The Ostrich Effect Will Ruin Your Life – Here’s What It Is and How to Beat It

Ostrich Effect

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Before I get into the actual substance of this article, let me start by busting a common myth. Ostriches don't actually hide their heads in the sand to avoid predators... If they did, there wouldn't be ostriches. They'd have been eaten into extinction. 

As flightless birds, ostriches are unable to build nests in trees, so they lay their eggs in holes dug in the ground. To make sure that the eggs are evenly heated, they occasionally stick their heads into the nest to rotate the eggs, which makes it look like they're trying to hide – hence the myth. [Source sciencefocus.com]

The "Ostrich Effect" is named assuming this myth is true. Please look past this, the underlying message remains the same and the proclivities of actual ostriches do not matter. 

Ok, now that we've played MythBusters, let's get into the actual point of this article. 

What Is the "Ostrich Effect"

The Ostrich Effect is a common cognitive bias that happens when people avoid information that could be unpleasant. Instead of confronting difficult situations, we often try to completely ignore them in hopes that they go away. Even if this is completely illogical and they are problems that can only be solved through deliberate action.

Some common examples of things we do this with include (but certainly aren't limited to):

  • Tax bills
  • Having difficult conversations
  • Leaving toxic relationships

We all do this. I'm literally doing it as we speak with a couple of things in my life. For example, I have a roof that needs repair but I'm dreading the process of working with my insurance company to get them to cover it. So I've, figuratively, buried my head in the sand. 

The important thing is that we develop awareness of when we're falling into the Ostrich Effect. It's inevitable it will happen, but the faster we notice it and stop doing it, the better. 

How to Avoid the Ostrich Effect

Listen, there are many reasons we do this and we're all wired differently. If you have depression or anxiety, it's likely you'll find yourself more prone to doing it. 

The only way to address it is to develop the regular self awareness to notice it. 

Tip #1 Audit Yourself Weekly 

Ask yourself questions like,

  • "What am I putting off that I need to do immediately?"
  • "What is the most important thing I need to do right now and am I doing it? If not, why?" 
  • "What did I do this week? Were those things the most important things?"

Remembering to do this is easier said than done. If you can't remember organically to do it, consider setting a literal alert on your phone that reminds you every week to ask yourself these questions. 

ostrich audit

It's natural to avoid difficult situations. We will fall victim to the ostrich effect for our entire lives. Forced mindfulness is critical to beating it before it does any damage.

Tip #2 Address Anxiety and Depression

I don't like the standard, "just pull yourself up by the bootstraps and do it" type of approach to productivity. As someone who has struggled for my entire adult life with mental illness, I am very aware that clinical anxiety or depression make this sort of approach nearly impossible at times. 

If you feel your anxiety or depression are abnormal, I highly recommend you speak with a professional about it. People like me giving general productivity tips can't help if you're brain is working against you. 

The brain is an organ. Like any other organ (like the heart), if there is an issue, you'd get professional help. 

Let's crush the stigma of mental illness. It's just an organ that can fail us like all the others. 

Tip #3 Find an Accountability Partner

Accountability is the ultimate life hack. Studies show that you're dramatically more likely to accomplish a goal if you have someone holding you accountable

the power of accountability and chances of success

You're not a good accountability partner to yourself. Find someone else who cares about you enough to hold you accountable and you'll see your chances of successfully confronting tough things sky rocket. 

Alright, now I've got a roof to go fix. 🙂

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