Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Opportunity cost

(This is kind of embarrassing to admit, but... well, you learn from your mistakes, right?)

When Captain Midnight and I were first married, I wasn't a bad cook, but I'd not yet graduated to the level of Black Belt Scratch Cooking. I needed some sort of recipe in mind before I could plan out what we were going to have for dinner. Usually I'd take stock of the fridge and pantry and start planning out recipes I knew I could make, based on what I'd found. But I had this daft little absent-minded habit that tended to throw a monkey wrench in my plans. Let's see if I can illustrate it using a can of tomatoes.

So I have this lovely can of tomatoes from Trader Joe's. I could use it to make a sauce for homemade lasagne, so that goes on the list of potential meals. It's also a component of beans and rice, so that goes on the list. Homemade chili; that goes on the list. Roasted tomato soup; on the list it goes. And so on until I've come up with twenty meals or so, all based around that one can of tomatoes.

That one single, solitary can of tomatoes.

You can probably see where I'm going with this. I was operating from a culinary blind spot. The one can of tomatoes couldn't stretch to make all 20 meals on the list -- it couldn't even stretch to make two meals on the list. If I really wanted to make all those recipes, I'd have to go out and buy a lot more tomatoes -- because once I chose to make a single meal from the list, the one and only can of tomatoes in my pantry would be used up. (And that's taking only one ingredient into consideration.)

The economic term for this concept is opportunity cost. Here's my non-economist way of summing it up: when you decide to spend a specific sum of money to buy a particular good or service, whether you realize it or not, you simultaneously give up the next best thing you could have chosen to do with that money instead. So if you have five dollars, you can choose to buy four dollar-store items (assuming tax), or five bucks' worth of gumballs, or a few cans of premium dog food, or some sodas, or a bus ticket around town, or you can be crazy and eat it (watch out for paper cuts!) -- but when you choose to buy or do one of these things, you give up the option to do something else with that money. If you're into quantum mechanics, you could think of the decision-making process as creating a kind of wave function collapse. (And if you aren't into quantum mechanics, feel free to ignore what I just wrote; I'm not qualified to give a more coherent explanation.)

This idea might sound simple, but it's also profound -- and it applies to much more in life than you'd think. Although opportunity cost is most often used with regard to money, it also affects anything else that's commonly consumed when it's put to use, such as my can of tomatoes. What I've come to realize more fully as of late is that opportunity cost can be applied to the passage of time. (Yeah, I know, sometimes I'm a little slow on the uptake. Just bear with me.)

I'm really good at procrastinating, for a number of reasons. Most days I prefer goofing off to working. Procrastinating instead of writing means I don't have to run the risk of getting my stories rejected again. Procrastinating instead of doing dishes means I get to ignore the dishes for a while. And so on and so forth. But every time I choose to procrastinate, to fiddle-fart around, daydream, play another round of Wordament or mindlessly tweak social media sites, rather than writing stories or running necessary errands or getting other things done that need to be addressed, I'm incurring an opportunity cost -- one far higher than the cost associated with the can of tomatoes or a $5 bill or any other example that comes to mind. When I procrastinate, I'm burning through one of the most precious things mortals possess -- moments of life -- with little or nothing to show for it. And unlike the other examples I've mentioned, I can't just go out and earn a few more hours of life if I feel like I'm running short. I'm not immortal (as far as I know, anyway), which means I've got limited time to burn. And I don't know how limited that time is, since I can't check my life balance the way I can check my bank balance. For all I know, I could live another 30 years -- or I could get run over by a bus tonight.

So there's something to think about.

Also, it's time to get writing. And to continue ignoring the dishes. (Yay!)

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