Everyone’s trading something off

A basic primer on trade-off thinking

Just a quick one to say, this letter has gone paid as of last week, which means no more 5 for Friday emails if you’re not a paid supporter. I’d love for you to join in, though, but it’s okay if you don’t want to yet!


Last week I started to talk about trade-offs and I’d like to dig in a bit deeper today, because I really believe thinking in terms of trade-offs is one of the most powerful ways to think about stuff.

And like all the most useful concepts, trade-offs are deeply profound, easy to understand and easy to forget about. Also, you almost certainly do trade-off thinking already: the point of this is to be aware enough of them to do it more deliberately, and more effectively, to avoid the two main issues with trade-offs.

But first, so we’re on the same page, I’ll clarify what I mean by trade-off thinking.

When I use that phrase I mean simply thinking with an awareness, in the choices you make and actions you take, of what’s being traded off for what. For instance, as you read this email, what else could you be doing instead? Depending when you read this, you might be trading off
a conversation with someone, an earlier nap or some work you are procrastinating on. (There are a million things you could be doing, of course, but there’s usually not that many that you’re actually trading off.)

Trade-off thinking is simply being deliberate about what you’re giving up to do what you choose to do. And you don’t need to do it every time — that’s what habits and calendars are for. But when you need to make important decisions, it’s definitely always worth considering what the trade-offs would be.

But like I said earlier, there are two possible pitfalls we can fall into in applying trade-off thinking: we trade things off unwittingly — without realising it until too late — or we focus on the wrong trade off.

The unwitting trade-off

The first kind, the unwitting trade-off, should normally be avoided by simply being aware of trade-offs. But it’s not that simple, because humans are driven by desire, by the things we want. And when we want something it’s easy to focus so sharply on it that we forget everything else. Why else do people ruin their lives for a few minutes of access to something that seemed a big deal at the time? What happens in those moments is that they forgot that you are always trading something off.

And that’s the thing here: you don’t have to always engage in trade-off thinking, but you are always engaged in trading off. Always. So when you’re taking a big decision you definitely want to take a moment to think what you’d be trading off and if the bargain is worth it. And this is where the value of regularly reminding yourself of the things that matter to you, because they’re easier to forget in the moment than we often realise.

The misplaced trade-off

This is perhaps a more insidious problem: when we recognise we’re making a trade-off but fail to realise what we are actually trading off. This was first made most clear to me in my work with patients, and especially in mental health. People often don’t realise that medication is about trade-offs. You trade-off the stress of taking medication and the potential risk of side effects for the potential benefits of getting better again. But people, and especially with long term illnesses like depression, would often stop their medication, because they got tired of taking it or because of side effects. Both understandable.

What they often failed to realise, though, was that they might easily become ill again. And I never saw one patient who wanted that. Not after knowing how horrible the experience of the illness was, whether depression or psychosis. But they honestly did not factor that in. As far as they were concerned, the trade-off was between taking medicine with all its issues and not taking it. But the real trade-off was medicine stress versus their staying well. And if they were genuinely willing to stop the medicine recognising the actual trade-off that was their choice of course. But in many cases they really didn’t see that and the work was helping them grasp it.

In the end, trade-off thinking doesn’t have to stop you from any decision you make or action you take. But it does help you be clearer about what you’re doing and what’s at stake, and it helps you own it.

What big decisions do you face, and how do you think you can apply this to thinking more clearly about them?


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