Are we suffering from scarcity?

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I started running Basis’s UK consulting business at the end of last year. As might be expected, I’ve taken on lots of new responsibilities. I haven’t shed many of the old ones.

Recently I caught myself making some stupid mistakes. In the last month, I’ve submitted more than one proposal with an incorrect budget. I also promised to pay someone’s invoice and promptly forgot.

I’m a ninja with budgets. Under normal circumstances, I rarely make mistakes. Although I have my moments, I’m also thoughtful and reliable. I hate the idea of breaking promises.

I was talking about these mistakes recently with a coach. With time to reflect, it became clear that I was suffering from scarcity.

noun: scarcity

the state of being scarce or in short supply; shortage

having less than you feel you need

Scarcity is “the feeling of having less than you feel you need”. I first came across this concept in Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by behavioural economist Sendhil Mullainathan and psychologist Eldar Shafir.

Scarcity can refer to any number of things. It could be a scarcity of money for someone trying to save for the future, a scarcity of time for a parent trying to combine work and family life, or even a scarcity of calories if you are dieting to lose weight.

When people are suffering from scarcity they fixate on the thing that is scarce. Anyone who has dieted can empathise with this experience.

In their book, Mullainathan and Shafir summarise the conclusions of an experiment conducted towards the end of WWII. The research aimed at helping allied forces to identify how best to safely bring concentration camp prisoners back from the brink of starvation. Researchers at the University of Minnesota starved healthy subjects and then experimented with different feeding protocols. While the research did help identify effective strategies to support the prisoners’ rehabilitation it also uncovered a range of fundamental insights about human psychology.

Subjects became obsessed with food. They traded information on the price of various items, poured over recipe books and even fantasised about becoming restauranteurs. Interestingly, subjects were also unable to follow the narratives of films because they became so distracted by the scenes that included food.

The tunnelling effect and its consequences

These behaviours are a consequence of a phenomenon known as the tunnelling effect, which forces us to become more attentive to our most pressing needs. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is helpful, but there is a downside. The intense focus on one thing comes at the expense of your ability to focus on others — the tunnelling tax.

The scarcity mindset consumes what Shafir refers to as “mental bandwidth”. If we imagine our brain as a computer processor, scarcity consumes some of our processing power. Another study tested subjects’ IQ under two experimental conditions: the first when suffering from scarcity and the second, when not. When suffering from scarcity the same individuals scored lower on the same test.

The scarcity mindset doesn’t reduce our innate capacity. It just reduces our ability to use it to plan ahead, solve problems or deal with the less pressing concerns in our lives.

This explains, in part at least, the stupid mistakes and thoughtlessness I described earlier.

Scarcity in public services

For the last 12 years, I’ve worked in or for Local Government. I joined the National Graduate Development Programme in 2010 at the height of the last financial crisis. At that point, councils were being asked to reduce their budget by about 40%. As challenging as this period was, it pales in comparison to the complexity faced by frontline services in a post-pandemic world.

Those responsible for redesigning and implementing change in public services face the dual challenge of doing so in the face of continued financial pressure and unprecedented levels of need. My hunch was that some of my pals working in local government might well be experiencing scarcity themselves. I asked Tom Alexander, Assistant Director for Improvement and Change at the London Borough of Newham for his take on my hypothesis and we ended up collaborating on this article. I’ve added Tom’s contributions in italics.

‘I am unstoppable but I am easy to waste, what am I’?

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It’s not the hardest riddle to solve but it captures one of the greatest challenges we face in the public sector; learning to cope with Covid; the unknowns of Brexit; and a perilous financial position for all but the richest households. Time passes and the number of people needing support from their Council increases at a rate significantly greater than the number of people that no longer need that help. There is a relentlessness to public service that is unlike anything I have experienced in my 20 something years in this field. The pressure to meet higher demand, which is more complex, in a wider variety of ways whilst reducing cost is our shared conundrum. Set against the three external drivers mentioned, it’s making people do weird things.

