Every once in a while, a nugget of wisdom hits you like a good punch in the face.
Last term, I took Introduction to Microeconomics at the University of Waterloo. My “punch in the face” was the concept of tradeoffs. It happened during the very first class when, truth be told, far too much of my energy was concentrated on trying not to think about my conspicuousness as the only old guy among 249 first-year students.
It’s quite a simple notion: “A tradeoff is an exchange – giving up one thing to get something else.” *
The emphasis in the class, of course, was on financial tradeoffs. It’s rarely a highly calculated decision – but because you only have a certain amount of money available to spend, every time you choose (for example) to fork out $10.00 to see a movie at the cinema, you forgo the next best alternative. The next best alternative will be different for each person: For you, it might be renting two movies for $5.00 each or buying five coffees at Starbucks for $2.00 each.
What really made an impact on me, however, was the application of this principle to the way I choose to “spend” my time and energy. Lately, in spite of all my reading about time-management and focus, keeping this tradeoff concept in mind is what has enabled me to remain focused on my long-term goals.
You see, in January 2010, I embarked on a long and gruelling journey. While holding down a busy full-time job at the University of Waterloo and spending as much time as possible with my wife and three kids, I began the three-year process of obtaining my CMA accounting designation.
This would be an enormous undertaking at the best of times. But on top of it, we’ve had to deal with no less than seven significant crises since I began my courses – everything from Tracy’s grandmother being diagnosed with cancer in March to the week-long hospitalization of my daughter in April.
Because of all this craziness, I’ve been reminded every day that we only have a limited amount of time and energy available. Life is all about making choices – tough choices – and every decision we make involves a tradeoff of some kind.
When I’m sitting at my desk staring at my statistics textbook, my mind often wanders. I can’t help but think about all the other things I could be doing: spending time with my family; writing a blog; visiting my grandmother who fell and broke her arm last month; sleeping; etc.
I have to make a conscious effort to rein in my thoughts as they meander through everything that’s important to me in that moment – all possible uses of my time, and all good things in their own right. To my surprise, the idea that most often stops me in my tracks and allows me to refocus is this tradeoff concept.
I have already made a big investment of time and money in this new direction for my life. So even though the last thing I may actually feel like doing is wrapping my mind around the mysteries of probability and statistics, I am usually able to put the whole situation into perspective by simply recalling the reasons why I pursued this direction in the first place. By deciding to focus on my studies, I make a tradeoff: I give up spending time on something I would like to do today for the benefits of having my CMA designation in the future.
I know I’m not the only person who is busy. So I’m curious: What types of thought patterns or techniques enable you to stay focused on your goals, even when you’re tempted to do something else?
* Michael Parkin and Robin Bade, Microeconomics: Canada in the Global Environment, 7th ed., Pearson Education Canada, 2010: p. 8
Cross-posted to My Healthy Future.