Thursday, October 4, 2007

103. Consider true cost of your decisions

In business, the idea of opportunity costs is fairly simple. Businesses will attempt to maximize profits by choosing the product it manufactures in relation to every other product it could produce. For example, companies may realize they can produce, with similar costs, either 100 units of product A or 150 units of profit B. Or, of course, it could produce 50 units of product A and 100 units of product B. Regardless, through decision modeling, companies will decide what to produce to maximize profits at the expense of everything else it could produce.

The concept is not often applied to life, though it is just as applicable. Although I have previously commented to this fact, it warrants another look.

I have a friend who cleans stuff- obsessively. He washes his car, garage, driveway, and windows on a weekly basis. Rarely does a weekend pass when he is not out cleaning something. It is obvious that not only does he takes exceptional care of his things, but that he also makes me look so bad in the process. I am sure his wife has a lot of jealous neighbors.

The thing is, however, is that even if I had time to attend to my possessions in such a manner, I would not. It is not that I do not appreciate well-cared for things; rather it is the idea of opportunity cost. No matter how much time I had, I would not spend my free time cleaning at the expense of everything else I could possibly be doing. It is not that I do not value cleaning stuff, and in fact I do it when it becomes a necessity. It is, however, the idea that I could be doing something else that prohibits me from such a weekly undertaking.

I am not suggesting that he is wasting his time, because it is his time to value and proportion as he sees fit. But he could be, for example, serving on a non-profit board, reading a good book, taking his dog for a walk, visiting his family, taking a class or playing softball. The possibilities are seemingly endless, except for, perhaps, financial constraints. Obviously, traveling to Europe every weekend is not affordable for most people, and thus not a true opportunity costs.

I will suggest however, that people do not often consider everything they do as a matter of opportunity costs. We tend to get stuck in ruts, doing what we are accustomed to doing rather than considering the innumerable options that are available. I would wager, for example, if my friend would consider everything else he is giving up washing his car each weekend, he would, occasionally, make a different decision. That is not to say that I could not be wrong, maybe he would choose washing his car over every other option. But I know that most of us tend to like routine; we operate best when we are not constantly considering everything we are doing at the expense of every other thing we could be doing.

Besides the decision-making burden in considering opportunity costs, people tend to stay within their comfort zone. For example, I have known a few people who take essentially the same vacation every year. Often they even take it the same week of every year. Again, I wondered if they consciously considered every other vacation they could take, at every other time of the year, and decided that, again, this is the vacation for them.

One of the problems with the consideration of opportunity costs is that it could be quite time-consuming and cumbersome to consider every other possibility. Imagine if every weekend we awoke to seriously consider everything we could be doing. The guilt alone might be overwhelming; for example, should I visit my mom, play with my dogs, visit people in a nursing home, feed the homeless, or volunteer at a non-profit organization. It could become difficult to rationale between my personal desires and needs, and the goodwill I could share. Yet, this decision is real.

For each of us, this consideration will be different. For the stressed, it might be a relaxing walk in the park, a good book, a romantic movie or an exciting ball game. For the fortunate, it might be time at a homeless shelter, visiting a nursing home or contributing to a philanthropic organization. For the overworked, it might be time with the family or having lunch with an old friend. For the unhealthy, it might be time at the gym, taking a bike ride or playing tennis. There is a multitude of variables that would influence the opportunity cost of any day or time.

In my opinion, the issue deserves balance. We have to consider our familial responsibilities and obligations, personal desires and potential, and the prospect for altruism. Life can be overwhelming, and often we have a never-ending "to do" list that manages our free time. And, certainly, it would be difficult to argue against those interests that serve one's family. However, I think most of us should, at least from time to time, consider the opportunity costs of our routines. The consideration of opportunity costs may bring to life many new ideas and experiences. Routines have their place, but they can be dangerous. They can remove years from your lives, leaving you to consider...what could have been.