I used to work in a respite care service for adults with learning disabilities. Any professional will tell you that you shouldn’t have a favourite service user. However, I believe there is something wrong with us if we don’t connect more with some people than others. One of those people was Dave (not his real name). Dave was a similar age to me and was a laugh. He had a great sense of humour and I liked doing work with him because we connected over things like sports or television programmes. Dave came to see me one day in the ‘office’ and said he didn’t want to go to his day centre. My response, at that moment, was that I didn’t have time and if he could get on the bus, I would discuss it with him later. He wandered off and I filled in medication charts or something. When I sat down with Dave later that day, he explained to me that he was being abused at his day centre and had been for some time. I had sent him off to be abused for another day because I didn’t have time to listen to him. I had fucked up. Thankfully it was sorted out. Dave has dealt with the trauma well and an abuser was removed from the workforce. However, I haven’t forgiven myself and won’t. I think Dave has, but he was always the better person.

A scarcity of time makes you do stupid things

A common accusation of public servants is how much time they waste. There are examples certainly. But these are exceptions. Almost everyone I have worked with within the sector has both understood that time is a precious commodity and tried to make best use of it. To say that a frontline nurse/social worker/police or fire officer/paramedic (and the many other roles that keep us safe) wastes time is not only offensive, but it is also demonstrably untrue. If you don’t believe me, you are very welcome to join me for a few days in my world to see for yourself. But first an example.

A few years ago a Fire Borough Commander approached me and said that his team had done such great work on prevention and safety that they had time they could use to help identify vulnerable people in our communities when doing home visits. After a bit of training, the inevitable faff over data sharing and some reassurance we weren’t looking for substitute social workers, we had a group of fire officers who were able to identify early signs of abuse and offer residents information if they wanted help. Seeing and using time in that way saves people. But this kind of work doesn’t make a good headline and rarely enters the public consciousness.

My world is a privileged one in comparison to my early career. I used to help people that needed it. I now help people that help people that need it. However, I have a lot on at the moment.

Working across a Council’s three People’s Services Directorates is busy. Those folk keep people safe, educate people, design services, deal with contracts, improve health, tackle crime, empower people, train people, manage budgets, innovate, advise, collaborate and so much more besides. I have the opportunity to help with a fair bit of that; it’s a great job! But, a few months ago, I made a stupid decision, fortunately not as important as when I let Dave down, but stupid all the same. I realised it was a consequence of scarcity again. In this case, I corrected the mistake. Although no one will know much more about it, it did get me thinking. If, as a seasoned ‘veteran’ of public service who has some grasp on this phenomenon, is making poor decisions, what is the impact on people who are under far more pressure (and with far less time)?

Are we reaching a tipping point?

For most people, there comes a ‘tipping point’ where you are too pressured, acting too quickly and trying to manage too many variables to make good decisions. In the last few years I believe that more and more of us in public services are reaching this tipping point.

My hypothesis is that scarcity of time is the single most dangerous challenge we face.

There hasn’t been enough money for some time, but at least there used to be some time to think. Now there is minimal time to do even that. A colleague and I met to discuss demand in a children’s service recently. The meeting was at 16:00. I apologised for a rumbling tum as I hadn’t had lunch by that point. She very politely noted that she hadn’t yet had breakfast. We are literally harming ourselves by going to work. Are we suffering from scarcity? Too bloody right we are — and it is risky if we don’t acknowledge that. Dare I say having some time to waste would now be a luxury. Oh and if you are the witty type that thinks finding time to write this shows I am not busy enough, just think about how important I must think it is to help you without even knowing you?

So what can we do?

The experience of scarcity can be a vicious cycle that’s difficult to escape. Working on several pressing priorities simultaneously reduces our ability to make meaningful progress on any of them. As deadlines approach, time becomes yet more scarce, and we are forced to juggle even faster.

So how do we break out of this trap? Between us, we’ve tested several strategies that thus far have proven to be effective.

Creating slack

Firstly, I’ve created more slack in my week. I’ve blocked out two afternoons (Tuesdays and Thursdays) to plan ahead, solve problems and work on less pressing but important work. Yesterday I used this time to create the first iteration of a business rhythm. This idea is not revolutionary. Having talked with several peers who had tried this strategy, most had tried and failed. The complaint, according to most, is that others didn’t respect their diary commitments and booked in meetings during their ‘slack’ time regardless.

