Why a Feeling of Scarcity Isn’t Good For You (And What You Can Do About It)
No doubt it’s something we’re all familiar with: That feeling like you don’t have enough money, whether that means enough to pay your bills or fearing you won’t have enough to live comfortably in retirement, or that you have to make choices based on what you want rather than what you need.
Or like you don’t have enough free time—time to spend with your family or do the things that are important to you. And of course, if you don’t have enough money or time, you probably feel a lack of energy too. In fact, worrying about money and time can zap your energy (if energy wasn’t already an issue).
According to Sendhil Mallainathan and Eldar Shafir, the authors of the book Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How it Defines Our Lives, there’s a Catch 22 effect happening here. When you feel like time, money or energy is scarce, it actually makes matters worse. For example:
- It uses up your mental “bandwidth.” We have limited mental energy. If we feel like we’re lacking in something important—especially when we’re talking about our three most important resources—we’re so focused on trying to fix it, it can drain our mental and physical batteries, and leave little for anything else.
- It leads to poor decisions because scarcity forces all the choices. We make our best decisions when we’re alert, focused and unstressed. So if you’re already feeling pressured and focused on a lack of money or time, you won’t have the brainpower you need to really assess your choices. For example, if a low-paying job or hard-to-work-with client comes your way, you might feel forced to take it just to fix your financial situation. Or you may have to say no to an event that’s important to you because too many other things are competing for your time.
- You’re not likely plan, which is important to success. No matter what your situation is, looking at that situation in black and white, figuring out where the problem lies and creating a plan is the first step to fixing it. But when we feel like we have to make quick decisions to try to stay afloat, we don’t take time to plan, the authors found. We feel like there’s not enough time to take time out to plan. Or we may feel that planning won’t do us any good anyway if every dollar and bit of time and energy is needed just to get by.
- It causes more stress. And that can affect your physical health as well.
That’s where the Catch 22 comes in: If you feel like time, energy or money are scarce for you, it leads to more scarcity. To break the cycle, it’s important to feel like you have enough, so you’re not tunnel-visioned or stressed. The best way to do that, according to Shafir and Mullainathan is to take small steps to build in some “slack.”
Which means you need to stop and plan. And get more purposeful with how you spend your money, energy and time. And wherever possible, to build in a little bit more of each resource to feel comfortable.
For example, with money, try to find a way to build your emergency fund a little bit at a time so you have some money slack. At the same, feeling gratitude for what you have can be a great antidote to feeling lack even as you build.
Or when it comes to your time, decide ahead what’s important so you can say no to the things that aren’t meaningful to you and say yes to the things that are. At the same time, schedule in some extra time between activities so you’re not feeling rushed in your day.
When it comes to your energy, try to get more purposeful and notice where your energy goes. The happiest and most successful people manage their energy the same way they do their money and time and everything else that’s important. Think about where you want to invest it and also where you don’t, so you can pre-emptively avoid the latter.
One way to feel more energy and time-abundant is to set your phone alarm to take 5-minute walks throughout your day (which studies show is healthy for you as well).
It’s really a matter of getting purposeful, and actively working on building in that slack so you can feel more abundant. Because the same way feeling scarcity leads to more scarcity, feeling abundant can lead to more abundance. How? You’re more ready for the day, more alert and focused on what’s meaningful and important. And that can lead to your best decisions.