How scarcity can lead to bad decision making

I’m going to tell you a story about not having enough time. But there’s a catch. As you read it, I want you to simultaneously remember an 8-digit number: 53965921. You got that?

We’ll start with the story of Katie. A driven and successful medical resident – working 80 hour weeks – typical for the early days of doctor’s career.

(Just checking in on 53965921, still got it?)

Katie loves her work. But there was a catch. Between her patient check-ins, lunch seminars, and new admissions – Katie was always jumping from activity to activity. And as result she felt like she never had enough time.

Katie was experiencing an intense episode of time scarcity.

(53965921. Still good?)

This lack of free time led her to tunnel vision. An unwavering (and subconscious) focus on what was truly lacking in her life: Free time.

(Hey, what was that 8-digit number again?)

Consequently, Katie began to act in ways that were detrimental to her career. Ways that were detrimental to her health.

So let’s go back to that 8-digit number. Wasn’t it hard to read this post while keeping the number in your head? It turns out that when our brains become hyper-focused on a specific thing, we develop tunnel vision. And everything else falls to the wayside.

That’s exactly what happened with Katie and her residency-induced time scarcity. In NPR’s Hidden Brain episode titled The Scarcity Trap: Why we keep digging when we’re stuck in a hole, host Shankar Vedantam plays out Katie’s time scarcity story.

It started with exercise. Not knowing when she’d have her next break, Katie tried to cram in more exercise by “walking outside or going to the gym up to 3 hours a day.” Using that same subconscious reasoning, Katie would read more at night, continuing a pattern of only focusing “on things that would make her better at work.”

But things started to crack. She forgot to pay her electricity bill. She stopped going to the grocery store (subsiding on fruits, vegetables “and maybe a cliff bar here and there.”)

And Katie started missing things at work. Big things with “fatal consequences.” Like not giving insulin to a diabetic patient. Here’s Vendatam on how Katie’s life quickly spiraled out of control:

In two months of the residency program, Katie’s body and mind had withered. Things had gotten so bad, she had to go to a residential treatment center. Katie struggled with two things. Her body was desperately in need of nutrition. Katie’s mind was filled with angry and impatient thoughts. She had to find a way to stop the intrusive thoughts that were consuming her.

The Hidden Brain episode demonstrates the pernicious downstream effects of scarcity thinking. There’s the mother living in poverty who can only focus on keeping her fridge full; then doesn’t leave enough funds for her monthly gas expenses. Or how a lonely individual can only focus on “the friends they do not have” and become so preoccupied with being liked. But instead they come across as awkward – losing friends and reinforcing their cycle of loneliness.

The anti-dote to Katie’s time scarcity involved a professional intervention. While it may seem laughable, readers of this blog will find the remedy eerily familiar and challenging. Katie had to:

  • Physically sit with her thoughts and do nothing. (“[We weren’t] allowed to do jumping jacks or squats. We had to just sit.” No podcasts either.)
  • Pursue activities that “wouldn’t help her become a better doctor”
  • Schedule a “date night with herself” where she gave herself permission to do “whatever she felt like”

The end result? The less consumed Katie felt about work, the better she performed at work. But more importantly, she experienced a “really huge improvement in [her] ability to enjoy being in the company of others.” And to enjoy life itself.

Now what was that 8-digit number?

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