Most people have heard the word economics before, but there’s a good chance they only have a vague idea what it means … or, if they did know in some dusty old class, they don’t remember it now.
Economics is a field that covers many things, but if you were going to try to reduce it to one word, you might use this one:
Every day you make choices: about what to buy, about what to do, about where to go. But economics is just as interested in what you don’t do: that car you didn’t buy, that vacation time you didn’t take, that book you didn’t write, that weight you didn’t lose. The things we don’t do are actually really important, because every time we choose not to do something, we substitute something else in its place. After all, if we don’t go on vacation, we still have to be somewhere, even if that’s on our couch in front of Netflix.
The problem is, we have a limited amount of … well, everything. That means that we have to make choices, because our reserves aren’t infinite. As a result, there are always going to be things we would like to do (or, at least, sort of like to do), but we don’t.
Why? What gets in the way?
Most, if not all, of our limits come from three areas.
A person who lives to be 80 years old has, give or take, approximately 29,200 days, 700,800 hours, 42,048,000 minutes, or 2,522,880,000 seconds. Whether that sounds like a little or a lot to you, the fact is that it’s limited. Whether you live to be 40, 80, or 120, you have a limited amount of time to work with.
Some of that time needs to be spent on things. You need to spend enough time on sleep. (Seriously.) You need to eat. You need to take care of bodily functions. Those are non-negotiables, and if you don’t spend time on them, you’re going to shorten, maybe drastically, the amount of time you spend on this earth.
It’s all the rest of the time we have that is a real challenge: work, play, family. We have to figure out, between our needs and wants, what job(s) we need and / or want, including the amount of hours we have to spend (or can spend, depending on our situation) doing that job. We have to figure out what work needs to be done outside of our paid job, whether it be dishes or grocery shopping. We have to figure out what we will do in our leisure time. And we have to decide how much time we will spend with family, and what that time will consist of.
The brutal truth is that, no matter what some famous writers will claim, you can’t have it all. There just isn’t enough time. You have to make choices with your time, and when you choose one thing, you automatically crowd out other things. As I write these words right now, I’m writing them at the expense of any number of things I could be doing instead. That’s just life.
People, of course, try to cheat, but it doesn’t work as well as we think, and it can, in fact, backfire. For example, people try to multitask. Except we can’t. It’s not possible, no matter what we think.
Or people try to cut corners on things they think are a “waste of time,” and sometimes they are. But they might not be: if you decide sleep is a waste of time, you may not only make yourself less productive, but you can open yourself up to health issues.
Instead, you have to accept the reality that time is limited, and you have to prioritize your time the best that you can, knowing that some things simply aren’t going to happen.
Money is a limited resource, too. No one has infinite financial resources. There are some really crazy-rich people who have more money than they probably know what to do with, but that doesn’t make them infinite. They still have limits. They can’t, for example, come anywhere close to solving every problem on the planet.
For the rest of us, our limits are bigger. Most of us can’t vacation all the time because we don’t have enough money (and / or because we have to work to make money, which takes time). Most of us can’t buy everything we want for the same reason. Most of us can’t pursue every dream or hobby we want … for the same reason.
For most people, there are ways to generate more money, but they come at the expense of other things, including time.
As with time, people try to cheat with money, although success can be mixed. (I’m talking about shortcuts and hacks, not outright fraud.) Saving money can take time, especially if it involves a lot of research or preparation. If you cut corners and buy something really cheap—or try to DIY a project better left to professionals—it could break down and end up costing you more in the long term. And so-called “get rich quick” schemes almost always fail, costing you not only time but the money you put into them in the first place.
Just like with time, you have to accept the reality that you have limited funds, and you have to prioritize your money the best way that you can.
Most people probably are aware of time and money, but have you ever thought about energy? By energy, I mean whatever it takes out of you, physically or mentally, to get something done. Pretty much everything requires some energy, and some things require more energy than others.
We all have limited energy. We can only physically do so much. We can only mentally make so many decisions.
Just as with time and money, some people try to cheat with energy. Sometimes those cheats work, and sometimes they don’t. Caffeine, for example, is a common cheat, but it has its drawbacks to health and potentially to the pocketbook. Cheats that let us burn fewer calories can cause health issues, too. Shortcuts that allow us to do work with less energy, like home appliances, are great, but they also cost money to purchase and to maintain.
What’s astonishing is how easy it is to waste that energy. How many times have you gotten into a disagreement that didn’t matter? How many times have you put a ton of effort into something that you knew, even then, was not going to be worth it? On the other hand, how many times have you passed on doing something, or even starting something, because you didn’t feel like you had the energy to? Did you regret it? If you did, then what can you do about it?
I’ve had people, for example, lament that they never wrote that book they always wanted to write. I know why they didn’t write it, and so do they: writing a book is hard. It takes time and it takes enormous mental energy. (I’ve written a few of my own, so I can speak to this.)
Energy, like time and money, is limited. We have to prioritize how much energy, both physical and mental, that we spend each day, knowing that some things just aren’t going to happen.
So, what about you? Which limit is the biggest challenge for you right now?