Unit Bias at Work

Unit bias is our tendency to think that easily measurable amounts of things are automatically the right amounts of those things. Let’s say your favorite burger usually weighs in at 300 grams. If I make a larger burger that’s 450 grams, then cut off one third of it, the portion will be the same — but you won’t feel nearly as satisfied eating two thirds of a burger instead of “a whole one,” regardless of weight, calories, and nutritional value.

Unit bias affects us every day, and not just at dinner. When it comes to doing our work, we primarily use two yard sticks to measure our efforts: time and to-dos. Both are prone to unit bias. We schedule meetings for an hour and jot down “finish pitch deck,” even though the meeting might only require 43 minutes, whereas the pitch deck could take us two full days to put together.

With some awareness, however, we can also use unit bias to our advantage. Where units are often too large, for example meetings where the goal is to make just one decision, we can default to smaller units more frequently. One 15-minute meeting that requires another 15-minute follow-up is still better than one 45-minute meeting spent on the same issue. Where units are too small to complete, we can redefine them for more satisfaction and momentum from checking off more to-dos. If you create ten sub-bullets for each of your presentation’s slides, even if you only check off three of those today, you’ll feel a lot better than staring at your still-empty checkbox for “finish pitch deck” after three hours of work.

An even more useful approach, however, is to ask yourself: “What is my personal preference? Time or to-dos?” Do you lean more into time-based activities or goal-based ones? If I had to guess, I’d say most people tend towards goal-based planning simply because goals feel like units, even though they are not. But I know there are plenty of calendar-nerds out there, and I also believe “hour bias” is something we can learn.

Personally, I also prefer item-based planning. If I can finish a piece of writing in a day, I’d rather spend five hours on it until it’s done. If your video game tells you to collect seven mushrooms for a quest, it’s really hard to stop at five, isn’t it?

But not all quests can be completed in a day, and so especially for long-term projects, focusing on to-do units is exhausting. If you spend day after day putting in serious time, yet no end appears in sight, you’ll get burned out. Some things can only be completed hour by hour, small unit by small unit. Writing for an hour on your novel every day won’t be as satisfying as retreating into a small cabin in the woods for eight weeks, but if the former leads to the book’s publication whereas the latter ensures it remains a dream, the choice is painful but obvious.

Perhaps most importantly, however, know that you can mix and match. You can get in a few tiny time units on some projects, then spend the rest of the day chasing a bigger checkbox on your to-do list that you might not be able to complete. You can start your day with the satisfaction of knocking out some small but complete items, then attend a heavily time-boxed meeting marathon. Shrink certain units, enlarge others. Chunk and merge them like a butcher, turning a big pile of meat into the work of art that is a finely prepared sausage.

Beware unit bias. Consider your personal preference. Use to-dos and time-boxing like the interchangeable tools that they are, and remember: No matter how many slices the universe chops off your burger, it is still you who runs the show — and you function just fine on two thirds of your meal.