What is the Opportunity Cost of Your Time?

Opportunity cost is the value you give up by making a choice. Every moment of your life has an opportunity cost. What you decide to do with that moment is a choice. Every moment offers other choices that can create new value and opportunities for you.

If you don’t make choices, there is a good chance opportunity costs are accumulating against you. The paths you haven’t considered and the choices you have deferred might be more rewarding. These choices are rarely as difficult as you think.

If you don’t insist on reciprocity for your relationships and your efforts, then you will likely find that you will rue the opportunity cost of your choice. Work, relationships and other opportunities tend to be like buses. They all come at once. Take the first one on unfavourable terms and you might rue the missed opportunities later.

Consider the opportunity cost of your time. You will make better choices.

The Choice: Two Roads or Promises?


Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
Robert Frost

At times, we can reduce the challenges in leading organisations to a greeting card: There are two paths in management, a traditional one and now a better one. Pick the wrong one and your organisation will fail. The reality of modern leadership is more complex.

However, the glorification of the ‘road less travelled by’ is not the meaning of Frost’s poem. ‘The road less travelled by’ is hardly an appealing option for managers who must make decisions every moment of every day about how to lead their organisations and respond to the challenges before them. “The road less travelled by” is usually a road out of the organisation.

Frost’s subtle poem reminds us that many choices are obscure and evenly balanced when made. That obscurity is rarely resolved. We are left to define ourselves by the choices we have made and see the outcomes as results when the connection between choice and outcome is often remarkably complex.

Two Roads

Faced with the challenges of a rapidly changing networked economy many managers choose the path of efficiency. In a time of crisis, they redouble their efforts to deliver certainty, control and secrecy. Seeing threats in a digital economy these manager seek to take greater control and shore up the traditional defences that seem to offer certainty. Rather than deal with complexity, it is easy to declare a new simplicity.

Others are increasingly experimenting with experimentation, autonomy and transparency. They are seeking to create new forms of organisation from responsiveness and adaptation. However, as the use of new models increases there are real challenges to be resolved and new cultures and practices to be built.  It is a brave middle manager who chooses to introduce this approach into an existing organisation of any size. At times, the Responsive Organisation can feel more discussed than delivered.

Some times the two approaches are mixed and we don’t even realise. Our traditional ways can be so deeply ingrained that we can’t see the irony of ordering autonomy and experimentation. For a manager considering how to respond to a situation in the moment, considering new ways of working can seem like a luxury. After all, wasn’t the point of all our experience and training to give us tacit knowledge on which to rely when things get challenging?

Not Simple, Complex

Managers don’t struggle with organisation and choice in the simple or even the complicated domains of choices.  In these cases, traditional approaches work with some predictable degree of success. Recommending a responsive strategy in these examples is as wasteful as managers embedded in traditional management mindsets would see it.

However, the challenge of the modern organisation is rarely bringing complexity to simple choice. Bureaucracy may make simple management choices feel complex to implement, but the choice remains straightforward. The challenge for organisations is pretending there are simple choices when the domain becomes increasingly complex.

Complex choices are where we need learning, experimentation and new ways of working. This is the where we need to sense and respond. This is the domain in which managers see the networks around us change the nature of our traditional considerations.

Promises to keep

The nature of the complex environment in which we operate as managers is that we rarely know in advance what path will be the best choice. This can be a tough pitch to sell to your executive committee.  Worse as Roger L Martin has argued even a ultimately superseded business model may be successful long enough to make you look stupid.

We are trained as managers to define our journeys by their outcomes, just like the narrator of Frost’s Two Roads poem. This consequentialist logic is often used to justify the triumph of abstract organisational goals over personal, human or community outcomes in the process.

Perhaps instead we should define our journeys by the path.  Focusing on the process of walking the path changes our questions:

  • What management path values our personal purpose and delivers the greatest personal rewards?
  • What management path values the potential of others and seeks to maximise that potential?
  • What management path delivers on the promise to customers and the community inherent in our organisation and its people?
  • What management path maximises the net positive impact and contribution from all in the organisation?

Asking new questions is an act of leadership. The answers to these questions will help define better ways of working and new models of social leadership that can carry us through the management journeys ahead.

