Is 'scarcity mentality' eating up your time and resources?

Updated: Jan 18

It started with toilet paper. Then, the cleaning supplies ... and Clorox disappeared. Canned goods were next. The 'scarcity mentality' had us all reacting irrationally, driving from one store to the next in search of (fill in the blank). It's not healthy for our psyche, health or bank account. The anxiety and stress created by a scarcity mentality - and perceiving the world around us through a scarcity lens - depletes us of energy to get through hard times and makes it far too easy to create 'issues' where there aren't any.

In the last year, many of us have felt a loss of control over our lives and circumstances as the COVID-19 pandemic ate away at our lives, businesses and communities . Paired with feeling deprived of freedom to move about freely, jobs, social interactions and yes, toilet paper, a common response is to hoard. Things and time. Unfortunately, as if we don't have enough to deal with in the Age of COVID-19, operating in an ever-tightening feedback loop of 'emergency mode' can affect us negatively. I'd started to obsess over a few pennies difference in prices, and 'lost' time. Scheduling every last minute of my day seemed like a good way to cope, but not so much. I simply ended up feeling more stressed out and tired rather than reflecting on a satisfying sense of accomplishment.

If 'hoarding' time and pennies wasn't working for me, I was determined to step back and re-assess. It turns out that 'scarcity mentality' narrows our perceptions of time, causing us to make impulsive decisions. Ironically, these impulsive decisions can cause us to spend more time and money as a consequence of trying to save both. If we over-commit to today's tasks and miss important items (like paying a credit card bill), that could cost us both time (calling the credit card company) and money (the late payment fee). A crisis can cause people to miss important information since they're trying to juggle too much - often conflicting - information at once. This is especially true early in a crisis. Mis-interpreting important information can also result.

Successful American businesses have built on this 'scarcity mentality'. The membership clubs come to mind. I let our membership to the best known of these 'clubs' lapse a couple years ago when a quick analysis showed that A) I wasn't necessarily 'saving' money on all my purchases just because it was at said 'club', B) I ended up spending more on 'impulse' items than I'd planned, C) I was paying the club for the 'privilege' of buying too much and keeping their 'inventory' on my shelves at home. Oh, and when you need more shelves in the garage to hold that 'inventory', you know you have a problem. I wasn't saving anything. Time or money. It was just the two of us, after all. Sensible management of a leaner home 'inventory' of goods and supplies made more sense on all levels.

Think about examples of this 'scarcity mentality' in the real world. 'Crash diets' cause people to binge-eat. 'After holiday clearance sales' enable you to load up on stuff you probably don't need, after you've spent your disposable income pre-holiday. Loneliness can actually cause people to think of themselves negatively and withdraw even more - making the feedback loop complete.

Remember that social media has an amplifying effect on perceived shortages of items. But, the way that store shelves play games with our insecurities. The big packages of toilet paper are bulky. They take up a lot of room on those shelves. When people grab them, it leaves shelves looking pretty bare. That feeds a sense of scarcity.

Humans are also finely-tuned to do what the other guy is doing. If he's running for his life, odds are, we'll start running, too. If she's grabbing the last packages of toilet paper ... you know what happens here.

There are ways to fight back.

1- Focus on what is good about your life, and stop comparing yourself to others. When we feel more positive about life in general, we don't feel the drive to fill our lives with 'stuff'.

2- Stop the mental 'what if' scenarios. Planning is a good thing. We're an aviation and emergency services family, and flight planning is the key to getting from 'A to B' in one piece or conducting a safe search and rescue operation. Laying awake at night, ruminating about what might happen is counter-productive. Put that energy into training and making a plan of action. This is one reason that I keep a 'Home Continuity Binder'. It's simply a 3-ring binder with pages that will instruct somebody else of how stuff works in our house should we be unavailable. How the washer and dryer work. How to operate the TV/sound systems. Who our vet is. Who the emergency contact people are. Concrete actions are a great antidote for worrying about 'what if'. We don't need a million candles or flashlights. We have PV solar on our rooftop and a home back-up battery. Concrete actions and solutions.

3- Don't be 'greedy'. In the early days of the pandemic, too many people seemed to think that simply because somebody else got 'some', then they would necessarily get 'less'. This is a very negative 'competition' that benefits nobody - except for the toilet paper companies. Plus, you've expended your limited capital on a resource that is likely to be back in good supply in a relatively short time. Instead of grabbing 'more', think of ways to 'let go' ... like donating to those in true need.

4- Take pre-emptive measures. I regularly have a Post-It note on a kitchen cabinet. I write grocery items on there when I notice they're getting 'low'. I take a photo (phone) of the list when I go to the store. Or, I put it in front of me when sitting down to order online for delivery. Keep a running calendar that will 'ping' you to remember to pay a bill, be somewhere, or make a phone call. Or, for one week, monitor how much toilet paper you actually use. Then extrapolate that over a month. Do you really need to stockpile a year's worth? What would you rather do with that money? The same with cold cereal, toothpaste, ketchup or whatever. Again, concrete measures.

5- Organize your spaces. From the linen closet to the refrigerator to the place in the garage where you keep paper products and cleaning supplies. If you can't see to the back of any of those places, you've probably got an organization problem. When you have that, you'll over-buy. Knowing what you've got is a great stress/anxiety buster!

This last year has been hard enough. Many of us are clinging to normalcy by our fingernails. Giving in to 'scarcity mentality' ain't helping. It's simply making a difficult situation harder.

Fight back. Oh, and really think about whether you 'need' that membership at the Big Box store, or the gallon-size jar of strawberry jam.

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