Exploring life's passions

Scarcity in times of abundance

Reading a book on scarcity in a period when I feel I have plenty of time, and just after a hectic period, was an interesting experience. The book (‘Scarcity: Why having too little means so much’, written by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir) explains how scarcity influences our behaviour.

Scarcity Book CoverDeadlines and a lack of money can make us very focussed and inventive. However, the results of the authors’ study also suggest that scarcity, in whatever form, whether it is a lack of money, time or friends, reduces our mental bandwidth and distorts our decision making abilities. The feeling scarcity constantly imposes on you leaves less room for other aspects of your life, and reduces your thinking capacity and makes you short-sighted.

Unfortunately, but somehow to be expected, the authors also provide evidence that scarcity often stems from mistakes made during a period of relative abundance – if you are lucky enough to experience such a period – because, as the authors rightly state, you do not decide to be poor or choose to take time out of poverty.

Results show that during a period of abundance, most of us waste time or money. We use or spend what we have with (too) little care, and don’t save or work enough to protect ourselves against a possible period of scarcity in the future.

It is precisely in these periods of relative abundance when you should make use of the opportunity to build a buffer for a period of scarcity.

Actually, to be able to escape the scarcity trap ‘it is not enough to occasionally be vigilant. There is an ongoing, continued vigilance needed: you should almost always resist virtually all temptations.’ A possible solution is to create ‘long periods of moderation instead of bursts of abundance followed by long periods of scarcity’.

schaarste boekAnd that’s where it gets challenging, at least for me in relation to time.  After being very busy with work, and having little time for anything other than work, I have the opportunity to experience a period with plenty of time. And I notice how difficult it is not to give in to the temptation to waste time – drinking coffee, sitting and doing nothing, see friends, and go for walks – instead of taking the time to do all the chores I hadn’t done in the past couple of months when I was too busy finalising my assignments. Even though, according to the book, my mental bandwidth is restored and decision making is not distorted anymore.

What about people who experience real financial scarcity? Possibly even more difficult to resist the temptation, especially when surrounded by others who seem to have no financial limitations.

After reading this book I am aware that I better take action. Clean up, prepare for the next assignment, and make use of my improved brain capacity to learn new things, such as managing time or organizing systems or triggers that can help me during times of possible time scarcity, to avoid falling into the same trap.

But why is it so difficult to focus? And why does it always seem as if I am always less productive in these periods when there are hardly any (externally imposed) deadlines to meet?

Is it because of the lack of pressure and scarcity of deadlines, I don’t yet (want to) feel the urgency for action? And in relation to time, is it really always possible to build a buffer, or are we sometimes out of control, and dependent on others, who create time scarcity for you?

Difficult to say, but a challenging and pressing enough question to investigate further. So if any of you have any suggestions, or reading tips, let me know.


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