What “Negativity Bias” Is & How I’m Not Letting It Run My Life

Ever lie awake at night while your brain replays a mortifying collection of your greatest personal disasters? Getting criticism from someone you respect, missing an important deadline, blowing a monthly budget, flubbing a social encounter, having to pay late fees on a bill — whatever has gone wrong, humans are excellent at remembering and retaining the negative things that happen in life, myself included.

The disproportionate weight we give to the bad parts of our lives is negativity bias. There are psychology journals filled with in-depth explanations of the phenomenon, but put in simple terms, it’s the tendency to give greater weight to our negative experiences than our positive ones. It’s hard to remember the nine times I succeeded in a financial challenge when I failed at it twice in a row. It’s hard to remember that my boss said some of my work was brilliant when she followed up with constructive criticism of where I fell short. It’s hard to look at the current disaster that is my kitchen and not feel like that translates into some greater moral failing.

A lot of my you fail at life thoughts originate from a perceived lack of productivity, or feeling like I’ve been wasting my time. It’s easy to fall into the trap of only noticing all the things I didn’t do, the things I canceled, the places I fell short, the people I disappointed, etc. But this year, I made it a goal to fight my brain’s negativity bias as much as possible, and for that, I turned to a $10 planner.

It’s just a simple planner with a calendar view for every month and then two lined pages per week that I can scribble in. Appointments (dentist, babysitting, etc.) and regular weekly chores (vacuuming, sweeping and mopping, etc.) go on the calendar view to be checked off when complete, and everything else goes under the correct dates on the lined pages. And when I say everything, I mean pretty much everything. I write down if I stayed later at work than normal, if I went on a walk, if I worked on a freelance project, if I read a book, if I played a video game, if I gave myself a manicure, if I paid a utility bill, if I went to the movies with my friends, if I ran to the store to buy light bulbs, if I researched skincare, if I transferred money to savings, or if I sharpened my kitchen knives. I write down the all the mundane tasks of daily living and my financial life, as well as the fun things I intentionally spend time on (no, wandering the internet aimlessly doesn’t count), and I have found it to be extremely vindicating.

If I feel like I’ve had an aggressively mediocre week, I can look at my planner and see that Oh, wait, I wrote “stayed late at work” three days in a row, so of course I don’t feel like my personal life has been very productive/filling lately. That lets me ease off the hypercritical thoughts for not doing everything I wanted to in my downtime. Conversely, I can look at the calendar and be reminded of that fun Saturday brunch with friends or that upcoming movie night — or even take a bit of pride in the fact that I did all of my chores during the week instead of pushing them off to the weekend. I can look at my planner and see how many days I worked on freelance projects, how much money that earned me, and how much closer I am to my next vacation.

I also set aside some time on the last day of every month to flip through the pages of my planner and remind myself of all the things I actually did accomplish that month. It’s a nice way to give myself a little boost with a concrete list of all of my wins, no matter how large or small. I’ve never had a month where I fulfilled every single one of my ambitions, but so far, 2018 has been filled with months where I got a surprising amount of things done. Many of them I wouldn’t have remembered if I hadn’t written them down.

My strategy when I’m at the office is a little different. Since our department already has a weekly meeting with our boss to update her on the status of our projects, I’ve taken to saving positive emails in a subfolder so I can reread a few when I’m getting stuck on or frustrated with my current work. The emails are everything from a “thank you for completing an urgent or unexpected request” to an email chain where I proposed a solution to a problem that was accepted by my superiors.

Those emails are more evidence to use against my negatively biased brain — yes, I am a capable, valuable member of our team, thank you very much. My career is more than just stumbling from one mistake to another, even if negativity bias makes it look that way sometimes. On a financial level, those emails would be an excellent place to draw from to prepare for my annual review. I’ll be able to go into that meeting with a list of my own accomplishments and proof that other people in the company value my work instead of spending the whole time reliving my professional missteps.

Keeping track of my accomplishments and taking the time to review them regularly has been a great way to try to combat all the negativity bias in my life. When it’s so easy to remember all the ways you’ve screwed up or fallen short, it’s good to have a strategy in place to remind yourself of your wins, whether they’re big or small. This exact strategy might not be for everyone, but I have found that taking the time to document the things I accomplish in my day-to-day life has greatly reduced the time I spend berating myself for not crossing every single item off my to-do list. That peace of mind was definitely worth the $10 I spent on my planner.

Audrey is an editor and writer who spends her free time on young adult books, Korean tv shows, and video games. You can reach her on Twitter or through her website.

Image via Unsplash

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