How to Avoid The Planning Fallacy

How frequently have you set an ambitious research deadline, only to find yourself working late into the night to meet it? Can you recall a specific project where this happened? 🙋🏻‍♀️

The planning fallacy occurs when we underestimate the time and resources needed to complete a task, often in contradiction to previous experiences. This phenomenon is especially relevant for postdocs and faculty researchers who frequently embark on complex research projects, collaborate on publications, or strive to secure grants.

In the context of academic research, the planning fallacy can lead to poor planning for future projects and collaborations, ignoring realistic estimates of what is required in terms of time, funding, expertise, or other resources. It may also cause dismissal of potential risks and unexpected challenges, with a focus instead on an overly optimistic assessment of one’s abilities or available resources.

Why it Happens

We Focus on Success

Academic researchers often concentrate on successful outcomes, driven by optimism about their expertise and capabilities. This positive bias can overshadow potential pitfalls, leading to overestimation of success in research proposals, experiments, or academic collaborations.


Anchoring to Initial Plans

Anchoring, or the reliance on early information in decision-making, is particularly relevant in research planning. Even if initial plans prove overly optimistic, researchers may find themselves tethered to unrealistic deadlines, budgets, or expectations.


Ignoring Negative Information

Postdocs and faculty researchers may dismiss pessimistic views or information that challenge an optimistic outlook. In the race to publish or secure funding, negative or contradictory data might be overlooked, leading to underestimation of risk.


Social Pressure

The competitive nature of academia and the pressure to produce results quickly can exacerbate the planning fallacy. There may be repercussions for those who voice concerns about a project’s feasibility, leading to inaccurate, intuition-based planning.


Why it’s Important to Address

The planning fallacy’s consequences resonate in both professional and personal spheres within academia. It influences investment in potentially unsuitable ventures and keeps researchers engaged in projects longer than beneficial.


How to Avoid It

Utilize an Outside View

Including both specific and general historical data when planning can lead to more realistic expectations. Drawing from past experiences, both personal and from the broader academic community, can help temper intuition-based planning.

Set Implementation Intentions

Specific planning, including the time, location, and visualization of the task, leads to more realistic goal-setting without lessening optimism. This detailed planning has proven effective in a scholarly context, including writing, research, and collaboration.

Employ the Segmentation Effect

Breaking large projects into smaller, manageable parts can result in better time estimation. Research has shown that this approach leads to more accurate or even overestimated timelines, which in practice is preferable to underestimating the time required.


For postdocs and faculty researchers, understanding and mitigating the planning fallacy is vital. It plays a substantial role in academic research and can impact collaboration, funding, and the overall progress of scientific exploration. By recognizing this cognitive bias and implementing strategies to combat it, researchers can foster more responsible, ethical, and successful academic endeavors.

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