When we cannot know the journey’s destination, perhaps the better challenge is to walk the road well. We can run our organisations to deliver better answers to these questions.  A first step is freeing our people to contribute to their potential to these answers. We may yet find that all our roads lead to the same place, but we will arrive in better shape as managers, organisations, communities and as a planet, if we do so.

This reflection brings to mind another equally beautiful Robert Frost poem, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”.  As we go forward into the dark and cold challenges ahead, this reflection challenges us as managers to consider the miles to go and the promises we must keep:

He gives his harness bells a shake 
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, 
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
– Robert Frost

Picture credit: http://pixabay.com/en/tree-stump-forest-environment-283218/

The Hamster Wheel is a Choice

Working in a hamster wheel is a choice. The first step to a different work life is an awareness of the choices you make.

We work to throw away

Yesterday was hard rubbish collection in my suburb. I saw a truck taking away discarded televisions and computer screens. It is a striking thing to see two men loading screen after screen in to a truck be recycled or thrown away.

A screen was once an investment of hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Now like many of the products of our consumer society it is discarded regularly.  Somebody works hard to make the money for all this rubbish. I hope they enjoyed the work:

How many hours of work in the hamster wheel are stacked on the back of this truck?

Less can be more

More than a dozen years ago I read a small book by Elaine St James called “Simplify Your Life”. The central thesis of the book is that much of the complexity of our life is because we need to buy and manage things we barely need. The cost of supporting these things means we need to work harder than we want and give up the things we would rather do.

The book didn’t cause immediate change. I still can’t say I have achieved a simple life. However, the idea from the book has stayed with me. Over time I started to make small different choices on what mattered most:

  • I spent less time rushing to have the latest gadget only to then discard it for the next one
  • I cut back my discretionary purchases to the areas that gave me greatest joy
  • I started letting go of and not buying the stuff I never used or was keeping just in case.
  • I started to make more choices to do the things I wanted rather than the things everyone else did. 
  • I kept a notebook to write down the things that I saw that I wanted to buy.  I bought surprisingly few of them once I had achieved the endorphin rush of writing it down.
  • In short, I became more aware of the difference between need, desire and enjoyment.

Work will always be hard

Work will always be hard, because it involves choices to sacrifice time spent on other things like family, friends and passion. We begrudge these choices at times, especially when the sacrifice is made only for money.

Small choices over time can help at the margins to reduce the pressure to make big sacrifices. They can help declutter your decisions and get you closer to what matters. Choice doesn’t get easier, but it can be clearer.

Most importantly of all, being more aware of your choices is at the heart of finding ways to work better, to spend time more valuably and to increase the time that you spend working on purpose.

Choices are hard. Make yours.

Follow your heart

Keep following your heart and your biggest dreams, no matter how far away they might seem at times – Commander Chris Hadfield

Dealing with big career choices, or even little ones, can be a bewildering process.  There are always too many pros and cons, there is lots of helpful and unhelpful advice, there is too much uncertainty and often we don’t even well understand our own thinking and preferences.

Mentors can play a critical role in providing an external perspective in these choices.  They can also help straighten out tangled thinking and the influence of other’s views.

Most powerful of all is the question that a mentor can ask:

‘what does your heart tell you to do?’

For many people, when they put all the logic aside the answer is crystal clear.   Their heart knows what choices they have to make to move forward on their passions, to realise their career ambitions and to live without regret.

The voice of the heart can be muddied by all the complexity and pressure of a big choice.  Find the time or the help to listen to it, however quiet, and you will move forward with more confidence.

Follow your heart.

The easiest answer

Some people think the easiest answer is always:
It shifts the accountability.  It avoids work.  It reduces complications.  Most important at all it is seen by many as risk free.  Who can be held accountable when they said no?
No is simple.  No is safe.  No is permanent.  No is easy.
And that is exactly why the answer is:
Nothing in life is simple, safe, permanent or easy.  We live in complex, changing and difficult times that call for Yes.  Yes means more work and it means change.  Yes is harder and it will be riskier.  Yes will require you to innovate and be at your best.
Take accountability to be part of this challenging future.  Yes is your pathway to change and owning something of which you can be proud.
So next time you feel like saying ‘No’, ask yourself 
‘how do I make it a yes?’
PS:  Perhaps a voice is telling you “but it can’t always be yes”.  Challenge that voice for a little:  What if things were done differently?  What risks or issues would you need to mitigate to make yes possible?  Push that voice hard before you succumb to it.