After 20 years working to a daily newspaper’s deadline and now, with a similar structure here at Livehealthy, I’m quite good at finishing things. That is, things I’m getting paid for.
But when it comes to my own time? There’s a fourth draft of a screenplay years in the making. Two book proposals, random notes on my iPhone for all sorts of half-baked schemes and an assortment of other stray projects and half-finished tasks lingering and lurking. Will I get past week one on that expensive business course I signed up for online? Can I tackle the dirty job of repotting all the struggling plants on my balcony? Time will tell. Or it won’t.
The biggest problem when it comes to tackling jobs and completing them is underestimating the time needed. The author of the book Essentialism, Greg McKeown, explains:
The issue, says McKeown, is that there is a “predisposition of humans to underestimate the time it takes to complete a thing”. That behavior is called the “planning fallacy”, and it’s why we say yes to things without being honest with ourselves about how much time they will take and whether we have that time to finish them. His answer? “Count the full cost” – whether it’s hours or dirhams – and then multiply it by three.
Eureka. New Year’s resolution sorted. As someone who regularly says yes first and figures it all out later, often at great fiscal expense, moving forward I’m going to apply this rule to everything, particularly finances. When you think about it, a responsible household budget is really just a macro version of “count the whole cost”. Thinking of taking a trip? There’s not just the plane, the hotel and the rental car to consider. How much do I spend shopping there? What about in the airport, where for some reason I often behave as if dirhams have no meaning? And what about my energy? If I fly back home late at night, will I be too shattered for work the next day?
Day to day it also works. Have I got excited about a cool new workout? Sure, I can justify the Dh100 per-class cost in the short-term, but what if I multiply that by two times per week throughout the whole year? Am I really comfortable with spending Dh9,600 over 12 months not even getting all the exercise I need? Sure I’m renting a car while I consider what to buy, but I’ve been doing that for months now. Although I’m paying for convenience, I’d be halfway to paying for my own car by now if I’d counted the whole cost of my dithering from the outset. When I find a cool new supplement that seems like it will be the key to longevity and health, can I sustainably add it to my budget?
“Count the whole cost” can be applied to social gatherings and entertaining, particularly if you are a bit of an introvert and find other people taxing. So ask: will that party or outing energize or deplete you? How are you feeling right now? How much energy do you have to spare? Is there a way to trim your exposure so that you are left somewhere in the middle? You have the best of intentions to start the new year cooking healthy meals for yourself, but can you and your family really consume a fridge full of greens, or should you start slowly and commit to one or two dishes and make sure there won’t be waste? And for most of us, addicted to our smart phones at one level or another, “count the full cost” is fully applicable to the act of merely picking up the phone. Will it be just 30 seconds to check what that email said, or is the reality that you will lose yourself down a social media rabbit hole and emerge 45 minutes later? It applies to work, whether you are a freelancer or a cubicle dweller, trying to figure out whether to work through lunch or nip outside for some badly needed fresh air, or take on another project to please the boss when you are already too overloaded.
And what about exercise? Sure, you can save time by skipping workouts. But what will your mood be later? And since exercise is one of the most important ways to keep yourself physically and emotionally healthy, trying to save time and energy this way is the very definition of not counting the full cost.
“Count the full cost” also applies to parenting and relationships. Sure, you can hand your children their iPad every time you need a break, but what is that telling them about how to spend their time? If they see you on your phone any time you have a spare second, what are they going to want to do with theirs? And it’s always easier to stay quiet than have a difficult discussion when your spouse has done something inconsiderate or hurtful, but what is the long-term impact of glossing over your negative emotions – and doing so repeatedly – on the overall health and longevity of your relationship? There are so many other applications where making a decision about the cost of your behavior can help prevent a larger issue: preventing waste to ease the impact on the planet; stopping short of an angry gesture when someone cuts you off in traffic to prevent an altercation; nipping in the bud your urge to gossip to build integrity.
At the crux of this “count the full cost” theory is ending the “ridiculously overcommitted” way most of us live these days, which McKeown writes about in his book but has only worsened, even as we slowed down due to Covid. It involves being accountable second and selective first, about being more honest with yourself, so you can make a wiser decision.
“It’s a very healthy way to live,” he says.
I agree. That’s why this year I’m going to get out from under all my own planning fallacies and finish what I start by counting the full cost before I do anything. It’s just going to take a little more time and self-reflection up front to get a better result – or any result, for that matter – in the end.
This article first ran in 2018.
Ann Marie McQueen
Ann Marie McQueen is the founding editor-in-chief of Livehealthy and host of The Livehealthy Podcast. She is a veteran Canadian digital journalist who has worked in North America and the Middle East. Her past roles include features editor for The National, trends writer and columnist for the Canadian newspaper chain Sun Media, and correspondent for CBC Radio.