I frequently bring with me a pocket-sized notebook, a green, 9-by-14-centimeter Moleskine Volant to be precise, in which I scribble ideas and thoughts. I bought a pair of these notebooks in the New York Public Library Shop back in October 2013. The first words I wrote date back to October 16, 2014—around eighteen months ago. The small page size forces me to scribble smaller than I typically would and requires me to carefully note down my thoughts, so that I don’t waste the scarce amount of space available on each page. In other words, the scarcity of the paper influences how I use my notebook.
Scarcity is “having less than you feel you need,” say Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in their book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much1. “Scarcity captures the mind. It changes how we think. It imposes itself on our minds. […] The word capture here is essential: this happens unavoidably and beyond our control. Scarcity allows us to do something we could not do easily on our own.” Think, for a moment, about how much time, food, money, or even physical space is available to you. Depending on your personal situation, you are likely experiencing either scarcity or abundance for each of these resources. And this changes the way you act. For example, when it comes to food, people tend to consume food more sparingly when their fridge and cupboard are almost empty, but don’t feel the need to be so careful when they have plenty of food. Someone might ration a hamburger over many meals, or consume it absent-mindedly as a snack before dinner.
According to Sendhil and Shafir’s research, scarcity makes our mind “tunnel” in resources that are scarce to us. For instance, an impending deadline might instigate us to leave otherwise important matters aside, until urgent tasks are completed. “Sometimes when we tunnel, we neglect other things completely. When we are busy with a pressing project, we skimp on time with our family, put off getting our finances in order, or defer a regular medical checkup.” On the other hand, “slack”—or having more than we feel we need—makes us diminish abundant resources. “The more you have, the less each additional item is worth to you. […] The result, of course, is inefficiency and waste. When we have plenty of time, we loll around, and time evaporates. Minutes here and there add up to hours frittered away.” Scarcity and abundance capture our mind due to numerous resources, influencing the way we use them. This translates into the sparing use of scarce resources and the careless use of abundant ones. And even though our mind won’t behave the same way for primary needs than for other resources, there are some commonalities for how scarcity and abundance capture our mind.
To understand how scarcity (or a lack thereof) captures our mind, we can look at both physical and digital storage. Physical storage space in our homes is finite. And when we run out of it—when storage space is scarce—scarcity captures our mind and triggers the question: what should I keep and what should I let go? But the digital world is shifting this paradigm. Not long ago, books would pile in bookshelves around the house, photo albums would be limited to a certain amount of pictures, and some of us were lucky enough to store information on 1.44MB floppy disks. But today we enjoy unlimited storage on the cloud. For instance, services like Dropbox offer 2GB for free or a $99-a-year 1TB plan (that’s 1000GB) to keep your files online, and Flickr provides 1TB for free to their users. And let’s not forget Amazon CloudDrive, Google Drive, iCloud, or OneDrive, each with their own service agreements.
These online data storage services are invaluable for storing and backing-up large amounts of data, but at the same time they create slack in our minds. They create an illusion that we don’t need to be organized. If I have unlimited storage space, you think, I don’t need to get rid of anything. You could just pile it all in there, and this mindset is evident in our behavior: Online, it is common practice to duplicate and store a copy of the same file in multiple locations, so it is accessible from different devices and services. Almost everyone does this. But how many people would keep a copy of the same book in every room of their house? Very few, if any.
Furthermore, new ways of browsing and sorting files remove the need to keep them organized. For instance, apps in our phone can be located using the search field, and photo apps organize our pictures by date, location, and even faces, removing the need to manually organize albums at all. Some services, like Apple iCloud, embed scarcity into their system by providing users with a limited free online storage, creating the need to pay for more space in order to continue storing files over the free storage limit, otherwise, requiring users to clean up their phone memory for continued free usage. (This is essentially the digital equivalent to renting physical storage space. When we accumulate more than we can store, we need to either get rid of stuff or borrow more space.) And the system works: we all feel comfortable with extra slack—with not having to carefully think about every decision we make regarding keeping or letting go something we own.
In this culture of “slack as a service” it isn’t until resources are scarce to us that we take action. Unless we are willing to pay for slack (i.e. credit card fees, cloud storage subscriptions, etc.) it isn’t until our smartphone runs out of space that we decide to clean up content, just like it isn’t until we run out of time that we drum up our focus to meet the deadline; until we are out of money that we spend wisely; or until we run out of storage that we start getting rid of stuff. By removing the need to organize, filter, and be selective, slack makes us inefficient.
An alternative to slack is to embrace scarcity. Scarcity urges us to optimize, to arrange, to be selective. It means being frugal with money, mindful with time, selective with space.
Having more—or less—available to us influences the way we use our resources. The relative size of a paper sheet is similar to how much food you put in your cupboard, how much money you allocate for a trip, how much time you give a task, and how much space you designate to store your belongings. In the case of my notebook, its size informs me on how to use the resource at stake: paper. If its pages are small, the paper is scarcer and I am more selective on what to write. The same way my pocket-sized notebook helps me to make the most out of every square millimeter of paper, a tiny backpack helps me to travel with only the essentials, and a tight budget helps me to cut out less important expenses.
This is why I choose to embrace scarcity: to self-impose limits to myself (in terms of money, space, time, or even paper) in order to waste less, to be more efficient, and use my resources wisely. If you want to live more efficiently, be mindful of slack and scarcity in your life.