I first heard about this idea in a talk given by Ricardo Semler several years ago in which he described blocking out his diary for ‘terminal time’. Ricardo, rather morbidly, mused that rather than try and cram all of the important stuff he wanted to achieve in his life into the moments running up to his impending death, he would free up time to do them now (hence terminal time).

Taking inspiration from Ricardo, I’ve titled these calendar entries ‘Terminal Time’. Unsurprisingly, nobody has booked a meeting at the same time.

Reducing demands on mental bandwidth

I recently read Greg McKeown’s book, Essentialism. One of the ideas that stood out to me was the Reverse Pilot. Originally conceived by Dan Shapero at LinkedIn, the idea is to test removing non-essential activities and to see if it has any negative consequences. If not, bingo, you’ve reduced the demands on your bandwidth.

I tested stepping back from a project. I was supporting a piece of work as the ‘senior’ bod but got the sense I wasn’t adding much value (my more ‘junior’ colleague was doing a spectacular job). I was costing the client money and clogging up my mental bandwidth with one more thing to worry about. I started by giving my apologies to a few meetings and when I checked to see if my contribution had been missed, the painful response was: “no, not really”.

Conducting experiments like this reveal ugly truths (maybe we are not always essential) and requires us to overcome the very real fear, for most of us at least, of missing out. But missing out on almost everything is what characterises our brief human existence. In my case, I’ve found this sobering thought to be helpful when I choose not to participate in activities that will clog up my bandwidth.

I asked Tom what he was doing to help with his situation. Here’s what he’s trying.

Use your IT to help you, don’t become a slave to it

I use my Outlook Calendar to block out time for everything. I front-load my week and leave space towards the back end, if possible. I do the difficult work first and anything that slips can fit into the space towards the end. I use appointments for actual chunks of work, not just meetings. If people invite me to things during this time I decline if it can wait, accept if I can move back another priority and delegate if both things are equally important. I also schedule appointments for breaks, reporting writing, reading, thinking etc. These things are important.

Make time to positively and constructively daydream

Most people are familiar with the saying ‘change is as good as a rest’ but this is not quite true. Once in a while, your brain needs to ‘unfocus’. And you need to book time with your brain to do just that.

If you allow yourself to unfocus, a number of good things will happen. By taking that breather, you take your body out of fight or flight mode that it can often get into when you are overwhelmed. This has a physiological effect that will help you centre and, potentially, make different (and maybe better) decisions. There will be less adrenaline flowing through your body and you will see things through another lens. However, it is also a step towards engaging your Default Mode Network.

Your DMN is a network of interacting brain regions that is active when a person is not focused on the external world. It is part of your survival toolkit that you probably do not use and may not even know is there.

When in this state we can positively and constructively daydream (PCD). Yes, you need to make time to let your mind wander because it lets you be more productive. Srini Pillay summarised the work of Jerome Singer who likens the difference between focused and unfocused work to eating with different types of cutlery. Focused attention is more like using a fork where you target a certain thing, pick it up and eat it. Whereas PCD encourages the use of a:

  • spoon (that lets you eat a combination of flavours, feelings and textures),
  • chopsticks (that encourages a different way of identifying and innovating)
  • marrow scoop (which gets into the smaller recesses and helps you get out the hard to reach stuff — in this metaphor memories and experiences).

Before you dismiss this as pseudoscience, give it a go and see what happens.

Over to you

So there you have it. Problem solved. Not really. For these strategies to have even the remotest chance of being effective, you first need to acknowledge that:

  1. That you are experiencing scarcity
  2. That you cannot perform at your best when you are experiencing it
  3. That you can do something about it

If you get there, give them a go and let us know how you get on. And if you recognise this as a problem in your organisation and would like some help broaching the subject with your team, let me know and I’ll see if I can help.

While you’re here

Ps — if you like this kind of content, you can get access to more of it by signing up to the Basis mailing list.




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Joseph Badman

Joseph Badman


MD @WeAreBasis. I help public services solve messy problems one sprint at a time. Part-time wizard, meet-free meathead & self-management nerd 🎩🌍🤓.