Have you ever been rushing out of the house and forgotten where you put your keys even though you had them in your hand literally two seconds ago? Feel like you’re going insane? Losing your memory?
Don’t worry. It’s not you! It’s scarcity—wreaking havoc on your brain.
Scarcity has been described as a series of behaviors that predictably arise when a person has the perception of being in short supply of a resource (i.e. time, money, companionship). Harvard’s Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton’s Eldar Shafir have pioneered this field of research, resulting in their recent book, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. Here at engagedIN, we wrestle with how to help people overcome scarcity all of the time as we design for behavior change. Here are a few insights we find helpful:
First, some neuro-jargon describing what scarcity does:
In scarcity mode, the brain’s attention to an immediate problem overloads its bandwidth leaving no cognitive bandwidth for executive control functions, which, if chronic, leads to long-term harmful effects.
Importantly, scarcity causes involuntarily fixation on a specific scenario thereby crippling our focus on anything else. In fact, scarcity may be present in some of the most vexing health and life quality issues such as lack of productivity, loneliness, poverty, education dropout, and obesity, just to name a few. The common mental experience across all of these issues is that people feel “stuck”—the mind understandably cycling in a state of scarcity. We see this in long-term outcomes: people in poverty have a statistically high probability of staying in poverty, people that are lonely have difficulty making friends, and people that are late, well… when they get here we can ask them!
But, simply identifying scarcity can be empowering—and helps us appreciate that the same cognitive condition that can cause us to lose our keys also may be operating in other life problems. Knowing about and recognizing scarcity can also offer us a way out.
Here are some ways to design our way out of the scarcity state of mind that we all can experience:
 GO FOR SHORT-TERM IMPROVEMENTS
Scarcity causes a preoccupation with the resource that’s in short supply; which leads our brain to obsess on solutions to the scarcity. The positive news is that, in the short-term, this focus can increase productivity, creativity, and resourcefulness that can be channeled for our good.
TIP: DESIGN FOR DEADLINES
Setting a deadline can make use of our increased focus while in scarcity. Deadlines create a sense of urgency while driving cognitive capacity toward solving the problem, thereby increasing productivity.
 COMBAT TUNNELING 4,5
A brain in scarcity mode generates “tunnel vision” on the scarce resource—causing things outside of the tunnel to fall by the wayside. The brain then has no room for difficult mental tasks such as long-term planning, impulse control, or working memory.
Let’s jump back to our forgetting the keys example. When you are rushing out of the house, your mind in scarcity mode around lack of time, you are “tunneling” on getting everything you need to do in order to leave. When you place your keys down, your brain is so busy thinking about the next thing you have to do; there is no mental capacity to remember (working memory) that you put your keys on the kitchen table.
TIP: DESIGN TO GRAB YOUR OWN ATTENTION!
Design a trigger that can pull your attention away from the tunnel. In the lost keys example, a simple trick is to ask another person aloud, “Remind me I put my keys on the table.” This trigger works because it stops the fast-brain from rushing into the next agenda item and forces your brain to focus on “keys + table”. You may not even need your trigger person to remind you!
 ALLEVIATE BANDWIDTH 4,5
Much of the negative impact of scarcity is caused by the lack of mental bandwidth.
To illustrate, let’s look at why an employee, maybe named David, could be missing deadlines but working the exact same hours as everyone else—by falling into a scarcity trap. David has a big deadline due at the end of the week so he goes into scarcity mode and moves all of his meetings into next week. When next week arrives, David now has a schedule twice as packed with catch-up meetings and his regular schedule. Any added meetings now feel like “shocks” to his overloaded system, further throwing him into scarcity. Short-term patchwork solutions start to appear—fifteen minutes on a topic that really needs an hour, presentations thrown together last minute that needed more time. Sound familiar? We’ve all done it! David has borrowed time because he is in this week’s tunnel.
This happens to otherwise smart, logical people all of the time. Scarcity temporarily maxes out their bandwidth and prevents them from calculating (an executive control function) anything that falls out of the tunnel— like the impact on next week’s schedule.2 In the short-term, moving meetings seems like an immediate fix. But being in the tunnel creates a blind spot—with the consequences rushing into view once it is too late.
The tragedy of this is that scarcity creates more scarcity, keeping us stuck in a cycle.
TIP: DESIGN TO CREATE SLACK
Executives who are successful time managers wisely design for “slack” in their plans. They leverage their executive assistants to remove the cognitive bandwidth of scheduling, coordinating, and much more off their plate. What about the average worker who does not have the luxury of an assistant? Anyone can design for slack by inserting a free block of time into his or her day, reserved only for that inevitable meeting or event that lands on the calendar.
NOTE: Simply adding more hours and working overtime in the long-term may actually lead to decreased productivity.1 People only have a set amount of mental bandwidth per day.2 Therefore, increasing hours worked does not always increase productive hours.
Along these same lines, each of us can design slack into our day— moments of pause before action, extra room in a budget for unforeseen spending, or budgeting downtime in your day for when things go wrong. The key to designing slack is using little moments of abundance as a counter for when time or other resources are in lower supply—so you can outsmart your brain and avoid scarcity traps.
May you apply this newfound design lens of overcoming scarcity and compassionately design a better life!
- Caruso, Claire C. (2006) Possible Broad Impacts of Long Work Hours. Industrial Health Vol 44 No. 4 P 531-536. DOI: http://doi.org/10.2486/indhealth.44.531
- Kahneman, Daniel (25 October 2011).Thinking, Fast and Slow. Macmillan.
- Lavie, N., Hirst, A., de Fockert, J. W., & Viding, E. (2004). Load theory of selective attention and cognitive control. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 133, 339–354.
- Mullainathan, Sendhil, and Eldar Shafir. (2014) Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means so Much. New York: Picador, Henry Holt, Print.
- Shah, A. K., Mullainathan, S., & Shafir, E. (2012). Some consequences of having too little. Science, 338(6107), 682-685.