A novelist works as a freelance writer, and spends all his time finishing low-paid articles on deadline and emailing editors for work. He hasn’t touched his novel in four months.
A consultant spends all her time doing client work and putting together reports, and fails to develop her new leads, so then when the engagements dry up, she spends all her time developing business, but gets behind on client work and can’t invoice in time to pay the rent.
A journalist has a fantastic idea for a new podcast, and starts working on it intensively, but within a few weeks it’s gotten complicated and time-consuming, and she’s got deadlines, so she switches gears, and the podcast joins all the other projects on the shelf.
A painter works 5 adjunct art-teaching jobs and seems to spend 50% of her time in the car.
These are all real people. I’ve worked with them all.
All of these people have a passion. They followed it. When they tell other people what they do, they’re envied. “That’s amazing, that’s so much cooler than what I do!”
They feel ungrateful to even question the internal logic of their lives.
And yet they do: they feel overwhelmed and on the brink of losing control of everything.
I’ll bet you feel lucky to have a passion. You’re inspired and motivated to do the thing.
So why does it all so often go sideways?
It feels illogical. Why can’t you manage to do the thing you want so much to do?
Here’s what I’ve learned: it’s true. You are trapped.
It’s literally an involuntary phenomenon, it happens nonconsciously.
But here’s the crazy thing: once you know that, instead of making you throw up your hands and say, “it’s hopeless,” it gives you the power to take control and escape the “scarcity trap.”
Scarcity is the perception that there’s a gap between what you have and what you need.
I learned about what it is, and what it does to us, in a book I can’t recommend more highly: Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives (aff link), by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir.
Typically, “scarcity” is defined in terms of economics: the gap between limited resources and theoretically limitless wants. The authors of Scarcity initially developed their work due to a concern with poverty, with the aim of trying to figure out why it’s so intractable.
What they’ve found is that people struggling financially focus intently on the here-and-now—paying the cutoff notice or the past-due rent—to the detriment of what’s coming down the pike. They’ll take payday loans out of necessity, “borrowing” from the future.
But when the loans come due, they’re even worse off. (That’s why it’s a scarcity “trap”—scarcity leads to deeper scarcity.)
The mechanism for this behavior, the authors found, is a preconscious shift of focus to laser in—they call it tunneling, as in tunnel vision—on the problem right in front of you, making the poor really good at dealing with the financial crisis of today.
But tunneling radically cuts the mental bandwidth available to deal with anything else—job performance, parenting, school, never mind long-term financial planning—by the equivalent of pulling an all-nighter or two. It literally reduces fluid (i.e. available) intelligence in those realms.
And again, this is involuntary, nonconscious.
I found this incredibly enlightening and empathy-expanding. But it’s not why I read the book, and not why I’m writing this article.
I’m writing this article, and I’m legitimately obsessed with the principle of scarcity because in the process of investigating financial scarcity, Mullainathan and Shafir have uncovered something huge, even bigger than a framework that may help fight poverty.
I would argue that we creatives feel a special flavor of scarcity that drives us to run like a hamster on hell’s own wheel.
It’s complicated: it most often includes some level of financial scarcity, and it almost certainly includes time scarcity (juggling our art with day jobs, family, etc.)… But there’s also scarcity of respect or status for our work (coming from others), and scarcity of self-actualization (the need to make the work that we care so much about) when there’s always a lack of time and focus for that work.
What would you call that, the creative scarcity cocktail?
Feeling the chest-constricting anxiety of that scarcity, you tell yourself you “have no choice” but to make short-sighted decisions, because your terrier brain is yapping at you to make work make work get it out there make more get people to see it make money with it get seen make work it’s not enough make more try to sell it do the thing…
It never stops.
It’s why no one project ever feels like it’s enough.
I’ve got a friend, a designer, who told me her greatest fear isn’t that she’ll end up a bag lady (as my mom would put it. That was her fear.) but that her work—that she—will be forgotten.
Scarcity = a perceived shortfall between what you have and what you need.
So. Who ever told us we need to live our passions, that we should follow our dreams and have it all? Who said it was possible to fully self-actualize in your life?
Uh. Basically everybody, all the time?
When we don’t achieve that, we feel like we’re failing. We feel scarcity.
You go through school, you love art, and you take classes.
People say, OMG, you’re so good at art! You should be an artist. So you’re like, OK, yeah, I love making art, I feel most me when I’m making art. This is all I want to do. So you go to art school, and you graduate, and then you’re like, WTF do I do now?
There’s this notion out there that If you follow a path, If you work hard, you should get what you want.
Corollary: if you are not getting what you want, it’s because you’re not working hard enough.
Scarcity, ipso facto.
