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Slides 2-3: Intro
● Our brains aren’t as impressive as we like to think. They weren’t designed for the world
we live in today and - and they’re especially not good at the kind of work that we do as
Slides 4-7: Information Overload
● A graph showing the development of the human brain is pretty flat because evolution is
kind of a slow process. Meanwhile, the growth of information available in the world has
been growing exponentially.
● Google’s Eric Schmidt said that if you took all the information created from the dawn of
civilization up to 2003, it would total about the same amount that we now create every
two days (as of 2010).
● We were able to adapt pretty well for a while. Then came the printing press (1440) and
electricity (1800s) and mass communications (1900s) and in 1964 we see the first use of
the term “information overload.” Now with the internet our brains are in real trouble.
● It’s like taking the first computer you ever owned and trying to make it do what your
current computer does today. It wasn’t made for that - it can’t do it.
Slides 8-9: Filtering
● Now, our brains are a lot more adaptable than an old computer, so we have some ways
we can deal with the situation. The first one is filtering.
● Clay Shirky argues that we’ve always had more information than we can handle - the
problem is that our filters haven’t adapted.
● We use filters in many ways - email, coping with open concept offices, etc.
● The original Selective Awareness test:
● Our brains are pretty good at filtering, but then we miss out on other (potentially
important) things. We have to do it, though. There’s just too much information to process
effectively - especially for PMs.
● An example is the busy project manager who brings their laptop into a meeting so they
can stay on top of email, JIRA tickets, etc. The odds that they’re catching all they need to
in the meeting are greatly reduced.
Slides 10-13: Multitasking
● There are three types of multitasking.
○ the kind that computers do, which is real and awesome
○ something more accurately called “layering”, which is when you do simple things
using different parts of your brain - like watching TV while walking on a treadmill
or singing while driving
○ what we typically think of when we say multitasking, which is not very effective.
● Neuroscience backs this up. When it comes to “thinking” tasks, our prefrontal cortex can
really only do one thing at a time. So when we think we’re “multitasking”, our brains are
actually just switching back and forth between tasks.
● Experiment from Dave Crenshaw. Write out the words first, then the numbers and see
how long it takes. Next, do it again, but alternate between letters and numbers: M, then
1, then U, then 2, etc.
● Notice the difference. When you have to go back and forth, your brain has to switch its
thinking each time. You’re slower - and mostly likely, have more mistakes.
● There’s a ton of research about the impact of task switching. You’re slower, make more
mistakes, and your brain gets tired.
Slides 14-15: Fatigue
● Brain fatigue takes things from bad to worse. Now it’s harder to concentrate, it’s harder
to remember what you’re hearing, and your willpower is at its lowest.
● It’s the perfect opportunity for me to sell you something.
● There’s a concept called Decision Fatigue that states that the more decisions you make
in a day, the harder they get. You tend to resort to lazy decision-making, which tend to
be either wrong or just safe.
● Example: a 10-month long study done with Israeli judges whose job was to decide
whether or not to grant parole to prisoners. At the start of the day, when they were fresh,
they granted parole in about 65% of the cases. As the day went on, this number dropped
to about 0% as they resorted to status quo decision-making.
● The spikes in the graph are right after lunch and right after dinner. Part of that is due to
the break, but part of it is because your brain functions on glucose, so getting something
to eat helped boost brain energy.
Slide 16: Procrastination
● We’ll do it later.
Slide 17: Strategies for Information Overload and Fatigue
1. Rest: get enough at least 7 hours of sleep a night and take non-work-related breaks
throughout the day. Examples: take a walk, play a game, listening to music, go the gym,
meditate. Try the Pomodoro Technique.
2. Eat: have a good breakfast and eat some healthy snacks throughout the day.
3. Move: exercise, especially if the bulk of your day is sitting in a chair all day.
4. Plan: schedule your day with your most important meetings or work at the start of the
day or right after lunch. Avoid back-to-back meetings - they’re exhausting. Practice
single-tasking, with blocks of time in your schedule so that you can focus on one thing at
5. Cheat: take mental shortcuts to reduce mental load. This can take the form of gut
intuition, rules of thumb or heuristics.
