The opportunity cost canary

It’s hard to see something you’re ignoring.

Opportunity costs are incurred when you choose one thing over another. If you can only choose one of two options for what to do with your Saturday – say, attend an industry conference and win new clients, or go on a hike with your kids – your opportunity cost is whichever of the two you didn’t do.

Saturday activities are a simplified example, for which most people can make up their minds based on their current priorities and personalities. However, opportunity costs span a lifetime of choices that aren’t always so clearly presented.

Have you got a to-do list of ideas to act on? Companies to start? Products to invent?

If you knew your time and energy to tackle that list was limited (spoiler alert: it is), how would you go about crossing things off?


What you can achieve in a day is a direct result of what you make the time to do. Part of being your own boss (or an adult out of school) is that no one else will give you set periods of time for activities. You have to make them out for yourself. You may base these decisions on whatever factors you prefer, but if your main factor is whether or not you feel like it at the moment – well, you know the rest.

If your list is really important to you, if it’s more than a entertaining thought of “someday maybe,” then make the time for it. It might be a half-hour every morning or every night. It may be every other Saturday. If it’s not on the same calendar you use for everything else, it doesn’t exist.


Now that you have a dedicated period of time, you’ll have to choose which list item to work on. Our brains can only truly do one thing at a time (see: multitasking myth), so choose one thing, and work on it for your allotted time.

But what about opportunity cost?

Here’s a simple way to help you figure out the opportunity costs you’re willing to accept. Each time you choose something from your list, move it to the top of the list. Assuming you’re a human, you probably like some amount of variety in your work – let’s say, three things.

After three iterations, everything on your list from the fourth position down is likely an opportunity cost you’re willing to pay.

You should adapt this principle to what works for you. Maybe five top spots is more your thing. Maybe it’s just one. You don’t necessarily need to toss the rest of the list. Instead, let it be informative.


What happens when an item that isn’t in the top spot strikes you as something you really should be doing? Or something you thought you’d want to do by now?

You now have a canary. It’s a warning that something is off-balance in your life. Maybe your priorities aren’t being addressed, or need to be rethought. Maybe you don’t possess the skills you require, and need to learn them or outsource the task.

It’s hard to see something you’re ignoring, but now you can. Now, you can start to ask the right questions.