Scarcity by Sendhil Mullainathan & Eldar Shafir

This week I finally got round to reading Scarcity by Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan, having had to wait for a month due to it being out of stock. That’s not even a joke.


The book demonstrates how our behaviour changes when something we need is scarce. We focus on what we don’t have enough of, leaving less mental capacity for other stuff. I’d always thought that scarcity was about money, or material things, or natural resources like food and water. But I’d never considered it being about time.

It’s easy to understand with money. You’re a bit short, so you focus on saving a few quid here and there, maybe paying on a credit card that you wouldn’t normally use. But with time? Think about it – how does your behaviour change when you’re running late? Or up against a tight deadline? Do you become ruder? More irritable? Needing more peace and quiet? Or is that just me? Basic activities become luxurious, like spending time with friends and family, or having dinner with the children at the table. If that can ever be a luxury.


Suddenly, the decisions we make aren’t about the real, rational state of the world anymore. Instead, they’re about our ‘mental representation’ of the world at that time, driven by what’s front of mind and most important. So the authors argue (convincingly) that you need to ‘design life’s cockpit with scarcity in mind’, knowing that these occurrences are going to happen. If you don’t like your behaviour when you’re time poor, build yourself time in the day to step back and think, and have strategies ready to deal with the inevitable meltdown.


Oh, and you know when you check your phone a couple of minutes before an important meeting? You see a message that you wish you hadn’t seen, that plays on your mind and stays there throughout? Yep, that’s an example of you mind being distracted, giving some of it’s vital bandwidth to something else. So avoid the temptation – the messages will still be there when you get back, I guarantee it…



I really hope you enjoyed this article. If you did, I’d love you to subscribe to my blog at to get new thoughts sent to you on an infrequent basis, and find me on twitter @johnJsills.


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