Everything in Life Has an Opportunity Cost

“Opportunity cost is a huge filter in life. If you’ve got two suitors who are really eager to have you and one is way the hell better than the other, you do not have to spend much time with the other. And that’s the way we filter out buying opportunities.”
Charlie Munger, Investor

Everything in Life Has an Opportunity Cost

Doing One Thing Makes You Sacrifice the Opportunity to Do Something Else of Value

In economics, opportunity cost is the cost of not choosing the next best alternative for your money, time, or some other resource.

One of the foundational principles in economics is affirmed by the popular American aphorism, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Resources are scarce. When resources (time, money, mindshare, autonomy, and all that) are scarce, selecting one opportunity necessitates forgoing other opportunities.

Life is all about values and priorities. You face trade-offs. Life requires of you to make choices among mutually exclusive alternatives. Every time you select something, you forfeit other alternatives and the concomitant benefits. The cost of something is what you will give up to get it. This is opportunity cost.

You Can Do Anything but Not Everything … What Will You Sacrifice When You Choose One Option Over the Others?

When mulling over multiple choices, the quality of any option cannot be assessed in isolation from its alternatives. The price you pay (or the sacrifice you make, or the benefits you give up) for doing what you’ve chosen to do instead of doing something else is the opportunity cost.

In sum, an opportunity cost is the cost of passing up the opportunities that a different option would have afforded.

Many costs are calculated in terms of money. However, just because you don’t have to spend money to do something does not imply that the options you face are without their costs. For example, you don’t have to spend money to go for a hike or watch a sunset, but there is an opportunity cost there too. You could have used that time to do something else you value—visiting a friend or reading a book, perhaps.

  • If you decide to invest two years and some $100,000 getting an MBA at a brand-name business school, there’s an opportunity cost; it costs you lost wages and all the things you could have pursued during that time and with that money. But you anticipate that getting your MBA will pay off by way of a better job in a better company with a better salary.
  • If you spend your weeklong vacation taking your parents to a beach destination in Florida, there’s the opportunity cost of not going to Paris with your spouse.
  • Opportunity Costs Apply to All Your Choices If you decide to wake up twenty minutes earlier in the mornings to leave home sooner to work and beat the horrendous traffic, there’s the opportunity cost of twenty minutes of extra snoozing.
  • When the refrigerator at home breaks down and needs replacement, you will have to give up buying that latest big-screen TV you’ve been coveting.
  • There’s an opportunity cost to even reading this article at this moment. You could have been watching TV, taking a nap, calling up a friend, or moving on to another article in the time you’re devoting to reading this article.

In a nutshell, even decisions that appear to be no-brainers carry the hidden costs of the options you will decline. Thinking about opportunity costs may not change the decision you make, but it will give you a more rational assessment of the full implications of your decision.

Opportunity Costs Apply to All Your Choices—Big and Small

Opportunity cost is a concept of great magnitude. It is one of those apparently simple concepts in social sciences that are difficult to master and tough to put into consistent practice. Tim Harford, the British author of The Undercover Economist offers a particularly instructive example of appreciating opportunity costs in his Financial Times column:

Consider the following puzzle, a variant of which was set by Paul J Ferraro and Laura O Taylor to economists at a major academic conference back in 2005. Imagine that you have a free ticket (which you cannot resell) to see Radiohead performing. But, by a staggering coincidence, you could also go to see Lady Gaga—there are tickets on sale for £40. You’d be willing to pay £50 to see Lady Gaga on any given night, and her concert is the best alternative to seeing Radiohead. Assume there are no other costs of seeing either gig. What is the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead? (a) £0, (b) £10, (c) £40 or (d) £50.

Answer: Going to see Lady Gaga would cost £40 but you’re willing to pay £50 any time to see her; therefore the net benefit of seeing Gaga is £10. If you use your free Radiohead ticket instead, you’re giving up that benefit, so the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead is £10.

Learn to Evaluate Life Choices Via the Lens of Opportunity Costs—The Stakes Become Clearer

Evaluate Life Choices Via the Lens of Opportunity Costs You live in a world of scarcity and must therefore make choices. You cannot avoid regret since there are opportunity costs for every choice you will make.

