Opportunities Cost You: Why “Yes” Actually Means “No”

It’s natural to like saying “yes.”1 It might be saying “yes” to a person, an organization, an activity, an object, or whatever. But human experience works out such that inside any “yes” is also a “no.”

A bias toward “yes” isn’t inherently bad. It keeps you moving forward. Where trouble arises when you lose sight of how every “yes” also costs you something.

Opportunity Cost Basics

This cost is sometimes described as an “opportunity cost.” And the concept is easy to illustrate with economic examples. For instance, any dollar spent on one purchase is, by definition, not saved, given away, or spent on some other purchase.

Because dollars are interchangeable, this “opportunity cost” might not mean too much. But the reality of this cost gains teeth when paired with the fact that the number of dollars anyone has access to is limited. Eventually, resources run out, even despite efforts simply to go on pursuing more.2

Opportunity Costs with Time

The same principle applies with time and commitments. You can only fit a finite number of things into your attention at any moment. You can only meet a finite number of commitments in a given space of time.

And whatever you decide to put your attention on or to put effort into then, by definition, squeezes out of that attention and effort anything else that would otherwise have been there. So, for instance, time and attention spent studying can’t then also be spent in other ways.

All of this means you need to be careful what you choose to do with the time and attention you have. And of course, trying to avoid responsibility by opting out of choosing is its own kind of choice.

Some Costs Return Dividends

This said, not all opportunities have the same costs, or even the same kinds of costs. Some have costs like carnival games (e.g., doing email). They might be pleasant in the moment, but over the long run, they’ll leave you emptier.

On the other hand, choosing to incur different kinds of costs can return dividends that leave your life fuller. To cite an often and variously quoted illustration:

Suppose you were to come upon someone in the woods working feverishly to saw down a tree.
“What are you doing?” you ask.
“Can’t you see?” comes the impatient reply. “I’m sawing down this tree.”
“You look exhausted!” you exclaim. “How long have you been at it?”
“Over five hours,” he returns, “and I’m beat! This is hard work.”
“Well, why don’t you take a break for a few minutes and sharpen that saw?” you inquire. “I’m sure it would go a lot faster.”
“I don’t have time to sharpen the saw,” the man says emphatically. “I’m too busy sawing!”3

Like anything, time spent “sharpening the saw” has its own opportunity cost. But in this case, it’s a cost that returns greater dividends over time.

Maybe this “sharpening” occurs in study. Maybe it occurs in developing your ability to say “no” to what’s actually less important so you can focus more on what is.

But whatever it is, the dividends from these kinds of costs leave you gradually sharper and better prepared as you continue moving serving and living life in biblical studies.

  1. Header image provided by Jon Tyson. ↩︎
  2. See, e.g., Collins, How the Mighty Fall (affiliate disclosure), 45–64. ↩︎
  3. Covey, Effective People (affiliate disclosure), 299. ↩︎

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