The opportunity cost of not writing

by Suw on May 3, 2023

If in doubt, always take the strange-looking baked goods.

What are we sacrificing when we decide to do something else instead of write?

When we talk about “opportunity” in relation to writing, it’s often in the context of all the opportunities that exist for writers now. It’s so much easier to find literary agents to submit to these days, and so much easier to submit. There are competitions for every kind of writing imaginable, and it’s easier than ever to self-publish or make your own short film. And if that doesn’t float your boat, you can serialise via a newsletter or develop your own narrative podcast.

The opportunities are truly endless.

And yet, it’s still so easy to fall into the rhythm of not writing, of promising yourself that you will start next week, which rapidly becomes next month, next year. Before you know it, there’s more life behind you than in front and you’re regretting not getting your act together years, if not decades, ago. (And yet again, by “you” I obviously mean “me”.)

Although this creative lethargy may have many root causes, they are all exacerbated by the fact that we never talk about the opportunity cost of not writing. That means we never put our choice to not write into a broader context that could completely change our perspective and, perhaps, help us tackle our writer’s block head-on.

When two conflicting opportunities come along, we have to choose between them: Do we pursue this opportunity or that? Our choice is brought into focus as we consider which one is likely to benefit us the most. We weigh up the pros and cons, we think about our long term goals (whether rational or instinctual), we think about our emotional needs and how much we would enjoy or not enjoy each option. Then we make a choice.

Perhaps without knowing it, we have weighed up opportunity costs: What will we lose out on if we choose Option A over Option B?

We humans are keenly attuned to loss, much more so than gain. If someone gives us a coffee mug, we’re all, “Cool. Another mug. Whatevs.” But if someone wants to take that mug away, suddenly it is our mug, we like that mug, we don’t want to give our mug up. Even if we have a cupboard full of the damn things.

When we weigh up opportunities, we think hard about what we will lose out on, because our brains are focused on minimising loss.

But when we have to choose between two things that are not explicit opportunities, such as writing and watching TV, we don’t give it all that much thought, because neither option has any emotional weight. It doesn’t feel like it matters, which makes it easier to go with the option that gives us a bigger short-term reward.

This is a mistake. This is how 20 years can pass in the blink of an eye, leaving you wondering how much writing you can cram in to the rest of your too-short life and kicking yourself for not starting sooner.

Regrets exist to teach us about what we need to do better in future. But the very best regrets are the ones we avoid because we thought harder about how Future Us would respond to the decisions made by Present Us. And part of that thinking harder process is to be more honest and more intentional about the small decisions we make and to examine closely the opportunity costs inherent in each one.

So let’s say that your choice this evening is to watch TV or spend some time writing. Watching TV is easy. Writing is hard. But what will Future You be most grateful for? I doubt Future You will even remember a specific evening on the couch, but if you spend half an hour writing and you make progress on your current project, Future You will have less work to do, fewer lessons to learn, and be closer to the finishing line.

Put another way, the opportunity cost of choosing to watch TV instead of writing is high: Because you watched TV, you couldn’t spend time writing, which pushes back the day that your work will be ready to submit to an agent, magazine or production company, etc, thus pushing back the moment you’ll start earning money from that work. It also pushes back the point at which you reach a higher level of professional competence, because that only comes through writing lots and learning from the experience.

The future is neither assured nor infinite. Viewing our behaviour now through the lens of opportunity costs – what we’re giving up every time we make a decision not to write – can help us find the focus we need to sit down and get on with it.

So the next time you’re vacillating and wondering whether you feel up to writing, ask yourself, “What would Future Me be most grateful for?” I bet the answer is, “Investing time in my writing”.

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