month’s book prize, for a Feb. 20/22 comment on my blog. (Please send me your email address, Carole!) Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by March 31/22 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!