Accomplish More By Doing Less

Studies show that scarcity of time and money can lead to bad decision-making. The lesson? We may be more productive if we try to get less done.


Do you feel like you’re more productive when you have too much to do? Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir and Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan don’t dispute this might be the case — in the short run. However, their findings suggest you may be setting yourself up for more problems in the long run.

They call the effect “tunneling”: “a laser-like focus on the tasks immediately at hand, which often results in a disregard for the bigger picture,” according to an article by Ray Fisman in the Washington Post Business section.  Their studies have two implications for credit union executives: first, for working with members in financial distress, and, second, for our own behavior.

Shafir, Mullainathan and another colleague studied decision-making skills based on scarcity of resources, such as time and money, and found that the poor’s laser-like focus on today leads them to make financial decisions that are harmful in the long run.

Fisman writes, “When you think about the distracting and sometimes paralyzing effects of scarcity… you can appreciate how someone living paycheck-to-paycheck and intent on paying this month’s rent and utilities may end up so focused on this immediate goal that he digs a deeper financials hole, by taking out payday loans or otherwise mortgaging the future. … It’s the stresses of poverty that lead to bad financial decision-making in the first place.”

Credit unions like WESTconsin ($797M, Menomonie, WI), are helping to address this problem with products like the JumpStart auto loan. Helping a member reliably get to work may help not only improve their financial position (they are earning a paycheck) but also give them more time (they no longer have to rely on public transportation that may not fit with their work schedule).  This extra time can then be used to think about the long-term.

Even financially stable people can make bad decisions, personally and professionally, because of the scarcity of time. This brings me to my three suggestions for the busy credit union executive:

1. Organize. Who hasn’t spent 20 minutes digging through a pile of papers that never got filed? And don’t get me started on my inbox! I spent 3 hours New Year’s Eve cleaning my office – probably the most important thing I could do to kick off 2013 on the right foot. Next up: unsubscribing from the emails that offer me daily discounts on items I don’t really need anyway.

2. Simplify. Rumor has it that President Obama has suits in just two colors that he pairs with white shirts and blue ties on order to avoid time spent making unimportant decisions. Steve Jobs was famous for wearing only a black turtleneck and jeans.  I freed up wasted brainpower by spending time up at the beginning of the school year to create a list of all the foods that my kids in their school lunches. Now, I just do a quick mix and match based on the list and what’s available in the fridge.

3.  Prioritize. I find a helpful tool is a matrix that pits importance and urgency on two axes. If you spend too much time in the urgent, you may miss the important.  Ruthlessly use it each week to prioritize both your personal and professional To Do Lists.




Jan. 7, 2013

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  • Alix, Thanks for the wonderful post. I agree that when we try to to everything, some of the important things aren't given enough attention. Well done! - Anthony Demangone, NAFCU
    Anthony Demangone