Slides 18-21: Heuristics Intro
● Shortcuts are mostly good - you usually get from point A to point B faster than you would
otherwise. But sometimes you end up at point R.
● They speed up the decision-making process, but at the cost of predicatable mistakes in
● Example: bat and ball problem.
● The Linda Problem. Based on the information provided, what is more likely:
○ Linda is a bank teller
○ Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement
● 90% of people pick the latter, which is impossible because it’s a subset of the former.
● This is caused by:
○ Representative Heuristic - when we make a judgement about something based
on how closely it seems to fit into a particular category.
○ Conjunction Fallacy - we assume that specific things are more likely than general
● We like harmonious or plausible stories that make sense to us intuitively because
thinking through these things logically takes time and effort.
Slides 22-26: Risk Management
● Paul Slovik’s study on perception of risk shows that we’re not really good at estimating
○ Tornados vs. asthma - most people think tornados, but asthma kills 20 times
○ Lightning vs. botulism - most people think it’s botulism, but lightning is over 50
times more likely.
○ Accidents vs. diabetes - the estimate was that accidents killed 300 times more
people than diabetes. The reality is that diabetes is 4 times more likely.
● This is caused by the Availability Heuristic, which is when we use whatever information
comes to mind most quickly. It might be something you can easily think of lots of
examples of, something you’ve heard or seen a lot recently (killer clowns), or it could just
be a particularly vivid or personal example.
● Our risk registers are full of stuff that’s really quite unlikely, and missing out on all the
mundane risks that don’t come easily to mind.
● Probability Neglect causes us to mess up the likelihood of a given risk. 30% likely? 70%
likely? We’re not good at distinguishing all those shades of grey.
● A study done at the University of Chicago that showed that people were equally afraid of
a 99% chance of toxic contamination as a 1% change.
● Related test: there are two boxes. One has 50 black balls and 50 red balls. The other
has 100 black and red balls, but you don’t know the ratio. You get to randomly choose
one ball from one box. If it’s red, you get $100. Next, we change it up so that you get
$100 for a black ball. Which box do you want to choose from now?
● Logically, if you chose box A the first time, you must choose Box B the next time.
Clearly, logic is not at play here. Instead, it’s called Ambiguity Aversion. We’d rather go
with a known probability (a risk) than an unknown probability (uncertainty).
● We also make mistakes when it comes to mitigating risk. There’s a big psychological
payoff to taking something to 100% sure (the Certainty Effect) or to 0% (the Zero Risk
Bias). In both cases, we spend too much effort here instead of focusing our attention on
potentially big gains in the murky middle.
● In many cases, it just doesn’t matter. Some things are just aren’t controllable. This
includes things like:
○ Chaos Theory - also known as the Butterfly Effect, where some small event
somewhere ends up having huge impacts somewhere else. (A butterfly flapping
its wings in Brazil can cause a tornado in Texas.)
○ Black Swans - major, unpredictable events that have major impacts, such as the
invention of the internet or 9/11.
● PMs especially suffer from what’s called the Illusion of Control - the belief that we can
control more than we really can. Examples:
○ In dice games, people throw the dice harder to try to get high numbers and softer
for lower ones.
○ When people press crossing lights or elevator buttons multiple times. Note:
sometimes they’re not even hooked up. These are called Placebo Buttons and
are just there to make your wait feel more bearable.
Slides 27-34: Estimating
● Switching to something that all PMs are great at: estimating.
● Steve McConnell’s estimation quiz: for each question, fill in the upper and lower bounds,
that in your opinion, give you a 90% chance of including the correct value. Try not to
make your ranges either too wide or too narrow.
○ Surface temperature of the sun - 10,000 F/6,000 C
○ The year of Alexander the Great’s birth - 356 BC
○ Area of the Asian continent - 17,139,000 m2/44,390,000 km2
● Even when estimating for 90%, the average score is 28% 3. So even when we have full
freedom to define our 90% confidence range, we still get it wrong.
● The first problem is classic overconfidence. We simply believe that we’re better at this
than we really are. Pessimists also show the effects of overconfidence - just to a lesser
degree than optimists. Experts are worse than amateurs.
