The 25 Cognitive Biases: Use-It-or-Lose-It Tendency

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Poor Charlie's Almanack" by Charles T. Munger. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the use-it-or-lose-it tendency? How do you stop valuable skills from depreciating?

The use-it-or-lose-it tendency is the inclination of skills to decline over time if unused. It is impossible to say the level of skill that would be lost within a set period of time, but skills that have been mastered will depreciate more slowly than skills that have not been fully developed. You can prevent skill depreciation by constantly practicing skills you can’t afford to lose.

Read on to learn more about the use-it-or-lose-it tendency.

What It Is

All skills attenuate with disuse.

Skills that are trained to fluency will be lost more slowly and, even if lost, will come back faster with new learning.

We can see this in our lives with the example of picking up a long-abandoned musical instrument we mastered through hours of practice in our childhood. It will still be possible to play the instrument, but the ability to maintain the same level of performance we had when the instrument was mastered would have decreased.

Why It Evolved

All neural circuits have the tendency to decay over time if unused. This is probably useful for brain efficiency, since unused circuits are pruned to make way for more useful ones. 

How It Can Be Harmful

If you don’t practice flexible thinking and exercise your mental models, you risk becoming a one-dimensional thinker. You’ll fall prey to the man-with-a-hammer syndrome, where you approach every problem with the same blunt tool.

Examples of the Use-It-or-Lose-It Tendency

  • The pianist Paderewski said that if he failed to practice for a single day, he’d notice his performance deteriorate. After a week, the audience would notice it too.

Antidotes

Continuously practice the skills you can’t afford to lose, much like fighter pilots in simulators.

  • Munger likes using a checklist to recall important skills and concepts.

Learn important skills to fluency so you can better recall them later.

Understanding the Use-It-or-Lose-It Tendency

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  • A collection of Charlie Munger’s best advice given over 30 years
  • Why you need to know what you’re good at and what you’re bad at to make decisions
  • Descriptions of the 25 psychological biases that distort how you see the world

Joseph Adebisi

Joseph has had a lifelong obsession with reading and acquiring new knowledge. He reads and writes for a living, and reads some more when he is supposedly taking a break from work. The first literature he read as a kid were Shakespeare's plays. Not surprisingly, he barely understood any of it. His favorite fiction authors are Tom Clancy, Ted Bell, and John Grisham. His preferred non-fiction genres are history, philosophy, business & economics, and instructional guides.

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