Everything in life is about opportunity costs. Every time you say “yes” to a choice, you are also saying “no” to everything else you may have accomplished with your time, money, and resources.

Opportunity cost is a commanding tool that you should be wise to apply to all decision-making. If you integrate this concept into your thought process, you will not only make judicious choices, but also better understand the world in which you live.

Idea for Impact: Whether you’re choosing graduate school, mulling over switching careers, starting a business, investing your money, buying a car, or frittering away your evening watching TV, considering the value of forgone alternatives will help you make better choices. Make the lens of opportunity costs the underpinning of your decision-making processes.

Book Summary of ‘The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload’

'The Organized Mind' by Daniel Levitin (ISBN 0147516315) In the best-selling The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin argues that the problem with the proliferation of information isn’t as much about the storage of the information as it is about organizing and retrieving that information. The human brain is incredible at storing data; the challenge is summoning up the right stuff at the right time, while not being distracted by the rest.

To be efficacious, we not only need to limit the information we consume (by simplifying, limiting our sources, quitting social media, taking digital Sabbaths, etc.) but also need to develop systems to take the strain off our befuddled brains. To do this, Levitin says, we must organize our personal environments to better channel our brains’ unique approach to doing things.

According to The Organized Mind, the trick to efficiently organize and manage information is to “shift the burden of organizing from our brains to the external world.” Levitin uses the latest brain science to propose “organization principles”—methods and disciplines to regain a sense of mastery over the way we can organize our time, home, and office.

Organization Principle #1: Conquer information overload

The information age is drowning us with an exceptional deluge of data. Simultaneously, we’re expected to make more decisions quickly than ever before. To survive information overload, Levitin suggests:

  • Be much more discerning at what you allow in. Not all input is worthy of being let in. Exercise control and discipline regarding your input choices. Don’t keep what you can’t use.
  • Develop and put into practice an organization system that works for you: to-do lists, 3×5 cards, etc. Whatever that system is, it needs to offload, classify, and be easy to retrieve. A mislabeled item or misplaced location is worse than an unlabeled item.
  • Organize in all areas and facets of your life. “Too much stuff” is fatiguing, no matter which part of your life has the “too much stuff” problem.

Organization Principle #2: Quit multi-tasking and become fanatical about focused work

Quit Multi-tasking Levitin’s pet hate is multitasking, which he describes as “the ultimate empty-caloried brain candy.” Our brains are not designed for multitasking; he writes, “When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”

  • Allow no distractions when you are in “focused work mode.”
  • Limit the interruption caused by email, text messages, visitors, and callers.

Organization Principle #3: Rest more, work less

In our chronically sleep-deprived society, sleep deficit is a performance killer. The general effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive performance are well-known: scientists have documented that when we are sleep-deprived our immune system suffers, our thinking and judgments are impaired, and our fuse becomes very short.

Studies have found that productivity goes up when the number of hours per week of work goes down, strongly suggesting that adequate leisure and refueling time pays off for employers and for workers. Overwork—and its companion, sleep deprivation—have been shown to lead to mistakes and errors that take longer to fix than the overtime hours worked. A sixty-hour work week, although 50% longer than a forty-hour work week, reduces productivity by 25%, so it takes two hours of overtime to accomplish one hour of work. A ten-minute nap can be equivalent to an extra hour and a half of sleep at night.

  • A calm, well-rested mind is a fruitful mind. Don’t overlook sleep, rest, and vacation as stress busters.

Organization Principle #4: Organize your physical environment into categories so it helps your mind

Organize Your Physical Environment One principle that Levitin emphasizes repeatedly is “offloading the information from your brain and into the environment” so you can “use the environment itself to remind you of what needs to be done.” One appealing example he offers is, “If you’re afraid you’ll forget to buy milk on the way home, put an empty milk carton on the seat next to you in the car or in the backpack you carry to work on the subway (a note would do, of course, but the carton is more unusual and so more apt to grab your attention).”

  • Levitin also emphasizes the importance of putting things away in their designated places, because there’s a special part of our brain dedicated to remembering the spatial location of things.
  • Neuroscientists have proved that the human brain is good at creating and thinking in categories. “The fact that our brains are inherently good at creating categories is a powerful lever for organizing our lives.” Further, “productivity and efficiency depend on systems that help us organize through categorization.”

