I was reminded this week of the term “opportunity cost” from my school days. As a lover of medicine, I found very few things interesting in the economics course I had to take as a secondary school student. I am glad they made me do it though because this one has stuck with me through the years, not just when thinking about money, but also about time.
Time management is something we all have to keep working on, if we are to have productive days and fruitful lives. For those that cannot remember, opportunity cost is defined as “the loss of other alternatives when one alternative is chosen”. It reminds us that resources are limited, so choosing to buy a new car, for example, might mean no money for that Caribbean holiday. It is amazing how many people live life wanting to eat their cake and have it, ending up in terrible debt and depression. In a fast-paced society where we want it all, and we want it now, people often forget that choices have consequences. Choosing to spend money or time on one thing often means forfeiting another.
People often say that time is money, but I have found that time is more valuable than money as I grow older. With my time, I can make more money, if I want to, but I will never get back time wasted. When we choose to spend our time doing one thing, we are actively or passively choosing not to do something else. It is better to be intentional about our use of time, so we do not end up missing out on time for something very important. When economists think about opportunity cost - what else they are sacrificing by using money on one thing - they can appreciate the real value of the money being spent. In the same way, realising that one hour spent on the phone every night is time I could be spending with my children before they go to bed, or an hour extra to sleep and have more productive days at work. When people understand this concept, they can make better choices and appreciate other people’s time also.
Even as doctors, we constantly have to make choices about the use of time in our personal and professional lives. An extra five minutes with patients could mean running late for ten other patients or staying back late at work to catch up on paperwork. That extra five minutes could be life-saving for a lonely, suicidal patient, or the extra time they needed to mention that cancer sign they had been unsure of. It could also be a useless chat that leaves you feeling drained while apologising to other patients and your family for your lateness. We can often take our family and friends for granted because we feel they will always be there for us, but the choices we make about how we spend our time can affect the quality of those relationships.
Choosing to pick up locum shifts every week could mean missing several social events and special times with family, but it could also mean being able to afford a nicer house or holidays abroad. As a wife and mother to young children, I have to weigh these losses and benefits when I choose to work full time or part-time. I also have to remember that there are other demands on my time outside of work and family. If all my days are spent at work, and I really want to have time with my family also, something has to give. The things that suffer are often sleep, hobbies and quality friendships - the loss of which can impact badly on my mental health, making it more likely for me to burnout as a doctor. We all have different capacities and priorities, so it is wise to reflect often on what we spend our time on, and what we might be losing by making those choices. If it is a sacrifice worth making at this time, then go for it and be intentional with your days.
I have even realised that opportunity cost applies also to my thinking time. Time spent worrying about things that may never happen is time I could have spent working on new business ideas and solutions. I have learned to try and think about work issues while at work, and make brain space for personal issues when I am home. Doing this has helped me to have good ideas for the progress of my family and business. It also helps me to feel more productive and present at work. This does not mean I do not discuss work issues at home with my husband, but I make sure that we are not spending too much time talking or thinking about things we cannot change, thereby losing valuable time for other matters. If I find that an issue is taking up too much of my thinking time, which means I am worried about it, I often remind myself of this phrase: If something bothers you that much, do something about it! Whether it is global warming, improving patient services, world poverty, social injustice or just dry skin, “doing something about it” often involves having time to do so, which is why time management is very important.
A lot of stress and life dissatisfaction can be prevented by better time management. It is not always easy to make sacrifices, but it is usually worth it when we think long term. My family and I are now enjoying the rewards of sacrifices made, not just in terms of better income, but also good work-life balance as a GP. The cost of medical training is not just tuition fees and exam costs, in the same way that having children is not just about having money to feed them! We are better able to make good life choices when we think of opportunity cost in terms of time and money, so that we are not losing out on the things that really matter to us. It is still early enough in the year, with lock down restrictions being eased slowly, for us all to reflect and make better choices for the days ahead.
Dr Afiniki Akanet is the author of
Life Without Coffee (Choosing Happiness Over Stress) and 2020 Year of Plenty.