Benjamin Spall Writer

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The Planning Fallacy

I’m approximately three-quarters of the way through Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, and one of the insights that has stuck out to me the most so far is that of the planning fallacy.

The planning fallacy, in short, states that we tend to underestimate how long a task is going to take to complete. From taking out the trash, to writing an essay, to making a meal, we consistently believe that either our most optimistic guess of how long these tasks will take, or the fastest we have ever completed these tasks, are our averages. The planning fallacy does not foresee the natural complications that come up in our everyday lives. As Kahneman notes in the book:

Most of us view the world as more benign than it really is, our own attributes as more favorable than they truly are, and the goals we adopt as more achievable than they are likely to be. We also tend to exaggerate our ability to forecast the future, which fosters optimistic overconfidence.

We all fall victim to the planning fallacy. I’d heard the phrase thrown around before I read it in Kahneman’s book (the book itself has become hugely popular, and has spent 156 weeks on the New York Times Paperback Nonfiction best sellers list as of this writing), but even then, I still tended to believe that my most optimistic guesses and my most impressive times are the norm. They’re not.

Give some though to the planning fallacy the next time you’re pushed for time; and maybe extend your estimation a little further out.

Log Cabin in a Forest

Earlier today I was pointed toward this video by Canadian outdoorsman, photographer, and self-described self-reliance educator Shawn James. The video is a five-minute time-lapse of James building a log cabin from scratch in the Canadian wilderness.

I’ve seen similar videos to this in the past, but there is something about watching this time-lapse that, while massively underplaying the effort that this would have taken James, is truly magnificent to watch. Using only hand tools, this was a one-man effort worthy of a medal. And while the time and resources to undertake such an effort is, of course, not available to all of us, I thank James, and others like him, for documenting his experience so the rest of us can enjoy it. (This reminds me of a thought I had a few months ago that we should create and share things because it’s rude to just consume. It’s uncivilized. This is part of the reason why I restarted this blog.)

For more from James, check out his website, on which he links to all his current videos.

Fig Trees

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius prompts us:

You shouldn’t be surprised that a fig tree produces figs.

He goes on to state that “A good doctor isn’t surprised when his patients have fevers, or a helmsman when the wind blows against him.” The truth Marcus is getting at here, or at least as I understand it, is that past performance is a reasonable indicator of future results.

This isn’t always the case, as no doubt that last sentence reminded you of the common “Past performance is no guarantee of future results” line that is, sensibly, plastered across risky investment products. But in life, as with fig trees, medical patients, the blowing winds upon the shore, and indeed, the current President of the United States, past performance is no guarantee of future results… but it’s a reasonable bet.

Our Choices

In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, upon confessing to Professor Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, that the Sorting Hat (a hat new students put on their head to determine which house they will be placed) only placed him in Gryffindor because he explicably asked not to be put in Slytherin, Harry was greeted by this reply from Dumbledore:

It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.

And so it is. In this particular example, Dumbledore was telling Happy that he needn’t worry that he was only placed in Gryffindor (the arguably “good” house) instead of Slytherin (the inarguably “bad” house) because he asked not to be placed in the latter, because by asking not to be put in Slytherin he was making a choice to reject the bad in favor of the good.

Harry was aghast that the Sorting Hat had considered his qualities consistent with those who had been placed in Slytherin house before him, but his choice to reject these qualities is ultimately what showed him off for who he is; to his moral credit.

Your Days

I was recently reminded of a post by Austin Kleon in which he offered up these words:

[Success] is closing the gap between what your days look like and what you want your days to look like.

I’ve thought about this line almost every day since hearing it, and it has become increasingly relevant as my wife and I have been feeling a newfound realization of the importance of the basics in life. Though we’re not minimalists (despite this being something I frequently described myself as and wrote about around the time I met her), we’ve come to realize that we have our own goals and ideas in life, and it’s okay if they don’t exactly match the goals and ideas of the people real, fictitious, or a composite, we may aspire to be.

Part of this is growing older. I’m lucky in that my wife is three years younger than me (this is, of course, not the only reason why I’m lucky to be married to her), so I frequently come up with her age when considering “our age,” but the point is the same.

Your days are all you have, and closing the gap between what they look like and what you want them to look like is a worthy goal. You will likely never close this gap all the way, and that’s okay. There will be points in your life where this gap will feel like an unbeatable chasm, and this is to be expected. But as Kleon notes, “What do you want your days to look like?” is a question he asks himself whenever he’s trying to make a decision about what to do next. In his own words:

I believe that most questions about what to do with one’s life can be replaced by this question… [it] forces you to imagine the day in, day out realities that making such choices will present you with.

So, what do you want your days to look like?