I’ve been writing and teaching and coaching about how to put your creative work at the center of your life since 2015. I’ve uncovered a whole host of mechanisms that play a part in preventing you from getting there, and have developed effective tools and strategies to combat them.
So why am I so excited about this lens of scarcity?
I feel like I’ve been peeling an onion, and I’m down to the root.
In Scarcity, Mullainathan and Shafir explain the psychological effects of experiencing scarcity, but the salient points are these:
What this means is that when I feel caught in a trap of my own devising (which I do, constantly), it’s not my fault.
I made decisions and took actions in the moment, nonconsciously.
And I didn’t have the bandwidth available to also grapple with the repercussions of my scarcity-addled actions.
I work too much, I’m in perpetual crisis mode, I can’t seem to give myself a break. I agonize over it, I work on it, I come up with ways to attack it. And to be clear, things have gotten a lot better. I have made real changes. But at the core, I find myself running down the same frantic grooves.
But my job is helping people like you solve similar kinds of problems. I have spent a lot of energy working on how to address getting right with our creative work lives, and in fact have gotten pretty good at it.
So why do I find my own behavior so incredibly resistant to change? And if I can figure that out, can I help you escape your own resistant patterns?
Let’s start with the plus side. Because I think there’s another reason why I think creatives are particularly susceptible to the scarcity trap.
We like being in the tunnel. (At least when we’re doing our own work.)
I’m in the tunnel right now. 100%.
And I’m enjoying it. I’m very productive. I feel effective, smart. And on the micro level of THIS project, this blog post and the workshop I’m planning in a few weeks (more on that in a minute), that’s an accurate perception. I am more effective because I’m 100% focused on this project.
This is what the authors of Scarcity call “focus dividend” It’s a heightened state. I hesitate to call it flow, but it’s not far off. And I’m a little addicted to it.
But the benefits are only inside the tunnel. Anything outside, I can’t think about, and that means I’m barely keeping up with the basics.
For a week or two, that’s OK, I’ll survive.
And not only will I survive, but the work may actually be better. New ideas pop, things come together. It’s hard to not want to work that way. It feels bigger.
A lot of creative people seek out that intensity. 24-hour Comics Day, NaNoWriMo, #inktober…they create artificial scarcity. We engineer scarcity to give us the focus to do the work we want to do (or at least we settle for something that’s a close neighbor, which is a separate trap…).
A couple of weeks in this tunnel can feel pretty good.
Problem is: I’ve been living in here off and on (mostly on) for 20+ years. It’s home.
And it’s totally worn me out.
Reading Scarcity was like the lights suddenly turning on in here, after 20 years of feeling my way in the darkness. I suspected something was wrong at a basic level with how I was working. But now I can actually see why it felt so constrictive.
And you know what? In the light, I’ve spotted an escape hatch.
The research conducted by the authors of Scarcity make it clear: when your scarcity mindset is triggered, you enter a psychological, automatic process that you can’t think your way out of. You can’t simply decide to be “abundant” and not feel the effects of scarcity.
It’s normal, it’s not your fault. And you can’t just opt out.
BUT that does not mean you are powerless over the scarcity mindset. Quite the contrary.
If you can identify when the scarcity mindset is likely to take hold for you, or if you can see clearly that you’re already “tunneling” (as I am right now), you can design interrupters, safety features, into your life.
The key to interrupting the scarcity mindset or planning your way out of a scarcity trap is to take moment-to-moment decision making out of your hands.
The most common experience people share with me is finding it really difficult to carve out time for their own self-generated creative work in the face of a day job, family demands, and the chaos of everyday life. They just can’t seem to make time at all.
That’s a different problem than I have in my life, but it, too, comes out of scarcity.
Looking at this situation through the lens of scarcity, we see that clearly, something is capturing your mind, making it impossible to do what the long-term-thinking part of your brain really wants you to do.
Maybe you’re a freelancer, so you have financial/security scarcity because you’re never sure you have enough coming in to cover the bills. So you tunnel on gig work and deadlines.
Maybe you have time scarcity because you’ve got a demanding job and kids and volunteer commitments. You tunnel on getting through the million tasks a day and you don’t have the bandwidth to address whether what you’re doing is effective.
I’m not trying to be reductive.
Clearly, there are also other factors at play as well when you avoid spending time on what you tell yourself is your true purpose. Procrastination is often tied to perfectionism (aka fear of what others will say), or feeling guilty and unworthy.
No matter how complicated the motive, the effect is feeling a horrendous tug-of-war between your heart saying, “I want to make this thing!” and your head overruling, saying, “I can’t I can’t I can’t!”
