ATD Blog

Opportunity Cost—What Are You Giving Up?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

As a student at Rutgers University studying Economics, one of the first concepts I learned was that of opportunity cost, which the New Oxford American Dictionary defines as "the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen. It is the idea that when one choice is made, the cost of making that choice is the benefit you would have gained by making the next best alternate choice.

In economics this concept is used to analyze the scarcity of resources and trade-offs, mainly in financial terms. But the idea of opportunity cost—that every decision we make results in giving up an alternative choice—truly resonated with me from that day forward. 

There is opportunity cost in every decision we make. For instance, if you choose to get up early and go to the gym, your opportunity cost is sleep time. Or if you schedule a team feedback meeting during budget-crunch time, your opportunity cost is tweaking the spreadsheet for the budget presentation. 

For years we’ve been told that we need work-life balance. Balancing suggests that work and life outside of work are two separate entities and that you are somehow trying to find equilibrium between the two. But let’s face it, the lines between work and life outside of work are becoming increasingly more muddled. 


CNN writer Ron Friedman explains, “For many of us, compartmentalizing our work and personal life is simply not possible, and not just because of the ubiquity of email. In a growing number of companies, work now involves collaborating with colleagues in different time zones, making the start and end of the workday a moving target.” 

Let’s throw away the idea of the work-life balance. We are making choices involving both—all day, every day. Let’s focus on integrating and sustaining them harmoniously. 


Aligning Your Priorities with Your Daily Decisions 

What is most important to you? How do you find more meaning and make better decisions that align with your priorities? 

  • Step 1: Jot down a list of tasks you performed over the past few days. These are your decisions on how you’ve spent your time. For approximately each hour, list the things you did. Include tasks such as phone calls, errands, meetings, cleaning, and so forth. Don’t go crazy here; this task should only take a few minutes.
  • Step 2: Make a list of your goals and priorities. These define your trade-offs or costs. You may need to do a little soul searching here. Priorities like work, family, and personal time will be likely included on your list.
  • Step 3: Think about the opportunity costs for each of your decisions. These are all of the choices you gave up. For example, grocery shopping is an obvious necessity, but your opportunity cost for walking around the grocery store may be time spent with your family. Or, if you agree to attend the school fundraising meeting, your opportunity cost of going to the meeting may be personal downtime or gym time.
  • Step 4: Are your decisions aligned with your priorities? If one of your priorities is building more connections with other parents in your community, then your cost to attend the school fundraising meeting may be worthwhile. 

The next time you’re driving your son to baseball practice and your colleague calls to rehash the heated conference call this afternoon, think about your priorities. Is your cost of catching up with your son about his English presentation today worth accepting the call? Can the chat with your colleague wait until tomorrow? Unfortunately sometimes the answer is no. 
To be sure, we have work demands that need immediate attention at times. In other instances, if we take a moment to think consciously about each choice and what’s important to us, we make better decisions about how to spend our time. These decisions add more meaning to each day and better align with our priorities. 

What are you giving up? Is the cost more valuable?

About the Author

Lori Esposito is founder of Simple Solutions LLC, a consulting company specializing in leadership development, coaching, instructional design, and curriculum development. She has more than 20 years of professional education and management expertise working with a broad range of clients in the healthcare, technology and education sectors such as Pfizer, BMS, Johnson & Johnson, and DocuSign. 

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