Want to Prioritize Better? Mitigating This Cognitive Bias Can Help

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Authored by

NLI Staff
A distance bias occurs when we prioritize what's closer in space or time than what's farther away. Here's how to mitigate the bias to prioritize better.

Emails pile up. Meetings fill your calendar. Project deadlines loom. Modern work offers no shortage of challenges when it comes to what to prioritize. Thankfully, brain science can offer a simple solution for how to prioritize better.

Over the past several years, NLI has identified more than 150 cognitive biases that tend to crop up in everyday decision-making. For instance, there’s confirmation bias, which narrows our focus to see only what we want to see. And there’s recency bias, which causes us to remember that which happened more recently versus in the distant past.

Each of these biases acts as a filter through which we see the world, and they live in each of us. At NLI we say, If you have a brain, you have bias.

Understanding the SEEDS Model®

We’ve since grouped these 150+ biases into five broad categories, which we call the SEEDS Model®. It stands for Similarity, Experience, Expedience, Distance, and Safety—five kinds of biases that prevent us from making the smartest, most effective choices at work and elsewhere.

When it comes to prioritizing, NLI knows from the research that distance bias in particular can spell trouble for detecting the signal amid the noise. Generally, we struggle to prioritize because we give more consideration to fighting fires than figuring out what truly matters most. In other words, we prize what’s closer in time than what’s farther away.

In order to prioritize better, we need to find a way to expand our field of view—to see not just what’s directly in front of us, but what lies ahead.

Prioritizing better

To mitigate this distance bias, NLI recommends practicing a technique known as “mental contrasting.” It involves comparing the present to both a desired future state and various other possible outcomes. In doing so, we gain a clearer understanding of how the present might fit into a longer timeframe.

For example, instead of throwing your hands up at your busy schedule and endless obligations, take a moment to pause. Then, consider what might happen if you mentally fast-forwarded one week or one month. By bringing those future obligations closer, and comparing them to what’s currently on your plate, you might realize the fires you’re fighting don’t actually need as much attention or energy right now. In addition, you might free up time later by giving larger projects more of your time before the last minute.

Mental contrasting doesn’t always come naturally. But over time the habit of spotting a distance bias—perhaps when your priorities feel especially muddled—only helps reinforce the importance of slowing down to consider which possibilities you might be overlooking.

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