How many times has someone asked you: “What are you working on?” Probably more times than you can count. But how many times has someone asked you: “What are you not working on?”
This question rarely gets asked, but it’s a key part of business and life. The things we don’t do are just as important as the things that we are doing—maybe even more so. This concept is known as opportunity cost: There might be a better way to spend your time, money or resources.
Here’s a real world example of how opportunity can pass you by. Let’s say you own a house in New Jersey, but you’ve always wanted to move to Florida. Wham! The housing market collapses and your NJ home is worth 15% less than you paid for it, but Florida really takes it on the chin and home values decline by 50%. Do you wait for your NJ home to recover its value so you don’t have to sell at a “loss?” Or do you sell your undervalued home and buy your dream home at a bargain, locking in a 35% savings? It’s easy to throw logic out the window in these moments.
Fear, Change and the Fear of Change
Change is hard to embrace. Some of us dread change so much that it’s our greatest fear. And fearful people make bad decisions. This is the root of why we let opportunities pass: We’re afraid.
We’re afraid of doing something different. We’re afraid of admitting a mistake or acknowledging that there is a better way. This fear can be paralyzing and it forces us to stay the course when there is every rational reason to change direction.
So, how do we overcome this challenge? Just ask once in a while: “What are you not doing and why not?” Faced with this question, good workers will come to their own conclusions about how to use their time more effectively. Good managers will recognize when they’ve placed undue burdens on their workers. And you can always ask yourself this question in day-to-day life. A little introspection can go a long way.
The world gets smarter when people ask thoughtful questions, and as obvious as that sounds, it’s a concept that’s easily forgotten. The costs can be enormous.