Every choice we make has an opportunity cost.

That simple idea, first explained to me by my son, has had a lasting impact. It doesn’t always mean that I make the wisest choice in the moment, but I certainly have made some more thoughtful choices as a result.

What is opportunity cost?

Every choice we make has an opportunity cost. Every time we do or choose something, we are not doing and not choosing many other things. Whatever we opt not to do or choose that has the highest value for us is our opportunity cost. The idea goes far in helping us to explain why we often do what we do, and perhaps how we can change our decision so as to be happier and more satisfied, both in the short and long terms. To use a simple example, yesterday morning my husband and I had to decide whether to take our morning walk. Usually, it is not a conscious choice: We try to walk in our neighborhood every morning at the same time, after coffee and before beginning our work days. It is part of our routine. Yesterday, however, brought clouds and a steady rain. We enjoyed one cup of coffee while looking out at the puddles, then had a second cup while deciding what to do. In the end, we chose not to walk, at least not until later in the day. Here’s how opportunity cost fits into our decision. The prospect of getting wet and having to navigate slippery sidewalks lowered the value of our walk for us, so that the next best choice—getting on with our day—gained value in comparison. Without the rain, the value of the walk trumps an early start to our work. With the rain, we got more out of skipping the walk.

Opportunity Cost Is Relative

It’s easy to see that opportunity cost differs from person to person, and it can vary for the same person, depending upon circumstances and priorities. We aren’t the kind of people who pride ourselves on braving the elements no matter what. If we were, we would get more value from walking in the rain than not. Or, if we were on a tight deadline, we might skip the walk even on a sunny day in lieu of writing because the walk loses to the value of work. If daily walking was part of physical therapy or some other medical need, the opportunity cost would not be high enough for us not to walk. Finally, if we loved walking in the rain (which my husband does more than I do) or were on vacation where we had few opportunities to see the sights, we may have chosen differently. Thank goodness we usually don’t think through opportunity costs during our day in such detail! Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, reminds us that we can take thinking about opportunity costs too far: “I can become paralyzed if I think that way too much… if you try to preserve every opportunity, you can’t move forward.” However, because we often act out of habit, it is good to step back and think once in awhile about the opportunity costs of some of our more routine choices.

The Example of Facebook

Recently I’ve been very aware of the opportunity cost of checking Facebook with the same frequency I check my email. I admit that I do check my email quite often, primarily because, as a freelance indexer, I never know when I will get queries that are in my best interest to respond to sooner rather than later. I know for a fact that I’ve landed jobs mainly because I was one of the first to reply to an email sent to several potential indexers. Also, during the school year, I want to check email more than once or twice a day to be sure to catch time-sensitive questions from students. Checking email frequently doesn’t pose a problem for me now (although it has been in the past), because I don’t get sucked into it. Especially if I use my phone, I quickly know if there is a message that needs my attention. If not, that’s the end.

Unless I proceed to Facebook.

Facebook is an entirely different story. We all know the experience of checking Facebook just to see if someone has done something interesting or has commented on something we posted or—let’s be honest—to make sure we’re not missing out on something. Before we know it, 15 minutes or half an hour later, we’re still there, because as soon as we’ve looked at one set of pictures or clicked through to an interesting link, we can refresh and start the whole process from the top of the newsfeed again. This isn’t meant to be a guilt trip (I am writing from experience, after all). There is nothing inherently wrong with spending time on social media, and there are some aspects of Facebook I relish, but we are wise to think occasionally about the opportunity cost. If Facebook isn’t your thing, substitute email or whatever social media site or online game you are drawn to more than you’d like. What are we not doing when we are engaging in that space? What happens when we weigh the opportunity cost, especially in the long-term, against re-reading newsfeeds we’ve already seen or clicking through to yet another “You won’t believe this!” headline?

It Comes Down to Priorities

One of my goals for this series is to explore exactly what we mean by getting serious about our writing. It all comes down to priorities and commitment. If we take our creative life seriously (because of the meaning and satisfaction we know it can bring), the opportunity cost when we are doing something else instead is high, higher than it would be if we weren’t as serious. (And keep in mind that being serious does not preclude having fun.) I will admit I struggle with Facebook. After a recent nearly three-week trip to London, I was in a good habit of checking Facebook only a couple of times a day, morning and evening, which was definitely enough time to catch up with friends’ lives and bookmark interesting links. That continues to be my stated strategy, as often as I might fail. These tips have helped:

  • Removing the Facebook app from my phone
  • Removing Facebook from my laptop bookmarks bar
  • Using the messenger app so that I don’t have to check the site itself for inbox messages
  • Signing out completely after each session (the pause afforded by having to type in my log in credentials is enough time to remind me not to—see the important Viktor Frankl quotation below shared by Jane Friedman)

Today’s question:

How do you handle the lure of social media versus the need to write? What is the line between social media’s usefulness and its high opportunity cost?

See also