When shortageleads to stress

When shortageleads to stress

You need to allot your tasks based on their salience and cognitive demands.

While preparing for your final exams, there are a host of other tasks that vie for your immediate attention. With three graduate school applications pending, two internship interviews to prepare for and an upcoming entrance exam, you are literally drowning in work. None of these tasks would have been daunting if you had adequate time. After all, you have a strong academic record. But right now, with the clock ticking like a bomb, every second matters. 

Going off-track

You end up botching one application by submitting the wrong essay and miss the deadline for another. While you are usually methodical, you find yourself growing slipshod. Even as you concentrate on your textbooks, other tasks get short shrift. Economist Sendhil Mullainathan and psychologist Eldar Shafir would argue that your behaviour reflects the constraints that scarcity imposes.

In their book, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, the authors assert that “scarcity of any kind” captures the mind “automatically, powerfully.” Be it poverty, hunger, loneliness or a severe time-crunch, a lack of money, food, companionship or time “imposes itself on our minds,” at both subconscious and deliberate levels. While the authors readily acknowledge that we cannot equate being poor with being pressed for time, both experiences create a “scarcity mindset.”  The authors argue that a paucity of any form affects our perceptions, decisions and actions.

Scarcity diminishes our insight, foresight and self-control, which leads us to make suboptimal choices that further aggravate our problems. In other words, scarcity self-perpetuates. In the short-term, a lack of time may make you more focused on completing your tasks; however, your intense focus also compels you to “tunnel.” While you zero in on a narrow set of goals, you are oblivious to everything “outside the tunnel.” So, in the run-up to your exams, you stop exercising, make unhealthy food choices and commit avoidable blunders.

As Mullainathan and Shafir illustrate, scarcity has cognitive costs. It diminishes our attention span, compromises our decision-making ability and weakens our self-control. We make more errors and chose poorly. The authors emphasise that it is not a person’s inherent failings but the “context of scarcity that makes us” act unwisely. In fact, when their fortunes improve, poor people exhibit enhanced performance on cognitive tasks.

One way to avert the scarcity trap is to build “slack” or create sufficient buffer so that we aren’t squeezed to the hilt. So, when it comes to planning your schedule, you might think it is most efficient to pack as many activities into a day to maximise your productivity. But a crammed schedule invites scarcity.

Most of us underestimate the amount of time we need for projects (this phenomenon is called “planning fallacy” by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky). As a result, when we have a choc-a-bloc day, we are bound to run behind schedule. And, if the next day has also been programmed back to back, we are only going to fall further behind. So, Mullainathan and Shafir advise us to leave “spaces open” in our planners.

The authors also emphasise that when we timetable our days, we should not only account for the time available but also factor in the cognitive load a task involves. Completing a graduate school application that requires you to mull over ponderous questions after an arduous day of studying may not be the most advisable. Fatigued and drowsy, you are probably not at your sharpest by nightfall. Thus, you need to allot your tasks based on their salience and cognitive demands. Perhaps, if you had devoted a few hours in the morning to your applications, you could have avoided erring on them.

Your student years are probably a good time for you to start planning your usage of scarce resources like time and money. Don’t fritter them when they seem abundant. Instead, by making judicious choices in times of relative plenitude, you may minimise the likelihood of falling into the “scarcity trap.”  

(The author is Director, PRAYATNA)