Well-Being//

The Science Behind Why Even the Smartest People Make Dumb Mistakes

This might be one of your greatest weapons in combating stress.

We likely all have that day we wish we could hit the reset button on and try again. Mine happened not too long ago.

My day started off fairly normal until my boss walked in and asked why I wasn’t at the interview. By interview, she meant the executive we’d been recruiting for months, and who had finally agreed to meet in-person. I scheduled lunch at a high-end restaurant weeks earlier and didn’t realize I had minimized my calendar reminder, which would have alerted me that the lunch interview was supposed to start twenty minutes ago. I rushed out of the office, drove over a curb and threw my keys to the valet without even getting my parking ticket.

I found the executive waiting in the dining area and went to introduce myself and of course apologize for the tardiness. But the moment I walked up to the table, I realized I couldn’t remember his name. Was it Thomas? No, that was the interview from yesterday. Jim? No, that’s not right either. I went blank and decided to forego the introduction all together. Great first impression, right?

I tried to course correct and begin sharing the details of the position. But, as if the interview wasn’t already off to an awkward start, I accidently knocked over my coffee during the process, not only spilling it all over myself, but also all over the poor interviewee. I sat there mortified, watching a pot of coffee drip off the white linen table. Needless to say, the executive declined our offer.

We all make mistakes, of course, but stress and pressure can make even the smartest person seem incompetent. Why? Research suggests we have a finite capacity for making good decisions, and a state of scarcity may deplete us of the limited capacity we have[1]. This scarcity mind-set can occur if facing an unmet, urgent need which can come in many forms. Whether it’s a checking-account balance too low to cover monthly expenses, lacking the time to meet a deadline and keep one’s personal commitments, or suffering from low blood sugar after skipping lunch—a person can react in less disciplined ways.

Regardless of form, scarcity generally impacts everyone’s brain in a similar pattern. It constantly interrupts our thinking – like your phone dinging with every text message you receive, distractions are constantly pulling you away from your desired goal. It typically also creates an intense focus on the unmet need. For example, if you are hungry and you don’t have food, you are likely going to be hyper-focused on food. And it can exhaust the mind with constant trade-off decisions. If you have a pressing work deadline at the same time as your child’s sporting event, it means that you must miss one. And you will likely feel distress and guilt no matter which choice you make.

So how can you overcome a scarcity mind-set? You can build in excess capacity, which we call slack. While slack may have a negative connotation (i.e., slacker) it’s become one of the greatest weapons in addressing the stressors and resulting scarcity mind-set that can deplete our ability to perform.

Decide to decide less: Reduce the number of choices you have to make. In a 2012 interview, President Obama explained one way he tries to reduce decision fatigue: “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions.”

Waste not, want not: Prioritize, delegate, and clear away unnecessary busy work. Studies of knowledge-worker productivity found that people waste as much as 41 percent of their time on busywork: tasks that offer little personal satisfaction and do not help them get work done.

Rest your weary mind: Rest and recovery is often key. This has been well-documented in studies of athletes where researchers found a direct correlation between rest and recovery and achieving higher performance—even in the short term.[2]

Expect the unexpected: When you can, try to plan! Research shows that it is often easier to remain overly optimistic when a deadline or event is further out in the future than when it is imminent and key obstacles are more visible.[3]

Focus on small changes: Daily behavior changes can add up to make a big impact. Here are five considerations to create slack in your day:

· Start your day off right: Take the time to define and prioritize your daily goals, and refer back to those goals throughout the day to ensure alignment.

· Create meeting buffers: Reduce meeting times to 25 or 50 minutes to create time to reset before moving onto the next meeting or task.

· Schedule focused work time: During this time, turn off your email and your phone so that you can give your full attention to the task at hand.

· Take breaks: Schedule time to mentally recover. This may mean stepping away from your work to get up and move around or practice deep breathing to center yourself.

· Meditate daily: Just a few minutes a day can provide a wide array of mental and physical benefits.

Don’t blame yourself for any silly mistakes or spilling that coffee. Instead look at your situation, identify what might be causing your scarcity-mindset, and create slack in your life to address it.

Read the full report: Does scarcity make you dumb? A behavioral understanding of how scarcity diminishes our decision making and control



[1] Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives (New York: Times Books, 2013).

[2] J. Parra et al., “The distribution of rest periods affects performance and adaptations of energy metabolism induced by high-intensity training in human muscle,” Acta Physiologica 169(2), 2000, pp. 157–65.

[3] Buehler and Griffin, “Planning, personality, and prediction.

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