Six Cognitive Distortions that Waste Your Time

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Six Cognitive Distortions that Waste Your Time

You don't need to tell me that life is getting faster with every day that passes. As someone with a million different projects on the go (and enough aspirations to fill several lifetimes), I'm all too aware that time is slipping away. It's a precious and fleeting resource – but what if I told you we're wasting it without even realizing?

We've covered cognitive distortions here before: black-and-white thinking, catastrophizing, and the rest. I've noticed that a number of these distortions are particularly relevant to time. They warp our perception of it, leading to an unhealthy relationship with the clock that can have far-reaching consequences for our well-being, productivity, and creativity. 

Today I want to take a closer look at the cognitive distortions that stop us from making the most of our days – and how we can start challenging them for better results. Let's unpack them together. 

1. All-Or-Nothing Reasoning

Also called dichotomous thinking, this cognitive distortion is characterized by two extremes – it's either all good, or all bad. I've got an example for this one I think you'll all relate to (even if you pretend not to!)

Picture this: it's Monday morning after a pretty jam-packed weekend. You've got a healthy to-do list waiting for you; there are emails begging for responses and projects that need your attention. But when that alarm goes off, you accidentally hit 'snooze' and rest the morning away. 

It's midday by the time you wake up. Of course, if you started now, you'd still get a solid six or seven hours of work in, but all-or-nothing reasoning tells you that it's a total write-off; the day is ruined and you might as well just go back to bed. 

I'm not totally sure what the logic behind this is. Well, that's the point – it's an irrational perspective, not a logical one. Imagine how many more hours we'd save by taking life an hour at a time, rather than compartmentalizing it into 24-hr blocks. 

2. Overestimating (or Underestimating) Time

Some would call this less of a distortion and more of a lapse in judgment. It certainly gets better with experience – but there's nothing quite so disarming as realizing you've underestimated or overestimated the amount of time it takes to complete a task. 

I don't know about you, but when I'm pressed for time and have a lot of tasks on my plate, I tend to do one of two things: either underestimate how long something will take me (and then get overwhelmed) or overestimate it (and end up feeling like I wasted valuable hours). 

Either way, it's not great news for productivity. To avoid this distortion we need to focus on accuracy over speed – take the time to accurately estimate how long each project will take you before diving in. 

I've come up with a system for this, which is to break up my regular tasks into categories based on their complexity (for example: writing emails, writing blog posts, creating a website, etc.), and keep a record of how long they take each time. After a while, I've got enough data points to create averages for each category. 

It's a very simple solution – but sometimes simple is the most effective. 

3. Present Bias

We humans have been commenting on procrastination since Ancient Greece. It's a common thread between us all; to varying degrees, we value our present comfort over any potential future gain. This is what we call 'present bias'.

Yes, you might have the most important investor call of your career in a few days' time – but it's easy to get distracted by the tasks that give us short-term gratification, like posting business social media content or replying to emails. I's the present-day stuff that makes us feel productive, even if they aren't the most pressing tasks. 

I've learned to be very aware of this bias, but it's not always obvious. I use Stephen Covey's Eisenhower Matrix to help me stay on track – you can read my full write-up on it here

4. Time Confetti

Who here is guilty of the five-minute doom scroll? The one where, during little time pockets throughout the day, you 'take a break' by filling your minutes with something low-value? 

For me, this often happens when I'm trying to procrastinate on something. I'll tell myself "I just need a five-minute break" – and then end up spending 30 minutes scrolling through Instagram or Twitter. It's time confetti; it's gone as soon as you spend it, but the effects last much longer than that. 

Confetti is so small – just a few minutes here and there – but it doesn't stay small for long. The scariest part? You never really notice just how much time you've wasted, because it's in such small chunks. 

5. Parkinson's Law

Just as gas will expand to fill a space, work expands to fill the time you give it. You've devoted three hours to a task? It'll take three hours to finish. 

This is Parkinson's Law – the idea that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion". Knowing this, it's important not to give yourself too much time for a task. The more 'wiggle room' you give yourself, the bigger the task will become in your mind and the longer it will take you to complete it. 

There are obvious holes we can poke here. You can't set yourself 15 minutes for a detailed financial report and expect the end result to be perfect – and you probably won't take five hours to write one email, even if that's the time you've allowed yourself. 

But it's a useful concept if you understand what the implications are. It's less of a literal perspective and more of a wake-up call: our minds get very fixated on the fictional constraints and deadlines we set, and we can either let that reality take over or use it to our advantage. 

6. Time Scarcity Mentality

At the beginning of today's newsletter, I mentioned how quickly time seems to be flying past – and ironically, that's a prime example of time scarcity mentality. 

We've got it into our heads that, no matter how many hours there are in a day, we don't have enough. We feel rushed and hurried. We look at the years laid out before us and think, 'that's all? That's all I've got?' 

Of course, the tension at play here is that no one – not a single person on this planet – knows how much time they've got left. So in my mind, we've got two options: assume we're rich with time, or believe we are just moments away from running out. I know which I prefer. 

How To Combat Time-Waster Distortions

As entrepreneurs, we're not in the business of wasting time. Every second wasted is a second we could've spent investing in our brainchild. 

Don't get me wrong – I'm not an advocate for workaholism, nor will I ever be. We need our rest. But there's a huge difference between rest and waste. 

Your best chance at combatting cognitive distortions is to observe which ones apply to you and how they're affecting your productivity. 

As you were reading through the list of distortions, did any make you feel particularly... attacked? It might be a good indication of the distortions you frequently engage with. 

For example: if you're typically an organized person, but your long-term deadlines always end up in a rush – you've got a Present Bias problem. If you spend hours laying out your calendar but always seem to be in a rush, it's probably a case of underestimation. 

The key to battling cognitive distortions is understanding them, and the best way to do that is by taking a step back and looking at how they're affecting you. Once you've identified which ones are causing problems in your life, it's just a case of consciously changing your behavior and working against them.

Wrap Up

Cognitive distortions will run our lives if we're not careful. Some people gain awareness of them through therapy, others through learning the hard way. The worst place to be is in a state of oblivion – and that's why I write articles like this. 

I encourage you to take some time reading through this list and figuring out exactly where all your time is draining away. You might have forty, fifty years ahead of you yet, but that doesn't make your time any less valuable. Use it for all it's worth!

If you enjoyed this article, I’d love to hear from you. 

Reply to this email or tweet at me @ScottDClary and I'll do my best to get back to everyone!



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