Organization Principle #5: Spend only as much time on decisions, tasks, and actions as they are worth.

Significantly, Levitin suggests the practice of satisficing—a decision-making approach that aims for acceptable or “good enough” results, rather than the optimal solutions:

Satisficing [is] a term coined by the Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon, one of the founders of the fields of organization theory and information processing. Simon wanted a word to describe not getting the very best option but one that was good enough. For things that don’t matter critically, we make a choice that satisfies us and is deemed sufficient. You don’t really know if your dry cleaner is the best—you only know that they’re good enough. And that’s what helps you get by. You don’t have time to sample all the dry cleaners within a twenty-four-block radius of your home. … Satisficing is one of the foundations of productive human behavior; it prevails when we don’t waste time on decisions that don’t matter, or more accurately, when we don’t waste time trying to find improvements that are not going to make a significant difference in our happiness or satisfaction. … Recent research in social psychology has shown that happy people are not people who have more; rather, they are people who are happy with what they already have. Happy people engage in satisficing all of the time, even if they don’t know it.

Organization Principle #6: A Zen mind is an organized mind

Conquer Information Overload Beyond the productivity hacks and the tweaks, Levitin suggests a spiritual composure in favor of mental organization. He advocates practicing Zen-like mindfulness not only to relieve the anxiety that comes with worries over undone tasks and unease over future uncertainties, but also to allot more of your limited attention to the present moment.

  • Instead of seeking to cope with information overload and travel at warp speed, focus on the things you can do to put yourself on the right path to better wellbeing—one thought, one bite, one task, one project, and one breath at a time.

Recommendation: Read Daniel Levitin’s ‘The Organized Mind’

In today’s “age of information overload” you may find yourself continuously distracted and swamped with demands for multitasking. Daniel Levitin’s fascinating The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload explains how to organize your mind, systematize your home and office, and gain control over your life.

Even if The Organized Mind is somewhat meandering and ill-organized (which is ironic for a book getting organized,) Levitin discusses noteworthy capabilities and limitations of the human brain and how to effectively deal with them.

Idea for Impact: Develop a comprehensive plan to audit, simplify, and structure how information flows through your life. Develop personal habits and organizational systems to lead your mind effortlessly to good decision-making. As Levitin suggests, “The task of organizational systems is to provide maximum information with the least cognitive effort.”

Hoarding and Learning to Let Go

I recently happened upon A&E channel’s reality TV program Hoarders, now in its ninth season. Hoarders shows appalling footage of homes jammed floor-to-ceiling with bewildering amounts of mess. With help from therapists, professional organizers, and “extreme cleaning specialists,” hoarders featured on the show learn to pare down their stacks and cleanup their homes and offices.

Hoarding usually accompanies varying levels of anxiety. Hoarding both eases anxiety and produces it.

Hoarding: Harmless Collecting v/s Serious Disorder

Hoarding ranges from mild to severe. Compulsive hoarding is the unwarranted and excessive accumulation of things as well as the unwillingness and the inability to dispose of them. Hoarders believe that their collections will be needed or will have value in the future.

Beyond normal collecting behaviors and hobbies, hoarders amass vast quantities of possessions that fill up and disrupt functional areas of their homes and offices. They stack stuff everywhere—attics, basements, desks, countertops, garages, bathtubs, stairways, cupboards, and nearly all other surfaces they can no longer be used for their intended purposes. When there’s no more room indoors, hoarders expand their clutter into yards and vehicles, and even get storage rentals. They frequently shift items from one hoard to another, without shedding anything.

Hoarders often fail to recognize it as a problem, making treating their hoarding a challenge.

Understanding Hoarders: The Psychology of Hoarding

Hoarders usually have an extreme attachment to their possessions, and oppose letting others borrow—even touch—their possessions. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the definitive catalog of mental disorders used by American mental health professionals, calls “the inability to discard worn-out or worthless objects even when they have no sentimental value” a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD.)

Hoarding behavior typically has physical, emotional, social, financial, and legal hurtful consequences. Hoarders have trouble making decisions. They often suffer from chronic procrastination, and have considerable difficulties getting things done.