● The second has to do with the two-step process for estimating where we start at a base
number, then adjust it up or down depending on the situation.
● Quick test:
○ For the left side of the room:
■ Did Gandhi die before or after the age of 9?
○ For the right side of the room:
■ Did Gandhi die before or after the age of 140?
○ Then for everyone: How old was Gandhi when he died?
● In test groups, the left side averaged around 50 and the right side was around 67. (The
actual answer is 78.)
● The difference is because of that anchor points, even though they were both clearly
meaningless. It acts as the base rate and we adjust from that point - just not far enough.
● This is called the Anchoring Heuristic and we see it in everyday life all the time. A good
example is suggested prices for houses or cars.
● The main way to avoid it is to be the one that sets the anchor. For example, when setting
● We try to get around this by using 3-point or PERT estimates. That helps, assuming that
our most likely estimate - the anchor - is somewhat accurate. Also, we’re terrible at
estimating the worst case.
● We don’t account for unexpected things even though they almost always happen
because they’re never the same unexpected things.
● There was a study done with students where they had to predict when they were likely to
get a paper done and when the latest they might get it done. Most went past even their
worst case scenarios.
● At the root is something called the Planning Fallacy, developed by Daniel Kahneman
and Amos Tversky, which is simply our tendency to underestimate time, costs and risks.
○ Denver International Airport - 16 months and $2 billion over budget
○ Sydney Opera House. When it was being planned in 1957, it was estimated to
take 6 years and cost $7 million. Instead, it took 16 years and came in at $102
million - 14 times the original estimate.
○ Your daily to-do lists. How often do you actually finish everything and how often
do you have to roll something forward to the next day? You’ve probably been
doing them for years and years, but you still overestimate how much you can do
in even as short a time scale as a day.
● The driving force of the Planning Fallacy is Optimism Bias. This can come from external
or internal sources.
● External includes your overly optimistic bosses or clients.
● The dark side of this one is known as Strategic Misrepresentation and it mostly happens
within the sales team when they promise budgets or timelines that they know probably
● PMs tend to be optimistic: we like to believe that we can guide our projects to success,
no matter the odds.
● How many of you think that you’re better than average drivers? Most surveys of this
question come up with answers over 90%. This is known as Illusory Superiority - where
you think you’re better than most
Slides 35-36: So Much More
● There are 150 more biases, heuristics and fallacies to trip us up.
● They affect much more than risk management and estimating. Also: team dynamics,
client relationships, communication, etc.
Slides 37-40: Debiasing Problems
● Biases are really persistent and hard to shake.
● The first step is just knowing about them - recognizing that they’re there and the impact
they have. But even that doesn’t always help.
● The Confirmation Bias is our (mostly) subconscious tendency to accept information and
arguments that support our existing beliefs and reject those that go against our beliefs.
● Technology also plays a role now through something known as Filter Bubbles. Example:
Facebook or Google keeps track of the things you click on and shows you more like that
and less of anything too different.
● This is a problem, as those outside and contradictory views are really important for us to
get to a right answer. It’s important to make a conscious effort to expose yourself to
● Also, the Bias Blind Spot, which is a bias that prevents you from seeing your own biases.
Instead, you constantly rationalize your decisions and behavior.
● Visual example: We see two different shades of yellow, but they’re exactly the same.
Even when we know, we can’t help.
Slide 41: Debiasing Strategies
● We’re not going to have a lot of luck changing how our brains work, but we can try to
bypass the stupid spots. Strategies:
1. Slow down: take time to analyze. Use traditional decision-making techniques like pros
and cons list and mathematical calculations.
2. WBS it: Break down problems into smaller pieces - AKA “unpacking.” Shorten
timeframes and pieces to be estimated.
3. Go outside: get an external, objective perspective to remove subjectivity. Use Reference
Class Forecasting, which is using similar, previous projects as a base rate.
4. Pre-mortem: created by psychologist Gary Klein where you ask: “Imagine it is a year
from today. We have followed the plan to the letter. The result is a disaster. Take 5 or 10
minutes to write about this disaster.” This unearths potential risks and problems that you
might otherwise be blind to.
