When it comes to reaching your goals, do your mental patterns help you or hurt you? The answer is almost certainly both. Most of us have learned to envision a future we want to achieve and taken steps to achieve that future, achieved some self-discipline that helps us complete tasks efficiently and well, and learned empathy and social skills that allow us to make effective pitches and get support from others when we need it.

But we all also have cognitive biases--wrong beliefs that hold us back from achieving what we want and sometimes make us unhappier than we should be. You may think none of these wrong beliefs are lurking in your brain, but I guarantee at least some of them are, perhaps subconsciously. See how many you can identify, and learn how to replace them with beliefs that will serve you better.

1. The immediate future matters more than the distant future.

If somebody offered to pay you $50 tomorrow or $100 one year from now, which would you choose? From an investment viewpoint, waiting for a year represents a 100 percent return and you'd be a fool not to take it. Yet studies show that most people, given that choice, opt for the smaller amount sooner.

That's just one indication that most of us, usually unconsciously, place a higher value on immediate gratification than on future benefits. Every time we eat something we know is bad for us, or put off a task until just before the deadline, we're making that same bargain, favoring our present-day selves over the people we'll be in the future. And we really mistreat our future selves when we take on unnecessary debt.

One reason we have a hard time caring enough for our future selves is that it's hard for most of us to imagine ourselves in the future. You can fight this tendency, though, by taking a few moments every now and then to visualize yourself five or 10 years from now. Imagine where you'll be living, what you'll be doing, who you'll be with. Make this a habit, and it will become easier to make choices that may be unpleasant for present-day you, but will make life much better for future you.

2. The way things are now and have been in the recent past is how they'll always stay.

This is called "recency bias," and it messes us up in all sorts of ways. For example, it causes pricing bubbles when people keep buying shares of stock or pieces of real estate in the belief that these assets will keep increasing in value forever.

Recency bias can be very difficult to overcome because it's difficult for us to have a long-term perspective and it can be hard to imagine events that are, well, unimaginable. For example, will horses ever again be widely used as a means of transport? Most of us would guess the answer is no. But what if an event we can't easily think of today were to limit the availability of both electricity and petroleum? In that scenario, they might.

One way to fight your tendency to recency bias is to study history. For example, many people--including me--were quite surprised on Election Day when Donald Trump was elected president, in spite of polling that mostly showed Hillary Clinton in the lead. But students of history (or those in their late 70s or older) are well aware that polls were just that wrong at least once before--in 1948, when they showed Republican candidate Thomas Dewey solidly ahead of Harry Truman for the presidency. It happened once, and as it turned out, it could happen again.

3. Negative information is more meaningful than positive information.

Let's say you give a speech. Afterward, 14 people come up to shake your hand and tell you how much they loved what you said. Then a 15th person tells you that what you said was untrue and your delivery style was amateurish. Do you head home mentally basking in the over-93-percent positive things you were told? Not likely. If you're like most of us, you spend the rest of the night wondering what you could have done better to satisfy that one unhappy person.

Negativity bias is actually hard-wired in our brains as a survival mechanism, because in dangerous situations, paying attention to what's wrong rather than what's right will help us stay alive. But in our everyday lives, it can really drag us down. Changing our tendency to focus on the negative isn't easy, and because of our mental predisposition for the negative, it takes lifelong vigilance to change this habit. But it can be done.

Begin by taking a few minutes each day to focus on the positive. My own coach, bestselling author Wendy Capland, gave me the assignment this month to spend a few minutes right before I go to bed writing down some things I'm grateful for, and some I'm proud of from the day. It's a powerful exercise that primes your brain for positivity. Similarly, when you hear an idea, or come up with one yourself, focus on what's good about the idea and how it could be improved rather than the reasons it won't work. When evaluating an employee, or evaluating your own performance, begin with what went right before considering what went wrong. That's just a start--here are four more ways to combat negativity bias.

4. Information that contradicts what I already believe is probably wrong.

This is called "confirmation bias," and it's the engine powering today's epidemic of fake news. Studies have shown that people are quick to pay attention to and believe input that supports the opinions and beliefs they already hold, and tend to ignore or disbelieve information that disagrees with those beliefs.

Confirmation bias is difficult to overcome, but being aware of it is a good start. Whenever you're faced with a piece of information that seems surprising or unlikely, ask yourself where your desires are trying to lead you. Does this information support a theory you believe or a worldview you hold? Or does it go against what you believe? Try to look at the information objectively, considering the source, and then make a thoughtful decision about what to believe and what to doubt.

5. Lots of other people are doing this so it must be right.

This cognitive bias is called the "bandwagon effect," and it's another thing that tends to lead to pricing bubbles, as more and more people join the crowd that's buying houses, for instance. Most people are uncomfortable going against popularly held beliefs or actions, even if they believe they're right and everyone else is wrong.

This is another bias that is hard-wired into us because, for millennia, our survival depended on being accepted and included in our family group, tribe, or village. But it's important to fight the bandwagon effect because of the question generations of mothers have asked their children: "If all the other kids were jumping off a cliff, would you jump too?" Sometimes that's exactly what everyone else is doing, and it's important to be able to save yourself.

To fight the bandwagon effect, talk to people with contrarian opinions and viewpoints. Before you jump on the latest trend, ask yourself if you're just doing it to go along with everyone else or if you genuinely believe it's a good idea. Try to embrace your inner rebel. And practice whatever you plan to say to people who ask why you aren't doing the same thing as everyone else.

6. I don't have any of these biases.

This so common that there's a name for the I'm-not-biased bias. It's called "bias blind spot." That's a good name, because every single one of us has at least some of these biases, some of which are in our genetic programming.

If you believe you're not subject to any cognitive biases, you're not examining your own thoughts and motives closely enough. Take some time to consider the decisions you make and the assumptions that underlie those decisions. If you're honest with yourself, you'll see your own biases. If not, ask a friend or colleague for some frank input on your biases and assumptions. Someone else may be able to see your mental patterns better than you can.

You can't attempt to fix a problem if you don't believe it's there. Understanding--and admitting to--your own cognitive biases is the first step you have to take before you can start fighting them.

Published on: Feb 23, 2017
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