Clumped Towel Fallacy - A Counterproductive Mindset

The Clumped Towel Fallacy, A Counterproductive Mindset

February 27, 2020

We’ve all done it before. You get out of the shower, dry off, and then let the towel slump to the floor as you get dressed. You finish getting dressed, fixing your hair, and whatever else you might do to get yourself looking sharp and rush out of the bedroom, leaving the towel in a clump on the floor.

The next morning, the same routine unfolds. Except this time, you reach for your towel once your shower ends and you experience one of the worst feelings: a cool, damp towel.

It wasn’t that you intended to leave your towel in a clump on the floor. It was just that, initially, it seemed like a distraction from getting ready, and then you quickly forgot about it.

The clumped towel fallacy says that skipping tasks you should do now will have no consequences in the future. It says, “I can just do that later,” when in reality, failing to pick up the towel has a detrimental effect down the road. It is a counterproductive mindset.

Most people do this at work all the time. They push off tasks that seem like distractions or unnecessary to get more quickly into the “real work,” not realizing that their decision to skip those tasks will cost them later.

The Clumped Towels of Our Professional Lives

The Clumped Towel Fallacy can come into play anytime you procrastinate one task in favor of another task you have to do but don’t have to do at that moment. However, it occurs more insidiously in a number of other places, including these three:

Giving constructive feedback:

Surveys show that people desire constructive feedback more than even positive feedback with 57% saying they prefer constructive feedback to just 43% saying they prefer praise and recognition. Yet, most managers truly dislike giving constructive feedback, so they don’t give it nearly enough. When the opportunity comes to share constructive feedback, many managers opt to put it off. After all, they generally can update the work themselves more quickly and accomplish the “primary goal” of getting the work done.

It is true that the work that gets done more quickly that time, but as the towel of constructive feedback sits on the floor, the team members don’t get any better. They keep making the same mistakes, causing the same amount of review and update work for you. This keeps your trust in your team low, leading you to withhold delegating challenging work to the team – meaning yet again, more work for you. When you finally share the feedback (if you do at all), it’s too far removed from the original event for the team members to understand what led to their shortcomings and in some cases, the opportunities to practice the skills addressed in the feedback are no longer present.

Planning before you start:

When starting a project, it can feel like applying the brakes to take the time to plan well before executing. Many times, the first task or two seem immediately obvious, making this even truer. Why bother taking the time to plan if you already know what to do?

However, what seemed obvious on step one or two generally becomes a little cloudy when you get to step three or four. Unforeseen obstacles or pivots create significant slowdowns because you didn’t take the time to anticipate them. Or you realize that you should have started parts of step five while working on step two because it contains a large number of dependencies. The towel of skipping planning leads to a host of preventable mishaps, often causing rework, extra work, and missed deadlines. The value of planning is common sense, but it is also supported by research. Research out of Stevens Institute of Technology found that five project management tools, when used during the planning phase, are associated with faster project completion, improved customer value, and better business outcomes.

Scheduling your day out from the beginning:

Like jumping into executing without planning, you may feel tempted to jump into work as soon as you get to your desk. You’ve heard the advice to tackle your hardest task first and you’ve tried to stick to it. Doing so has given you a sense of accomplishment that helps motivate you throughout the rest of the day. You figure that once you tackle your hardest task, the other less important tasks will fall into place in your schedule as time allows. You’ve never struggled with deciding what to do when, so why bother to spend time at the beginning of the day to schedule out your calendar?

A company of radiologists, whose job was to review x-rays and CT scans, ran a two-year experiment. They asked some doctors to continue to follow the company policy of first-in, first-out while letting the other doctors decide what order they selected work from their queues. The “no policy” doctors came up with some compelling approaches that made logical sense. When the researchers looked at how long it took the doctors to review individual x-rays, they found no difference between the groups. However, when they looked at the total time it took the doctors to do the work, they found that it took the “no policy” doctors 13% longer to complete the same amount of work. Why? Because they lost time in between each piece of work to decision-making. You create the same costs for yourself when you don’t plan your day out in advance.

Overcoming the Clumped Towel Fallacy

The deceptive aspect of the Clumped Towel Fallacy is that you are able to quickly justify it using productivity as your goal. While you typically know at some level of inner conviction that you shouldn’t have left the towel on the floor, you can easily tell yourself that you’re simply exercising good prioritization skills.

Giving constructive feedback feels secondary when the primary goal is completing the work on time and in a high-quality manner. Creating a project or daily plan can feel unnecessary when your priority is to get things done. But these are short-sighted perspectives. They don’t consider the longer-term consequences of skipping those actions. In a sense, when you fall prey to the Clumped Towel Fallacy, you’re guilty of being too “good” at prioritization. You’re focusing myopically on the immediate future.

To overcome this fallacy, you need to expand your range of vision. Rather than considering only the next hour or two, consider the next week or two or even month. Ask yourself: “If I skip doing this now, what will be true a month from now that wouldn’t be true if I do it?”

In particular, assess tasks that have a delayed or seemingly invisible effect. For example, giving constructive feedback can be painful in the moment, but over time, it leads to improvements in your team members’ performance. With planning, the effects can be hard to notice. If you develop a great plan for a project and it goes really well, it can be difficult to recognize that without a plan, the project wouldn’t have gone as well.

2 Counterproductive Mindsets: Clumped Towel Fallacy vs. Full Dishwasher Effect

Over a year ago, we described a similar phenomenon we called the “Full Dishwasher Effect.” The Full Dishwasher Effect is based on the analogy of choosing to handwash dishes rather than empty the dishwasher and then load them into the dishwasher. It’s the decision to save a little time now even though in the long run, it costs you more time.

These two are really two sides of the same coin. They are both problems of nearsightedness. In the Full Dishwasher Effect, you’re choosing to save a little now even though you often realize that it may cost you time down the road. You know that you’ll have to transfer the task you wrote on a post-it note to your to-do list, but you don’t want to be bothered by opening up your to-do list right now. The Clumped Towel Fallacy, on the other hand, involves a misevaluation of the towel hanging task. You fail to see the consequences of leaving the towel on the floor, so you prioritize fixing your hair.

Your productivity is the sum of hundreds of small, even subconscious decisions that you make every day. The point of both of these concepts is that your mindsets play a large role in determining which productivity-boosting opportunities you’ll seize and which you’ll miss. To seize more and miss less, you need to be aware of these natural biases in your thinking and consciously push back against them.

Next time, hang up the towel.