Scarcity: Why having so little means so much

I’m probably more interested in writing my response to the book than an actual book review, but Scarcity: Why having so little means so much was a worthwhile read, even if at times I thought it could have done with a bit of editorial trimming. Maybe their editor was tunnelling towards a deadline.

I recently wanted to learn a little bit about using and visualising data, and was pleased when Google announced that they would run a MOOC on the subject called Making Sense of Data. The course started in mid-March and had a cut-off date at the beginning of April. As I said in another blog post, at anytime this year I could have made use of the School of Data modules, but the cut-off date of the Google MOOC significantly gave me a deadline to focus on. I didn’t know the jargon of scarcity before reading Mullainathan and Shafir’s book but, like most everybody else, I have a lifetime of experience of responding to some of its features.

I bought the Kindle edition and when I’d finished reading, and was reviewing the bookmarks and notes I was surprised to see how many notes related to my workplace and my colleagues. I hadn’t expected that.

About six weeks ago, in a not altogether uncritical remark, a close colleague told me that he didn’t work three times harder than me “he worked five times harder.” It’s a fair point because he does seem to be on the go non-stop. However he doesn’t do five times more work than me, and from my position he seems to actually do less. I’m not saying that I’m God’s gift to time-management but although we plan our workload using the same tools, he doesn’t build in slack. This means that whenever something unexpected comes along (unexpected maybe but definitely foreseeable)  he finds himself firefighting in a scarcity trap. I think he thinks that planning a week’s work means filling the week up with work, and I think management share some of the responsibility for making him that way. I’m pleased that there is now a growing acknowledgement that he needs to build in time to reflect, to let his mind out for a jog (p.198), to do some reading and to do some professional enquiry.

To achieve that though what he doesn’t need is more time. He doesn’t need an extra five or ten hours on his working week. I think if he had more time he would probably just fill it up with more things to do. He’d continue to go places he doesn’t need to go, to do things that don’t need done at that time. Instead what he needs is a different sort of time – unstructured time (p.196). He needs the support to create some bandwidth, to reflect on his performance and to build up some ‘buffer stock’ (p.224).  He needs the support to strike a balance between in-built slack and a level  of productivity that is meaningfully useful to the people he works for (employers and students) and himself. Maybe it’s time to reclaim the pejorative ‘slacker’.

I recommend Scarcity: Why having so little means so much, and especially to those people who don’t think that they have the time to read it.



Mullainathan, S., Shafir, E. (2013) Scarcity: Why having too little means so much, Penguin Books, London

‘Con Colleano on a slack-wire, circa 1920’, Wikimedia Commons,,_circa_1920.jpg, accessed 14 April 2014

Image of ‘LATE’ alarm clock sourced using Google images, Usage rights, Labelled for Reuse, Flickr,, accessed 14 April 2014 (I couldn’t gain access to Flickr to acknowledge the photographer and give details of precise license but will endeavour to resolve this)


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