The very first lesson learned in any economics course is that “there’s no free lunch.” Likely, if you’ve ever taken an economics course yourself this pithy (some may say tired) catch phrase is familiar. Over the past year of my graduate studies, I’ve learned the basics of economics for public policy decisions. I can tell you why they say, “there’s no free lunch.” And while many of the practical lessons I’ve learned will serve me in my career, something else I’m taking away from my economics courses are lessons in mindfulness.
A Three-Hour Tour
For those of us who have never taken an economics course before and do not read the Wall Street Journal with any sort of regularity, a three-hour economics course can feel like running a marathon. Even without the distraction of a computer screen, I struggled to stay focused in the early weeks. I was easily frustrated when I didn’t understand a concept and instead allowed my mind to wander into planning for the week ahead or reflecting on the days before. When the time came for the first exam I had a lot of work to do. Somehow I managed to teach myself the concepts I had missed while daydreaming in class, but moving forward I told myself that I would make more of an effort to pay attention.
Since that first exam, I have found that getting the most out of this class (and any class for that matter) is as simple as being present moment by moment to what’s being said. I don’t get frustrated and daydream as often when I don’t understand something, I just wait for the inevitable graph to come along and illuminate the issue. I find that simply allowing myself to be confused for a moment--without judgement or frustration--allows me to be open to what follows.
The Law of Diminishing Returns
In economics there are many useful applications of the law of diminishing returns. This law is perhaps most often applied to the productivity of labor within a firm. It tells us that as you hire additional workers to staff your pizza shop, at some point you will get less pizza and less productivity out of each additional worker. A small kitchen staffed with five pizza-makers may be able to produce many pizzas quickly and efficiently, with sufficient elbow room for production. While each additional pizza-maker after five will increase the total amount of pizza produced, however, at some point the additional help may not be worth it as 15 pizza-makers begin to crowd the kitchen and diminish returns.
This law has useful applications to our lives too. We are not firms, but we also experience diminishing returns in our work. We experience diminishing returns when we push ourselves to work late into the night, or as the hours tick by collaborating on a team project. Our team loses energy and tensions may arise as the day progresses. Our group is not quite as productive in the fourth or fifth hour as we were in the first. Having an awareness of our own productivity and how much we actually get out of what we are doing in the moment, can inform us when it would be more beneficial to spend our time differently. Over the past year, I have developed an increased awareness of my own productivity and will more quickly switch off a project with diminishing returns to something with a higher rate of return for me in that moment.
The trick is appropriately valuing the benefit I get from completing a policy analysis and the benefit I get from taking 30 minutes to watch TV or do yoga. Most of the time the return from doing an activity for fun or relaxation is more valuable to me in moments in which I’m losing steam on a project. I find that I can further maximize my time throughout the day by being truly present in what I am doing in that moment without feeling guilty for not spending my time in another way.
The fact is, we have to choose one thing over another every day. When we do this, we are giving up on some other way we could have spent our time, our energy, or our money. This is called an opportunity cost and it is the reason there’s no free lunch.
We are constantly giving up a host of other options for what we chose to do moment by moment because there is only so much time, energy, and money we have to spend. In economics we can think about this in terms of the production possibility frontier. We use graphs to conceptualize that between two resources or activities in our lives, to have more of one we have to give up some of the other.
Ultimately, however, once we have chosen how to spend our time it’s no longer useful for us to dwell on “sunk costs.” In this case, sunk costs are the time, energy, and resources we’ve already spent in the past doing some activity. All we can do now is recognize where we are in the present and decide how to move forward. Our frustrations, our guilt, and our judgments don’t make our lives better and they don’t give us more utility.
The Economics of Mindfulness
I admit, I was skeptical about economics at first. Not only was I uncertain about my own capabilities, but I had trouble imagining the applications it would have for my professional and personal life.
After sitting through about 90 hours of class, I can tell you that I’ve come to value economics both for its traditional applications and for the life lessons in mindfulness. It may be true that there’s no free lunch, but if we’ve already eaten then the best we can do for ourselves is be thankful we’re fed and figure out what will give us the greatest return in the current moment.