More Thoughts on Opportunity Cost

Last night’s post on opportunity cost missed the point. Technology doesn’t create or increase opportunity cost. Our technology makes us hyperaware of opportunity costs in real time.

Last night’s post dwelt a bit too much on the fear of missing out on social things — trip to the beach, dinner at a restaurant. Guess I was feeling a bit sorry for myself. For me, this isn’t about social anxiety or jealousy. It is about how I manage the information flood.


  • every minute spent on Facebook on my smartphone while standing in a room with people is a moment not spent talking to people standing with me
  • following comments and links of professional interest on Twitter limits the time I can spend doing the same on RSS feeds, Zite and
  • writing a blog post means fewer minutes reading that great book
  • catching up on email during a few unbusy moments means having fewer unbusy moments to reflect and see what’s happening around me

You get the idea. The point isn’t that these things are bad. The point is that it is getting more difficult to decide how to spend/not spend my time. I can’t escape the choices.

The choices aren’t new. They have always been with us. Now, we get to see opportunity cost up front. It isn’t so invisible. That is why so many people, self included, find the Social Media/Information Age a bit overwhelming and anxiety-inducing. I haven’t yet mastered the skill of disciplined focus. I haven’t yet mastered the skill of opportunity selection.

These are the skills we need to survive and succeed.

Getting Comfortable with Opportunity Cost

There is a particular kind of anxiety that can come with being Constantly Connected. Natalie Houston describes it well in her Prof Hacker post “Are You Missing Out?” in which Houston explores the anguish du jour: Fear of Missing Out.

I get it.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare, and Pinterest make us instantly aware of what our friends are doing right this moment. That’s kinda nice. The downside: being constantly aware of what my friend are doing becomes constant awareness of what I’m not doing. I’m not at the beach. I’m not at the concert. I’m not eating at the restaurant. More interesting than this petty jealousy is the resulting compulsion to share the trivia of my life so I can participate in the What I’m Doing machine.

Nothing wrong with this in doses. Unchecked, it can make a person neurotic.

Which brings me right around to something I’ve been wrestling with lately. With iPad, iPhone, iPod and social media, I have superhuman powers to communicate, participate and share with the entire world. Literally. I am more well-informed and better positioned to have real influence than ever before. Because of this reach, I am being stretched in more directions than ever before.

I can see for miles in every direction but can’t always seem to easily focus where my attention is most needed. Focus takes effort.

Focus, I think, will become the defining trait of personal and professional success in my years ahead. Time to start practicing the art of applied vision, truly seeing where I look. This is the principle of opportunity cost. Every accepted opportunity limits the ability to pursue another, different opportunity. Our reach is not infinite. I can’t do everything. Time to stop thinking so much about what I am going to do and start marking the harder, more rewarding choices about what I am going to intentionally miss out on.

More thoughts on Bergman’s “Two Lists”

I’ve spent the day thinking more about Bergman’s “Two Lists You Should Look at Every Day” post and realize I took the easy way out yesterday. The focus list of things I want to achieve is kind of a no-brainer. Of course, it helps to have a list of things that inspire me and carry me forward. That first list helps me better define my own understanding of success.

The second list is essential but far more difficult. Few people, Bergman claims, ever make the second list. The second list isn’t just a list of unpleasant or unimportant distractions to be avoided. The second list is hard because it may well contain things that are important, things that are worthwhile priorities, but which, I am consciously choosing to avoid.

What Bergman is talking about here is opportunity cost. For every opportunity I follow up on, I am trading the time and energy I might have made available for some other worthwhile opportunity. This isn’t an easy choice between things I like and things I don’t like. The second list involves guts. The second list involves disappointing people, letting things go, admitting my limits.

This second list strikes me as a very powerful idea. It actually scares me a little. I can’t quite get my head around it. I know I have a hundred things that belong on that second list but I don’t know how to start naming them.

Here is the generosity of Bergman’s suggestion: this isn’t a facile proclamation of what I want to do and what I don’t want to do. This is a public admission that, even if my talents were unlimited (they are not), my time and energy are finite. I can’t do everything I want to do or think I should do. I have to pick and choose.

The second list is about being mindful of one’s limits to avoid the trap of constant reaction. Our mobile, hyper-informed, web-laden lives are brimming with opportunity costs. Activities, projects and notions call for more than our attention. They call for our time. We cannot give them time without sacrificing time from somewhere else.

All of this brings me back to an idea I picked up a few weeks ago about reactionary workflow, the idea that our use of information technologies only make us more productive if we can harness them mindfully to accomplish specific things we wish to accomplish. Otherwise, we spend all our time reacting to other people’s agendas.

Success is spending time making the things you care most about. I’ve got to make these lists. I’m just not sure how to start.

Two Lists You Should Look at Every Morning by Peter Bergman

So, every now and then the universe throws a reminder flag and tells you to slow down and take a look. Today, that flag was “Two Lists You Should Look at Every Morning” by Peter Bergman.

Bergman reminds me that disciplined focus and mindfulness are more worth cultivating than simple information gathering and fast acting information reflexes.

There is skill in being able to define for yourself what kinds of activities are going to get your attention. How very much more powerful and useful to also be able to define for yourself what kinds of activities are not going to get your attention. It helps to call to mind the things that typically distract you and prepare yourself to move beyond those things.

I haven’t built my two lists yet. It does, however, call to mind my earlier post about the Stop Doing List, a mindfulness practice which I have not well-maintained.

Ah well. It’s a new week with new opportunities to do things differently or not do them differently.

The wisdom of not doing things, differently

I’m one of those people who enjoys New Year’s Eve. I like the whole self-reflection thing, and I’m a sucker for the idea that Things Are Going to Be Better Next Year. I’m pretty much made for the New Year’s experience. I love making lists and am constantly doing a mental self-inventory of things I might improve about myself.

Several of my friends are posting new years resolutions to Facebook. One has gone so far to post a pretty honest self-critique to Facebook in hopes of spurring personal change.

I think that’s great, but I don’t do New Year’s resolutions anymore. I don’t blame people who do. I just don’t. They don’t work for me. For me, it simply isn’t possible to intentionally create a new habit from force of will and start on January 1 to make it clean start date. I have never had success intentionally adding a new behavior to my catalog of habitual acts and/or modes of thought.

But I came across an idea that needs sharing. The idea is this: You aren’t a bad person. In fact, there’s a great deal about you that is pretty terrific. You have gifts, talents and abilities that people need, admire and respect. You have lots of habits that serve you well and carry you toward excellence.

If you aren’t as excellent as you believe you need to be, it probably isn’t because of something you aren’t doing. It is very possible that you are being hindered by something you are doing. It is much easier to stop doing something old than it is to start doing something brand new. So, instead of making a list of new things you are going to do to improve, make a list of things you intend to stop doing.

This isn’t a resolutions list. This isn’t a list of new behaviors to start. It is a list of old behaviors to stop. Stop doing those things that interfere with your basic excellence. Keep this list with you. Add to it. Consult it often. Ask people who care about you to help you remind yourself when you do something on your stop doing list. You will succeed. You will uncover more of the excellence that is already there.

A few items from my personal Stop Doing list:

  • Stop explaining yourself to others unless they ask for an explanation.
  • Stop being vague when being direct would serve someone better.
  • Stop avoiding unpleasant conversations.
  • Stop assuming that the current situation is the best possible situation.
  • Stop interrupting.

Feel free to tell me how I’m doing with any of these at any time.

Happy New Year.