5. Be sad: your mood has an impact on the Optimism Bias, so it’s not a terrible thing to be
a bit melancholy when doing key planning work.. I recommend watching the movie Life is
6. Remember: find ways to work around your terrible memory. More on that...
Slides 42-49: Memory
● We can’t remember what doesn’t go into our brains in the first place. That is, we filtered
it first. That’s why you lose your keys and can’t remember the person’s name you just
● How memory works: we don’t store everything like a movie that we can later play back in
perfect detail. Instead, we store highlights and key events, then when we pull them back
out, we re-construct them back into a coherent whole.
● Except our brains are not great at doing that. If you have multiple similar memories of
something, your brain pulls them all out and blends them together.
● On top of that, your brain will take any new, relevant information and change the original
memory. Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus compares your memory to a Wikipedia page.
● Example: most of you probably vividly remember exactly where you were and who you
were with on 9/11. On that day, you probably remember watching TV and seeing the first
tower get hit and then, about 20 minutes later, you saw the second tower get hit and
knew that something terrible was happening. Except that that memory is impossible,
since the TV networks didn’t have footage of the first tower being hit until Sept. 12. But
you know what happened and you saw it all the next day and so your brain re-organized
your memory for you so that it made cohesive sense.
● Final experiment. Memorize as many of the list of words as possible. Then without
referring back, write out as many of the words as you can remember.
○ Most people remember “rest” because it was first on the list, and we usually
remember the first thing due to the Primacy Effect.
○ “Night” is also pretty easy because it’s the last one and corresponds to the
○ Side note: if you want people to remember your presentation, try to go first or
last. But remember the problems with fatigue when it comes to going last.
○ No one remembers “aadvark” - it’s a trick question.
○ Just over half of people remember “sleep.” But it’s not on the original list. Your
brain added it because we remember the gist of things and our brain fills in the
● Your brain covers up the fact that it’s doing all that. Your memories feel real and perfect
and you’re totally confident in them.
● To overcome some of the problem, try memory tricks like:
○ Repeating names in your head and using them back.
○ Associating new concepts with things you’re already familiar with.
○ Using the Method of Loci or Memory Palace to help you remember larger
● To deal with information overload, externalize your memory as much as possible. Get
stuff out of your head and out into the world somewhere: calendars, to-do lists, meeting
notes, JIRA tickets, Basecamp discussions, Google docs, etc.
● This also helps with something called the Zeigarnik Effect, which is when we hold
unfinished tasks in our heads until we deal with them, either by completing them or by
Slides 50-53: Procrastination
● If you don’t allocate enough time for a task and then you run out of time to do it, or if the
right tools aren’t in place to do it, that’s not procrastination, that’s just poor planning.
● If the skills to do the work aren’t there or you can’t finish due to perfectionism, those are
different as well.
● Procrastination is when you put off doing something you need to do in order to do
something more relaxing or more enjoyable.
● Piers Steel defined it in a book called The Procrastination Equation. To help avoid
○ Increase expectation that you can succeed; self-confidence
○ Increase the value of the task
○ Increase self-control; ability to avoid distractions; willpower
○ Decrease the time to completion of the task
● Student syndrome is exactly how it sounds. We have a tendency to leave tasks until right
before they’re due.
● Parkinson’s Law can be used to restrict procrastination. If you don’t have time to
procrastinate, it can’t happen.
● Solutions to procrastination:
1. Externalize: external authorities work best. Self-set deadlines tend to be broken.
2. Breakdown: break your work into smaller pieces. David Allen talks about getting
to the point where you know the very next action.
3. Worst 1st: prioritize your work, then do the most difficult things first.
○ Public: announce your commitments to increase accountability.
○ Obstacles: even small things can prevent you from doing tasks. Remove them
and set yourself up for success.
○ Focus: remove distractions so that you can concentrate on the task to be done.
Slide 54-55: Stress
● This whole job can be very stressful. Trying to control the uncontrollable, having
unpleasant conversations on a regular basis, feeling the pressure of accountability - all
of this stuff weighs heavy.
● Connect with your fellow DPMs and stay in touch so you can support each other. We
need to have each others’ backs.
Slide 56: Contact me