Humans take mental shortcuts all the time.

We kind of have to, you know? Time is short, there’s a lot to do, and it’s a big world out there. We can’t evaluate every situation from the ground up, so our brains use simple rules called heuristics to save time.

Heuristics are super handy and efficient. They can also lead us astray, though, particularly when it comes to our work.

Availability Heuristics: What Have You Done for Me Lately?

Availability heuristics allow us to quickly evaluate a situation by sifting through recent information that relates to that situation.

The only problem is, recent information isn’t always representative. In an effort to save a few moments, our brains don’t consider all relevant information, or even the most deeply ingrained information. Our brains just look for the recent stuff.

This is why we’re afraid to swim in the ocean after seeing a CNN segment on shark attacks, even though we know we’re more likely to be struck by lightning while driving to the beach. Our brains don’t think “Shark attacks are astronomically rare. We’ll be fine.” Our brains think “Look, we just saw that TV thing about shark attacks. I’m the boss around here, and I say we ain’t getting eaten by no shark. We’re playing frisbee instead.”

Availability Heuristics and Our Art

Here’s how availability heuristics can get in the way of our work (or our art, or our hobbies).

When we have a bad day, that negative experience becomes our most recent memory concerning that activity.

I’m a trumpet player. When I have a bad gig (or even just a lousy practice session), my brain doesn’t say “We’ve had thousands of experiences playing the trumpet, Jonathan. Some good, some bad. This single bad experience doesn’t even move the needle. Don’t sweat it.”

Instead it says “Hey, I always thought we were pretty good, but now I don’t know. You really hosed that high D. Maybe we should re-evaluate our entire self-concept.”

Our brains do their best, but they’re not perfect. It’s worth remembering that we’re inclined to overvalue recent experiences and discount long-term ones.

It’s easy to let a recent bad experience ruin our day (or our week), but we can overcome this tendency with a little logical thought.