Hoarding usually accompanies varying levels of anxiety. Hoarding both eases anxiety and produces it. Hoarders feel emotionally secure when surrounded by the things they collect. The more they hoard, the more shielded they feel from the outside world and the more they become isolated from their family and friends. But, sure enough, they feel ever more alarmed at the prospect of having to discard or clean out their hoarded stuff.

Alleviating Hoarding: Reducing the Chronic Stress from Clutter

'The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up' by Marie Kondo (ISBN 1607747308) If you’re a hoarder, take small steps to tidy up. If you feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of your possessions and the decluttering task that lies ahead, remember to take small steps (try my “10-Minute Dash” technique to overcome procrastination and get a task going.) Under the supervision of a trusted companion, tackle one small area at a time. But, psychiatrists recommend, don’t let someone else (a friend, domestic help, or organizing professional) clean for you—long-lasting behavioral changes necessitate talking through the process as you make decisions. Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo’s bestselling self-help book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, suggests that you should appraise (“touch”) each of your belongings one at a time to determine whether they “spark joy”—if they don’t, thank the belongings for their service and get rid of them. Sort items to one of a very few categories—“trash,” “donate,” “sell”, and “must keep.” If you haven’t used something in a year, toss it out assuming that you’re unlikely to find it useful in the near future. Idea for Impact: Reducing clutter and getting organized takes time, patience, and courage. If necessary, find a cognitive behavior therapist that specializes in treating hoarding disorders to delve into why you feel compelled to hoard and learn how to discard and organize your possessions.

If you have a hoarder in your life, don’t be embarrassed, sad, or angry with the hoarding habits of a loved one. Don’t force the hoarder to change—your loved one may change for a short time, but unless there is a compelling reason for change, she will go back to her natural state. To be effective in the long run, resist the urge to clean up for her. If the underlying behavioral patterns aren’t remedied, the hoarder will likely replenish the clutter or even intensify the hoarding behavior to make up for the loss. Even if the hoarder doesn’t realize the chaos she’s imposing on her family, friends, pets, and neighbors, try to help her or get help for her. Nevertheless, understand that you can control only your efforts—not the results—despite doing your best. Idea for Impact: Avoid enabling your loved one’s hoarding behavior. Offer to help her if she needs it, but expect change to be a long and slow process. Temper your expectations—changing this problematic behavior is her journey and her battle to fight. If all else fails, seek help from a cognitive behavior therapist that specializes in helping families and friends of hoarders.

Fight Clutter and Simplify Life

Fight Clutter and Simplify Life

Classic Clutter-Busting Strategies

This ‘Unclutterer’ blog article lists essential strategies to get and stay organized. Below is an abridgment; see full article here.

  1. A place for everything, and everything in its place. If an object doesn’t have an official home, then it will always be out of place. Once you’re finished using an object, immediately put it back in its place.
  2. Establish routines. Set up a regular schedule for tasks that have to be completed daily and weekly: laundry, cleaning, cooking, organizing, filing, home and auto maintenance, etc. The more methodical you are, the simpler it is to maintain your home and office.
  3. If you don’t use it, need it, love it, or feel inspired by it, get rid of it. Just because you might have space to store something, doesn’t mean you have to keep it. Your home and office should be filled with useful and inspiring things, not objects that cause you stress and anger. Plus, the less you own, the less you have to worry about, clean, organize, finance, and maintain.

Call for Action

One of the primary drivers of the feeling of not being on “top of things” is disorder and clutter. Given our busy lives, we tend to let things get out of hand. This can frequently lead to a chronic preoccupation over the lack of orderliness in our lives.

Set aside some time, perhaps just 30 minutes, and

  • Eliminate. Toss out things you have not used in the last two years. If you are not using something on a regular basis, you probably do not need it. Consider donating to charity or let somebody else have things you do not need.
  • Organize. After eliminating unneeded and unwanted things, store articles close to where you use them. Consider investing in filing cabinets, cupboards or storage boxes.
  • Simplify. One of the biggest hindrances to “getting things done” is complexity and redundancy. In today’s consumer driven societies, we tend to buy things we don’t need or, worse, things we already have and cannot remember. Use common sense to prioritize what you will own and what you will do and fight complexity.

Control your ‘stuff’—do not let them control you.