That’s my story and I’m sticking to it

I’ve observed that humans (myself included) are more interested in having been “right, all along” than in being “right, right now”. If we get new information that reveals our previous position to have been incorrect, our natural tendency is to deny it or to try and somehow justify that our previous position wasn’t actually incorrect after all. For some reason, this (defending ourselves from having been wrong) is more important than adjusting our position to be right at this point in time.

I first became aware of this from an unexpected source – college football polls. Until very recently, the NCAA didn’t award an official national championship in Division IA (now FBS) – so fans (myself included) paid (and still pay) a lot of attention to polls of sportswriters or coaches to determine “Who’s #1?”

Most voters have a preseason ranking of their “Top 25” teams and then release an updated ranking after every weekend’s games. Inevitably, some team (“Team A”) who was expected to be very good gets off to a slow start. They may have not lost a game yet, but their early season games against teams they were expected to trounce were much closer than expected. At the same time, some other team (“Team B”) that wasn’t expected to be as good is basically killing every team they are playing.

At that point in time, based on the actual performance on the field, Team B is clearly having a better season than Team A – but there seems to be some inertia keeping Team A ranked higher. It occurred to me that all the voters who predicted Team A to be #1 don’t want to admit that they were wrong. As long as it’s possible to apply some convoluted logic that lets their initial prediction be right, they’re going to stick with that.

I think we’re seeing this phenomenon in American politics now. At some point in the past, we picked a “team”. Now there are some things going on that suggest our team isn’t perfect, but we are hesitant to admit that because that might mean that we were wrong before. (I think this true of both sides.)

I think this is interesting because it’s possible to admit your team isn’t perfect without having to change your mind about your team being better than the alternative. But we don’t even like to do that. We want it to be obvious that we were right (and that you were wrong, which means that I’m better than you – right?)

None of us really knows what’s going to happen, but for some reason – we like the idea of being able to “read the tea leaves”. We like this so much that we subconsciously contort logic to keep our “prediction batting average” high. Let’s just admit that we don’t know (there’s no shame in not knowing) and take positions based on facts, without the inertia of needing to have been right all along.

Trying to become addicted to “slow and steady”

I’ve been reading about how our desire for quick dopamine fixes has led to our smart phone addictions. (“Did anyone reply to my Tweet yet?”) When something new shows up on our phone, we get a quick shot of dopamine that makes us feel good. We like that feeling so we seek out ways to get another shot.

As soon as I read this, I was convicted that this was exactly what I was doing. I hope that “admitting that you have a problem is the first step to recovery.” I think being conscious of this has helped, at least a little so far.

The constant pursuit of the quick dopamine fix competes with spending time on long-term goals. Losing weight, writing a book, starting a new venture – none of these can happen instantly, overnight, or even in a few days or weeks. They require plodding, day after day, continued effort. That’s nowhere near as fun as the instant gratification you get when some “Likes” the picture from your recent trip.

“Gamification” has entered our vocabulary in the past few years. It’s why apps like Waze and Foursquare award you points for participating. Points and trophies make you feel like you are accomplishing something, even if it’s virtual.

When I think of gamification, it makes me think of someone else trying to get me to use their app, service, etc. more frequently than I otherwise would. But – you can use the same principal on yourself to help “addict” yourself to the daily grind on the path to your long-term goals.

Some fitness apps do this for you. The FitBit app rewards me for meeting my exercise goal 5 days in a row.

Try to gamify (“gamificate”?) your projects and goals. Do you want to write a book? Set a very reachable goal, something like – write 300 words a day. In 6 months, you’ll have written about 200 pages. Remember that 180 days x a few pages/day > 180 days x 0 pages/day.

This multiplying effect is the key to long-term success.  Just like the tortoise – slow and steady wins the race.