The Opportunity Cost of Reading a Book

Reading is good, but it’s not always the best use of your time.

I love books.

Even paper books, though I prefer digital. Most of my reading is currently done through audiobooks. I’ll listen while commuting, while out walking, and even in the shower. It’s a great way to read when you don’t have the time to sit down with a nice, warm beverage and immerse yourself. Put in the earphones, push play, and we’re off.

But there’s one situation where I’ve decided that the earphones stay off. I’m not going to read while doing something else. I want to be completely present.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/Blue_Cutler

I was heading out the door once to take our daughter out to ride her scooter. I thought, “this will be great! I’ll put on a book, get some exercise from the walk, and it’s daddy-daughter time.”

Then I stopped. I put the headphones back.

She wasn’t just heading out to ride her scooter. She was heading out with me to ride her scooter.

She didn’t need to listen to a book in order to maximize her productivity. She doesn’t know what multitasking is (she’s a great serial monotasker). I was home from work, and she was tickled simply to be doing something fun — with Daddy!

If I put the headphones on, I’d be robbing her of my attention. Worse, I’d be robbing myself of her attention. She won’t always be this happy to spend time with me. I can read a book any time. But listening to my daughter breathlessly describe everything she sees as she propels herself along? That’s available for a limited time only.

Whenever you say yes to one thing, you’re saying no to everything else you could be doing. That’s the opportunity cost—what you didn’t do. When we consider the costs of a project, we tend to focus on the money and the clock (or calendar). But the opportunity costs are just as real, and they can be a lot more expensive.

Here’s are some tips to help keep opportunity costs in check:

  • Ask yourself which opportunity is the rarer? The less frequently an opportunity comes along, the higher a price you pay for passing it up. Make sure you’re not passing up something that only comes along once in a blue moon for something you can do at any time.
  • Plan ahead of time. The more time you spend in Quadrant 2 planning, the more likely you are to see opportunities coming and be in a position to act on them. If the opportunity pops up suddenly, then you’re more likely to be able to take advantage of it if you know what’s on your plate.
  • Which will you regret more if you don’t do? If you’ll regret not doing one but not the other, that’s the one you should do.
  • Which will make a bigger difference a year from now? If it’s not going to matter a year from now, then it doesn’t matter now. Pick whichever you’ll be glad you did.
  • Carpe diem. A couple years ago, we went to the St. Louis area to visit family. We decided to fly into Chicago and then drive across Illinois so we could attend a live taping of Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, the NPR news quiz. In this case, the opportunity costs were low enough that we decided to extend our trip by a couple days, see Chicago, and meet Carl Kasell.

Don’t get caught up in analysis paralysis. Make a decision and go. If you determine that it’s the wrong decision, make another one. Fewer things are set in stone than we think.

Find ways to have an activity fulfill more than one role, but don’t go overboard. I was about to take a walk with my daughter while listening to an audiobook. For my roles, that would have been spending time as a Father and Sharpen the Saw x2 (walking and reading). I decided that just two would be better: walking and spending time with my daughter.

Sometimes, it’s better to simplify. Be present. Productivity is about getting what you have to do out of the way so you can spend more time doing what you want to do.

Like going for a walk with your daughter.

Question: When was the last time you said “no” to being busy so that you could focus more on what matters most to you? How did you feel afterwards? Share your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

About

Colter writes software and blogs about personal growth and productivity. He lives in Silicon Valley (California) with his wife and children, recently took up golf, and watches mostly British TV shows.

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