Have you ever heard someone say: “business is so much more complicated now”, or “life is so much busier”?
Have you ever uttered something similar yourself?
Often in conversation with marketers and business owners, for instance, a whimsical sigh and distant gaze accompanies their nostalgic eflection back to the good ol’ days when decisions about advertising were so much easier.
The days when there were only three commercial TV stations, a few daily newspapers and a handful of radio stations from which to choose.
No internet, not the dozens of digital TV and radio stations, not the expansive free and paid online media landscape, and of course, no social media.
I mean, of course, business is more complicated now. Just look at the explosion of choices we have to understand and make decisions about.
But hang on.
Perhaps we’re looking at this the wrong way.
Sure, things look simple in hindsight, but that doesn’t mean they were simple at the time.
In fact, if you take yourself back five, 10, 15 years and think about your work patterns, did things seem simple at the time? Did you finish every day at 3pm instead of 5pm because there was a lack of stuff to do?
No. My guess is if you had only three newspapers from which to choose, then all your energy would have gone into that decision. You didn’t know any different. That was your reality and it was all-consuming.
It’s only when you look back that you wonder what you were ever worried about.
My point is that we always think the situation we are in is the most demanding.
While on any objective means this is true – there are more options now than the past – it doesn’t mean our subjective experience was any different then to now.
I raise this because it is yet another illustration of how we distort our reality. Another illustration of the gap between how we think we experience the world and how we actually do.
For instance, not only do we contend with hindsight bias – a tendency to think we knew it all along, so if we were dropped back in time, yesteryear would seem slow and relatively undemanding, but we are also subject to the planning fallacy where we struggle to anticipate what our future reality will be, tending to be overly optimistic about the time needed for a task we are undertaking, underestimating the likelihood of problems and delays.
Where do these time-shifting biases leave us?
We underestimate how demanding the past was and we overestimate how easy the future is likely to be.
The good news is that you can take confidence today knowing that you’ve been pushed before, it’s just that you may have forgotten. You can also get better at counteracting your over-optimism about the future by building in slippage and drawing on objective reference points (e.g. how long similar projects you have not been involved in have taken).
And above all, you can enjoy today because even if it feels like it is the most pressure you’ve ever dealt with, soon enough you will look back with whimsy and wonder what all the fuss was about.
Bri Williams runs People Patterns, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.