And so you don’t. But the deep need to make the work does not go away. One coaching client said about not being able to write his novel: “It feels like there’s a hole in my heart.”
The answer to this horrible state of affairs is to take the deciding power away from your in-the-moment brain.
Remove the option to even ask yourself, “Do I have time? Do I have permission?”
This is what we do in the Creative Focus Workshop. Using your knowledge about what your life is really made of (and what your specific challenges are) we put together a plan where you make decisions ahead of time about what you’ll do when. (And we reinforce those decisions with simple “systems” like calendar alarms.)
What that means is, in the moment, when you’re like, I can’t I can’t I can’t! You rely on a system where you don’t really have a “choice” but to do a work session on your book, or stop work and go home, or whatever it is you need to do.
Because it’s just what you do.
The CFW is only 5 weeks long (or 11 weeks with live group coaching). That’s too short to see the completion of the kind of massive, ambitious projects my students envision.
But I know my students will get where they’re going when they report that they’re sleeping better. Or they’re getting up at the same time every day and taking a walk outside before plunging back into the tunnel. And they’re doing their work, even during job crises, even during holidays, even when their kid is on deadline for a school project and his laptop is in the shop.
It’s what they do. And the control they feel over their lives is truly life-changing.
I know this sounds magical. It’s you who put the guardrails in place, so you can ignore them. And it’s true, you can.
But often, Mullainathan and Shafir tell us, all that’s needed is an interrupter for the brain to be able to escape the tunnel. They tell the story of a crazy-busy foundation president who has meeting after meeting, but is never late. Why? Because he’s tasked his assistant with popping into the room five minutes before the end of each meeting and saying, “Five minutes!” and then again at the end of the meeting.
He could brush her off and continue if he chose to, but the externalized control allows him to indulge in the focus dividend of tunneling for an hour, safe in the knowledge that he has an escape hatch that will keep him from falling into a time scarcity trap (delayed meetings means rescheduling, and tomorrow is just as booked…).
I don’t have an assistant, but this is an alarm I set on my phone to break my concentration just enough to get me out the door and home to dinner with my kids.
I’ve been home and fully present for homework, dinner, and bedtime with my kids every day this week.
The principle of scarcity for me is like a lens that puts everything into focus at once.
It’s more evidence, if I needed it, that building a sustainable creative life is not about grit, or being somehow special (talented, lucky) but about designing your life for resilience, putting guardrails in place, making the right choice, the only possible choice, for you.
In my book Growing Gills: How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life, I have a whole section devoted to building an “exoskeleton”—a custom-fitted system made of ordinary household parts, that, when you put it on, gives you superpowers.
What does that mean? It means reminders, calendars, auto-replies, scheduled internet blockers. It also means auto-paid bills, automated savings, default enrollment in your company’s 401k.
It means building the habit of making your work so that it’s ordinary, not extraordinary. It’s what you do: you go to work.
January 14, 2019 at 2:37 pm
Thank you for making this post. The scarcity trap is very real and something that haunts so many of us creatives. It is very inspiring to know that someone as successful and experienced as you has taken the time to share such vulnerable insights.
I am still early in my career but I intend to continue building while keeping in mind how to avoid the pitfalls of scarcity and its traps. Thank you for sharing.
January 14, 2019 at 3:09 pm
Food for thought, definitely! I have been putting “routines and rituals” in place as a scheduling skeleton and it is beginning to work. I have had too much negative feedback from my life during tunneling times, especially when I cannot pull back once I’ve reached my self-chosen time limit, anything from hours to weeks. I love the viewpoint about scarcity your article has provided!
January 14, 2019 at 8:33 pm
Thanks, Jessica. This is an interesting post indeed! In December I committed to finishing writing and illustrating a book I started last spring. I had to make the difficult decision to put other projects aside and I’ve done it. Sunday nights I write down goals for the week, and I make them. As you say, it’s just what I do. So I’m wondering what my scarcity is, and it’s sharing my work. The only reason I haven’t gotten trapped in endless social media is that I don’t really like it and don’t know how to do it very well. Thanks for the food for thought in your post!
January 15, 2019 at 3:20 pm
Scheduling work times in between all the distractions of family, work, kids, cleaning & transporting has made my creative time more productive. My work flow is steadily increasing and the work is better. My wife is my harshest critic and she makes my creative time a priority. She can tell when something needs tweaking or major overhauling and I trust her. We have really worked hard on hammering out a truly beautiful coming of age story. The writing and rewriting has been arduous. We are on draft number five and my sagging middle is now a stronger story. Bookmarking made it easy to reschedule creative time, during interruptions in hectic times, especially during the holidays. Scar City is a place I don’t bother visiting anymore.