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Present bias – why New Year’s resolutions so often come to nothing

At this time of year, it is common to formulate grand plans for ourselves and our workplace. But why do these great ideas and strategies, with potentially big rewards so often come to nothing and replaced by mundane admin and everyday tasks?

The problem is ‘present bias’. Present bias means we trivialize a large reward in the future, compared with a smaller one here and now.  This made sense in our hunter/gatherer days when we might not have even been around to see tomorrow’s sunrise.  However, today, it means we focus on instant results, at the expense of longer-term initiatives.

Let’s imagine it’s Monday, and we promise ourselves that on Friday we’re going to dedicate the afternoon to strategic planning.  That sounds eminently sensible.  However, by the time Friday arrives the compelling demands of day-to-day business (with instant rewards) are given a much higher weighting than strategy work – which will only pay dividends in the future.

The problem of future rewards

This is why getting started on any long-term initiative, like strategic planning, developing a new skill or learning a new language is difficult – the reward will only show up in the future.

The problem is compounded by a part of the brain called the temporoparietal junction  that distinguishes ourselves from others. When thinking of an immediate reward, it is us that receives it – very appealing! However, a reward in the future is coded as someone else (even though it is our future self) – much less appealing!

However, 2020 can be different! It’s all about understanding that the brain is fundamentally designed to change. This is known as neuroplasticity.  We need to work with the brain rather than against it to develop new habits.

My top tip is stick to the plan you made on Monday in full knowledge that  present bias will kick-in on Friday and try to derail you. Don’t let your clear-headed plans be sabotaged by an emotional reaction in the moment.


If you would like to learn more about how I can help you overcome present bias and other cognitive (unconscious) biases that are holding you back, get in touch.