Unicorn Syndrome: Why We Don’t Save Time (Part 2)

This is the 2nd part in a series we’re doing on the common reasons people don’t save time when they are capable of doing so. While not needed to make sense of this post, you can read the first post here: The Full Dishwasher Effect.

When thinking we’re unique wastes us time

The problem with saving time is that it relies on behaviors that feel, well, so personal. This makes sense, since time management is the sum of every choice you make about what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it. Combine the personal nature of time management with the valid argument that each individual is unique, and we can easily see why we would be prone to reject what the research shows about how to save time because we think we’re unique. The research may apply to other people, but it doesn’t apply to us.

Instead, we wait until “people like us” have tried a new productivity hack and “found” it to be helpful. And so we end up building our time management repertoire around data-less anecdotes and turn our noses up at randomized control trials that show statistically significant results published in peer-reviewed journals.

Before you call, “Harsh!” and close this window, let us at Zarvana admit that we are just as guilty as anyone else on this front. In fact, when we switched to all research-backed services this summer, we found ourselves in need of changing up some practices that we had long taught others as ‘truth.’

And, in reality, it’s pretty common for people to reject research in favor of their own intuition. No field provides better examples of this than the medical field. What do antiseptic handwashing, newborn incubators, balloon angioplasty (one of the most common procedures performed during US hospital stays today), and the idea that germs cause disease have in common? You guessed it; they are all medical breakthroughs that were initially rejected or even ridiculed.

Why is the ‘Unicorn Syndrome’ so pervasive?

Note: These 3 points in this section have been heavily used and adapted from an excellent article in the New Yorker called “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds.”

First impressions are hard to shake: In a famous research study that took place at Stanford in the 1970s a group of undergraduates were asked to distinguish between real suicide notes and fake ones. After finishing the task, some students were told they correctly identified the real notes 24 out of the 25 times, while others were told they had identified the real note only 10 times.

However, in reality, both groups had done just as well at identifying the real notes; the scores shared with the students were made up.

Researchers then revealed to the students that their scores were not real and asked them to estimate how many suicide notes they had actually identified correctly, and how they did compared to others. Interestingly enough, the students’ estimates of their actual scores were consistent with the fictitious scores they had been told initially: the group that was told they had done really well thought they had even though they knew the researchers had made up their score. Similarly, the group that was told they had gotten only 10 right, thought they did poorly. Both groups’ estimates were influenced by the scores originally shared with them and were wrong.

What explains this phenomenon? According to the researchers, “Once formed, impressions are remarkably perseverant.” Once we think something is working, it’s hard for us to believe that it isn’t.

This is why we fall prey to the Unicorn Syndrome. We need a justification for denying the research because we are convinced that what we have been doing is right. The belief that we are unique works perfectly because it doesn’t completely challenge the research (it can still apply others), but it gives us a way out. While we excuse ourselves on the basis of uniqueness, under the surface our impressions continue to waste us time.

Not convinced that impressions are hard to shake? Read through this list of commonly held beliefs that are scientifically proven to be wrong:

  1. Bats can’t see
  2. Gum takes years to digest
  3. Bulls get mad when they see the color red
  4. Humans generally only use 10% of their brain
  5. Lightening can’t strike in the same place multiple times
  6. Human hair and nails never stop growing, even after we die
  7. Sunflowers point towards the sun
  8. The Great Wall of China can be seen from the moon

If you’re feeling like a bit of a skeptic after reading these 8 misconceptions and barely fighting off the urge to Google them now, know this: the power of impressions is alive and well. (You can read more about these 8 here if your skepticism is getting the better of you.)

We don’t see our mistakes: A recent experiment asked participants to answer a series of simple reasoning problems. They were then asked to explain their responses and were given a chance to change their responses if they noticed mistakes. Only 15% made changes.

Next, participants were shown one of the same problems, along with their answer and the answer of another participant, who’d come to a different conclusion. As before, they were given the chance to change their responses, but, without them knowing, the answers presented to them as someone else’s were actually their own, and vice versa. Some people figured out the switch had taken place. Of the others, 60% elected to make changes to what they thought was someone else’s answer, but was really theirs.

In this study, people changed the responses four times more frequently when they thought it was someone else’s response than when they thought it was their own. Our default is to notice others’ mistakes while missing our own, which is likely the reason for this old proverb — “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

The same is true in time management. A certain behavior may be time-wasting for someone else, but not for us because we’re unique, we’re more gifted, our brains work differently. We can do multi-tasking well even though reams of research suggest otherwise. We’re unicorns. Right? No.

We think we know more than we do: In a study conducted at Yale, graduate students were asked to rate their understanding of everyday devices, including toilets and zippers. They were then asked to write detailed explanations of how the devices work, and to rate their understanding again. Not surprisingly, the attempt at explaining how the devices work led students to reduce their ratings of their understanding.

The researchers call this the “illusion of explanatory depth,” and suggest that it happens because we assume we know how it works because we know how to use it so easily.

In time management, we think we know a lot about how email and task management and giving feedback work. But like toilets and zippers, we tend to be more ‘users’ of these functions than experts in them. After all, how many people have ever received formal, research-backed training on how to use their email, manage their tasks, or give feedback? Very few. Instead, we go on ‘using’ these functions, assuming we know how they work.

What happens when we’re confronted with real, research-backed expertise? We deny it because we see ourselves as experts. Our unicorn brains think: we spend hours in email every day; how could we not be experts? But, in reality, we’re only users, not experts.

How do we do a better job of embracing research?

The research shows that potential time-savings are vast. In fact, our Time-Finder diagnostic shows that on average, people can save 3 hours 20 minutes per day by adopting research-backed practices. Yet, many continue to stand at a distance, denying what the research says is possible, all the time justifying their denial by the claim that they are unicorns.

Are we saying all research-backed practices are applicable to everyone? No, but many more are than aren’t.

You don’t have to remain a victim of the Unicorn Syndrome. These 3 simple steps can help set you free so that you can begin to save the loads of time available to you.

  1. Be aware of your own biases: The 3 above are a good starting point, though there are more. Remember that the reason your mind gives you for why it did something isn’t always the real reason you did something. Biases affect our behaviors as much as they do because they don’t feel like biases.
  2. Start with the research and then adapt: Many unicorns go for an all-or-nothing approach to embracing research. Embracing research doesn’t have to mean rejecting your uniqueness. Just start with what the research shows and then adapt from there. In this way, you’re making the research work for you. If you start with what you think works and then try to add in research-backed strategies, you’re more likely to distort the research-backed practices in ways that steal their power.
  3. Don’t trust your intuition: When it comes to time management, it’s best to avoid doing something just because it feels right. Catch yourself relying on intuition and instead, consult some robust resources on what the research says. If you need a place to start, signing up for our research-backed online courses can be a reference for you.

This is the second part in a series we’re doing on the common reasons people don’t save time when they are capable of doing so. Here are the past and upcoming posts in this series: