The Scarcity Trap: (Substack) Writers’ Edition

by Suw on April 19, 2023

When you don’t have enough of something, it becomes all you can think about.

Lots of us have experienced more scarcity than usual over the last eighteen months. But scarcity isn’t just unpleasant, it also causes us to make bad decisions. Our brain becomes hyperfocused on the thing we don’t have enough of and we develop tunnel vision that prevents us from thinking expansively and coming up with creative solutions to our problems.

When you’re short of time, you waste time on apps and systems that claim to save time, or you sacrifice important things like sleep, rest or exercise. When you’re short of food, all you can think about is your favourite meal or recipes you’ll never cook. When you’re short of space you dream of bigger houses with more storage.

This episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast, The Scarcity Trap: Why We Keep Digging When We’re Stuck In A Hole, explains the scarcity trap very clearly and is well worth a listen.

So, how does this apply to Substack and writing?

I’d guess that almost everyone on Substack is here because we want to be read. And if the discussion on Substack’s Office Hours posts is anything to go by, most of us have fewer subscribers than we’d like and are eager to attract more. So we focus tightly on subscriber numbers, finding new ways to attract more subscribers, trying to work out how to convert them to paid subscribers. It can become all-consuming.

I know this, because for the last few weeks, I have been watching my subscriber counts like a hawk. I have a spreadsheet. It does some sums and gives me goals for how many subscribers I need to be able to earn a living here. When my numbers plateaued two weeks ago my mood took a dive, and then Notes happened and I was happy again. But that is not healthy, not least because those thoughts begin to crowd out my creativity.

As a writer, I’m very familiar with the broader problem of scarcity of readers. It is very, very hard to persuade people to become readers, even if you offer your work for free. People have a natural scepticism that seems to grow in proportion to the amount of effort you put in to persuading them to read your stuff.

This particular scarcity trap can lead authors to behave in some really strange and often quite toxic ways. I have seen writers whose social media presence and newsletters became phenomenally self-centred, to an extent that goes well beyond basic self-promotion. They talked about nothing else but themselves, their books, their cover reveals, their events. There’s no give, it’s all ask.

I can understand how they got there. We’re constantly told that it’s our responsibility to gather together an audience for our creative wares and that without that audience there is no possibility of success. That’s not true for everyone, of course, but those who find publishing success without having to put the audience-building work in are very lucky. And because it’s impossible to tell who’s going to get lucky, the rest of us just have to fall back on hard work and persistence.

But when the audience isn’t coming, when the numbers aren’t going up, into that scarcity trap we go. Communications can too easily move from self-promotion to desperation to toxicity, and when they turn sour, they actively drive our audience away.

Scarcity traps push us into short-term thinking and bad decisions. The worst career decision I ever made, as I’ve mentioned here before, was quitting my job when I was in my mid-20s “to write more”. It didn’t work out like that –  I just got stressed, ran up a huge debt and ended up writing almost nothing.

That period of my life is actually a story of cascading scarcity traps: I wanted to write, but I didn’t have time. So I quit my job to become a music journalist. I ended up earning next to nothing, which meant that I was too stressed to write. Instead of getting a job, (deep down, I didn’t really believe any employer would want to hire an opinionated, difficult person like me anyway), I became a contract web designer and wrote a little bit during my commute into London. But again, I didn’t really have enough time to write. When my finances had improved, I decided to quit and find a gig nearer to home which would give me more time. Except the Dot Com Crash happened, I was out of work for nine months, my finances nose-dived and again I was too stressed to write.

And on and on and on.

I mean, if you took away from this story that I’m a complete fucking idiot who doesn’t learn her lessons, you’d not be wrong. But it’s also a story of someone caught in a cycle of scarcity traps. As soon as I got out of one, I’d end up in another because I never had the stability or mental bandwidth I needed to avoid them.

If my husband is reading this, at this point he’ll be looking at the screen sternly saying, “Susan Margaret, just listen to yourself!”

And I am, I am. I’m going through a difficult and very uncertain career transition at the moment which is resulting in less money coming in than I’d like. And I will admit that I’ve found myself falling into the money scarcity trap.

So, what to do about these dastardly scarcity traps?

  1. Look for them. Like any trap they are well disguised and the closer you are the harder they are to spot. So take some time to survey your life, ask what you’re short of, and see if you’re feeling that scarcity to the point where it’s leading you astray.
  2. Get a mentor. A good mentor will help you gain perspective and make better decisions.
  3. Put limits on activities that are driven by hyperfocus, eg, check subscriber data weekly, not every half hour.
  4. Don’t panic. A scarcity mindset frequently leads to panic, which fires up your limbic system and gives you those physical sensations of anxiety. The limbic system takes a dog’s age to calm down, so try to avoid setting it off in the first place.
  5. Make small, sustainable changes. When you know what you’re short of, make small, positive changes that will help you get what you need. Don’t try to fix it all at once.

So much of the modern world seems engineered to tip us into scarcity traps. I bet that, if you looked at your life with an honest eye, you’d find that you’re in at least one. But just know that you’re not alone and that it is possible to not just survive scarcity traps, but to climb out and stay out, especially if we do it together.

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