What is progress bias and how do we fall victim to it?

Reading time: Fewer than 3 minutes

Our perception of how we’re doing — whether in writing or something else — can sometimes be wrong. This error is known as progress bias….

I spent 30 minutes yesterday doing my least-favourite task in the entire world: rounding up and categorizing invoices and receipts for my bookkeeper. 

I procrastinate about this job not just every week, but just about every day. I aspire to spend 30 minutes on the dreaded task daily, not because I need that much time but because I so often fail to do it that I figure making it a daily responsibility will help me get it done. (See how my logic has become disturbingly circular? Yikes!) 

Anyway, when time came to spend my 30 minutes today, what did I do? I made a phone call, instead. Yes, the call was important but that’s not what went through my head. Here’s what I thought: 

“I spent 30 minutes on bookkeeping yesterday. Surely I don’t need to do that again, today.”

Yes, I said that to myself — even though, of course I know I need to have a shower every day and eat dinner every day…even though I did exactly those same tasks yesterday..

Perhaps this perception helps explain why I am now almost a full month after the end of the first quarter and I’ve still sent nothing to my bookkeeper.

Why am I failing to live up to my own, self-created goal?

I believe I’m suffering from progress bias. And I suspect you may be suffering from it too, at least with respect to your writing. 

Progress bias is the act of over-stating our positive actions while downplaying our negative ones (or non-actions.) In other words, we give ourselves too much credit for the good things we’ve done and ignore or downplay the not-so-good ones. As well, we overemphasize the consequences of our constructive actions, while at the same time underrating the consequences of our harmful ones. 

Why is this a problem? Progress bias can cause people to make bad choices, as they think they’re in a better position than they actually are. (If you think progress bias is something affecting your writing, please tell me about it in the comments box, below.) 

Researcher Margaret Campbell from the University of Colorado identified progress bias in a 2015 paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research. She ran a series of tests and found that people tend to exaggerate the impact of their good choices and let mistakes slip their minds.

Her research focused on spending money. She measured people’s reactions to either saving $45 or spending it. Here’s the Plain English version of what she learned: People who spend the money, tend to think they’ve done better than they really have.

And Campbell’s findings can be translated into other areas as well — like delaying bookkeeping or writing. As she puts it, “You give yourself points [for doing the work] and think you are a hero when you resist [temptations], but give yourself a bye, and think it’s not such a big deal, when you fail. That’s why you think, ‘Wow, I’m making progress,’ when you aren’t.”

If you don’t want progress bias to derail your writing, here’s what I suggest you do:

Don’t just look at the immediate goal — the work you do on one day. Instead, always require yourself to focus on the larger picture — how you are performing each week or month. To make this analysis possible, I have two other suggestions: 

First, make sure your daily goal is small enough. Many people fail at writing because they try to bite off huge, overwhelming chunks of time for each day: often, an hour or more. That’s just a formula for feeling overwhelmed! Instead, start with just 15 minutes. Some people tell me that’s barely enough time to turn on their computers, but so what? Writing for just 15 minutes is a great, non-intimidating way to get started and a good way to build a habit that’s sustainable. (And you can always increase the time in a few weeks, if you want.)

Second, track your work. I offer a free tracking form on my website and I suggest you download it and start using it every day. Putting your achievement in writing will allow you to celebrate what you’ve done and will call you to task about what you’ve failed to do. (I’ve never understood people who would prefer not to know where they stand. Such lack of knowledge is only harmful.) 

As Campbell puts it: “If you are in a situation where you are having a hard time with goals, try to set up methods to monitor your behavior.

“Be scrupulous about setting goals and setting sub-goals. Don’t allow yourself to have a sense of progress. Force yourself to see what you are really doing.”

I have no problem with writing any more but I still have a big problem with actually doing my bookkeeping so I’m glad I wrote this post. Writing it has helped me to understand what I need to do: Starting today, I’m going to reduce my daily commitment to bookkeeping to just 15 minutes. As well, I’m going to start charting my daily progress, so I can pay attention to how I’m doing over the weeks and months. I’ll report back to you in another month. 

Would you consider joining me by doing the same tracking for your writing?

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I was interviewed about writing on a fun Innovabuzz podcast last week with host Jürgen Strauss. If you’re interested, you can listen to it here.  

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Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. The group is now full but there is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours. 

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My video podcast last week addressed how to protect the intellectual property of your blog. 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.

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Are you conscious of your own progress bias? How do you deal with it? 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 Liz Bucknor, the winner of this month’s book prize, for an April 18/21 comment on my blog. (Please send me your email address, Liz!) Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by May 31/21 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!

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