The Biggest Barrier to Your Goals Could Be ‘Tractability Bias’

Stop sidelining what’s important in favor of what you can check off your to-do list

Scott H. Young
Published in
5 min readJun 22, 2021


Photo: PixelChoice/Getty Images

Human beings crave progress. That craving distorts what we work on. Vital pursuits with less tangible progress are frequently sidelined for trivialities we can check off a to-do list.

Think of the last time you updated your computer. Just having the progress bar made the wait more bearable. The inching left to right may have been inconsistent. It may have been downright misleading, as the frustration at witnessing it stall forever at exactly 99% can attest.

But imagine how much harder it would be to wait if the progress bar weren’t even there.

Illustrations by the author

Progress itself is good. But it is more easily measured in some pursuits than others. This leads to tractability bias — the tendency to focus on pursuits with more conspicuous progress.[1]

An example: Last week, I was working on a new book proposal. Writing the opening chapter was hard. I’d end some days thinking, “Well, at least this time I got to 1,500 words before deciding to throw it all in the trash.”

In the same time, I could have easily written three or four essays for this blog. Except, writing a new book has much greater potential than even a brilliant essay. Had I written the essays I would have felt productive. It just would have been on something that mattered much less.[2]

Sieging the Castle

My friend, Cal Newport, has likened the theorem-proving efforts of a computer scientist to sieging a castle.[3] First you try the front gate, and get repelled. Then you try the ramparts on the side. You dig tunnels and construct battering rams. Progress is zero until you finally break through.

Morale is a perennial issue for besieging generals. Frustrations and fatigue mount with each failure. If…



Scott H. Young
Writer for

Author of WSJ best selling book: Ultralearning | Twitter: @scotthyoung