When you choose what to do with your time, what you don’t do is the cost of what you chose to do. Every time I choose to watch an hour of TV with my husband, it costs me an hour of writing (or anything else I might have done with that hour). Conversely, every time I spend an hour writing or working in the evening, it costs me an hour with my husband. How many of us have gone to see a movie that we expected to be fun and came out complaining, “Well, that’s two hours of my life I’ll never get back again!” No matter what you do with your time, it’s time you won’t get back again. That might be what someone was thinking when they came up with the slogan, “Work hard, play hard.”
Instead of focusing on all the things we aren’t getting done (this is me, every day), we need to focus on what is the best use of our time now. In an hour, we might want to stop for a second and ask the question again. Perhaps again in four hours, or in another 30 minutes. If we can tap into a kind of moment-by-moment wisdom and allow ourselves to accept that we likely won’t accomplish everything we want to do – or perhaps even need to do – we can find greater peace and deeper joy in every moment, no matter what we’re doing.
Next week, I’m going to participate in a Book-in-a-Week challenge with my Sydney RWA group. To do that, it will cost me a great deal. I won’t be able to work on my taxes (the Australian tax year ends June 30); I won’t be able to clean my office; I won’t be able to do any but the most basic housecleaning; I won’t be able to hang out with friends, etc. But I’ve decided the cost is worth the benefit. I want to get my book out in August, and this is what it’s going to take.
The following week, one of the first things I’m going to do is clean my office. While this can be a procrastination technique, sometimes not doing it has too high a price. The time it took me to complete my U.S. taxes earlier this year was nearly double because I couldn’t find all my files after I moved. In the last ten months that we’ve been in this apartment, I have spent 20-30 hours (conservative estimate) looking for things that I couldn’t find because I never finished organizing my office (nor the office stuff that never made it into the office). The cost of organizing will probably be 10-15 hours of writing time. But the benefit will be 20-40 extra hours of writing time in the next six months because I won’t have to spend time digging through piles and boxes again.
Opportunity cost can feel double-edged – no matter what good you do with your time (writing, helping a friend), there is some other good you are not doing (spending time with family, doing taxes). And I feel a hundred times worse when I look back and realize I’ve made a poor choice, not even a halfway decent choice. (Because I watched two hours of TV on my lunch break, I now have to write or do taxes when John is home so I can’t spend time with him.) What is a person to do?
I find one of the best sources of wisdom to be the book of James in the Bible. James says trials and testing develop perseverance, which develops character. He says if anyone lacks wisdom, she should ask God who gives it generously to all. If we have faith, but don’t follow it up with work, our faith is pointless. So if I believe I’m good enough to be published but I don’t finish my manuscripts and send them out, my faith in my gifts is useless to me.
But James also encourages us to take a deep breath and remember we’re only human and we all stumble in many ways. He reminds us that bitter envy and selfish ambition do not help us succeed in any goal. He says wisdom that comes from heaven is pure, peace-loving, considerate and more. (You’ll find these in a good writer’s group.) He reminds us that we don’t even know how long our lives are or what will happen in them, so not to get hung up on set-in-concrete goals. We should just say, if God and life allow it, I will do this or that. He also encourages us to have patience, to remember that a farmer does a lot of work, and then does a lot of waiting while the crop grows.
And that is the rounded view of opportunity cost – we make goals, we count the cost, we ask for wisdom, we make decisions, we work hard, we remember we’re only human, and we accept that life may change our goals over time. When I keep this mind, I find my life more peaceful, joyful and productive. I hope it helps you, too.
Kitty Bucholtz is the co-founder of Routines for Writers, a web site dedicated to helping writers write more. She writes romance novels, light urban fantasy novels for adults and young adults, and magazine articles. She is currently enrolled in the Master of Arts in Creative Writing program at University of Technology, Sydney.