Predictable and Systematic Mistakes

I just finished reading Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. The author provides some interesting insight into how our reasoning abilities are influenced by forces such as expectations, emotions, and social norms. He uses experiments and research to explore predictable and systematic mistakes (e.g., underestimating, procrastinating, etc.) and discusses how we can use this information to make better decisions.

In one interesting study, Dan Ariely investigates what impact deadlines have on the quality of work. At the beginning of a school semester, he offered each of his MIT classes a different deal:

  • Class 1: three predetermined, equally spaced deadlines (penalty for late submissions)
  • Class 2: self-determined deadlines (several interim deadlines or one deadline at the end of the semester) that turn into firm commitments with penalties for late submissions
  • Class 3: one deadline at the end of the semester

Surprisingly, final grades were closely correlated with having interim deadlines. Students in Class 1 achieved the highest final grades, those in Class 3 had the lowest grades and Class 2 fell somewhere in between. These results suggest “First, that students do procrastinate (big news); and second, that tightly restricting their freedom (equally spaced deadlines, imposed from above) is the best cure for procrastination. But the biggest revelation is that simply offering the students a tool by which they could pre-commit to deadlines helped them achieve better grades…”

If you consider the results from this study in the workplace, it suggests that commitments and interim deadlines will help us to reach long-term project commitments/goals. This reminds me of the differences between waterfall (one big deadline at the end of a project) and agile (multiple, interim deadlines) processes and why our agile process facilitates project delivery.

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