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Book Review - Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much

Updated: Jan 24

What is Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much?

Scarcity, written by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, makes the case through research that the feeling of time and money scarcity can significantly influence our decision-making. The examples of the research findings are shared through engaging vignettes relatable to readers.

Why should husbands read Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much

Busy people who suffer from a scarcity of time can subsequently make self-defeating choices, such as unproductive multi-tasking or neglecting family for work. The energy and time it takes to manage a home draw away from focusing on a career or attempting to disconnect from responsibilities and relax. This book will help husbands craft strategies to manage money more rationally, work more collaboratively at home with their partners, be more productive at work, and be more present as parents and husbands.

Key Messages

Think about the last time your debt began piling up or deadlines started mounting for a long line of essential projects. Ask yourself whether these were these moments where you got your best work done, made your best purchasing decisions, or did your best budgeting?

The stressful, pinched periods, such as working to meet a deadline or being behind on our bills, require us to be at our sharpest. The perception of scarcity makes us even worse at dealing with these pressing problems. The coping mechanisms we draw upon during times of scarcity can worsen our situation.

When you’re hungry, food is all you can think about because food – at that moment, is scarce, and the need to satiate your appetite is almost overwhelming.

When we experience scarcity, we become absorbed by it, obsessing over what we feel we lack. When we’re hungry, food is all we can think about. When we’re poor, dealing with whatever financial problem that is directly in front of us is what we think about. We focus on these scarcities, often leading us to neglect others.

On the other hand, when we tunnel, we are more attentive and efficient at managing pressing needs, a process known as tunneling. We are most productive at the task we are focusing on, which is what the authors call the focus dividend – the positive outcomes produced when scarcity captures the mind. An example is the benefit of deadlines. If we can break more significant projects into smaller tasks with deadlines, it will be easier to avoid falling behind.

This intense focus on one thing comes at the expense of others, explained by the authors as a tunneling tax. We’ve all experienced this. Do we listen to what folks are saying in a conversation in the final seconds of an important game we are watching on TV? The tunneling tax comes at a cost. We neglect what is around us. We make careless mistakes at work, and we fail to consider the future.

Scarcity reduces “bandwidth,” our ability to manage and compute information. The deadline for your sales pitch is tomorrow. Your daughter has her city championship softball match tonight. We want to be supportive, so you go to the game, but you can’t focus on it because our minds keep wandering back to tomorrow’s sales pitch. Scarcity taxes our bandwidth, inhibiting basic capacities like paying attention to our child’s softball game.

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Bandwidth measures our computational capacity – namely, our ability to pay attention, make good decisions, stick to our plans, resist temptation, and so on. Scarcity uses up our bandwidth, which harms many aspects of our behavior, such as our patience, tolerance, attention, and dedication.

Scarcity taxes our bandwidth because our minds are directed by the conscious effort needed to focus our attention. Scarcity is involuntary and powerful. Scarcity is a vicious circle that is very difficult to escape unless we have some slack. Without slack, we constantly juggle tasks only to find ourselves one step behind, which happens when we manage competing priorities and deadlines. This is called the scarcity trap.

We need slack–free space in our schedules. The scheduled time between meetings rather than neverending back-to-back blocks of meetings seems to lead to falling further behind throughout the day. Consider financial slack as our savings accounts, which we can draw from when in a pinch.

What happens when we don’t have the time to build in buffers of time or the money to save? We only focus on present problems, which lead to future bad decisions. We’re less interested in the difficulties debt will create in the future when we need money to keep the lights on right now.

Curb the negative effects of scarcity by redesigning our lives to add slack and reduce bandwidth. Provide space for emergencies and unplanned expenses. Manage your bandwidth instead of the things that cause scarcity, such as time and money. For example, when the authors started working on this book, they blocked out a morning period to write so that nothing would get in their way. They learned this only worked if they avoided doing other things, such as not answering their emails. This helped them protect their bandwidth for future uses that were more important. And develop systems that make impulsive choices more challenging.

If you want to buy a car because, for whatever reason, you no longer have one, then you’ll want some way to prevent yourself from making rash, short-sighted decisions that could have far-reaching consequences (in this case, for your wallet or mobility). This system could be as simple as not deciding to buy your car when you’re on the lot.

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