What is the most significant constraint you face every time you must get into the car to drive somewhere?
It’s probably not the cost of car insurance or your car payment; those bills will need to be paid regardless of how often or how far you drive. More often than not, the real constraint to getting in the car and driving is congestion.
Congestion forces people with a long morning commute to leave the house early, avoiding the clogged highways of the morning rush hour. It forces people to leave the office earlier in the afternoon for the same reason.
It forces families to plan around high-volume travel times when taking a weekend trip to the beach. It forces the ensuing conversation that will begin as soon as you mention you are driving from DC to New Jersey the day before Thanksgiving.
Congestion is such a universal source of frustration, that it is one of the most common civic complaints. Transportation departments and traffic engineers attempt to address this complaint by advocating for more roadway capacity.
Seems logical enough, right? Except that the issue of congestion is much more complex, and the solution isn’t so cut-and-dried.
What is Induced Demand?
The concept of induced demand helps to illustrate the flaws inherent to solving issues of congestion simply by adding roadway capacity.
Induced demand is the name for what happens when increasing the supply of roadways lowers the time cost of driving, causing more people to drive and obliterating any reductions in congestion…In 2004, a meta-analysis of dozens of previous studies found that “on average, a 10 percent increase in lane miles induces an immediate 4 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled, which climbs to 10 percent – the entire new capacity – in a few years.
Jeff Speck, from his book Walkable City
I’ve always thought that the basic idea can best be summarized by the voice in the sky whispering to Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) in Field of Dreams:
“If you build it, they will come.”
I’ve thought a lot about the theory of induced demand, and how it can be applied to the way we live our lives.
Induced Demand as an Analogy for Life
Imagine that instead of increasing the capacity of roadways, we are increasing the capacity of our availability, of our commitments, of our tolerance for being stretched thin.
We are a culture that is proud of being busy, but we don’t often discuss the cost that comes with this busyness. We don’t discuss the value that the obligations we so willingly accept ultimately add back into our life.
We buy more stuff, we sign up for more activities, we say yes more than saying no.
Just as congestion on the road is caused by volume of cars, congestion in our lives is caused by volume of obligations. By extension, this congested lifestyle is directly correlated to the level of importance we are willing to grant those obligations.
How many of our obligations are given a disproportionately significant level of importance in our lives?
A disproportionate level of importance leads to a loss of control in day-to-day life. Many times, this loss of control is born of insecurity and fear.
Fear of losing a job if you don’t put in 60 hour weeks or respond to that email at the dinner table. Fear of losing a significant other if you don’t bring enough to the table in the relationship. Fear of losing social status by not having a degree from the right university, or the right job, or the right car, or the right clothes, or the right body.
These fears and insecurities induce a demand for our finite time and resources. A demand that is purely cosmetic, and the answer to which won’t solve the root problem of mental congestion in our lives.
The Paradox of Availability
The more willing you are to squander your availability (your physical self, your time, and your resources), the more that availability is likely to be abused with minimal return on the investment.
Positive relationships and hard work have a crucial ingredient that is required for success, which is an ingredient that is often ignored. That ingredient is healthy boundaries.
We’ve all heard the common cliche: Work smart, not hard. I have some fundamental issues with this statement, because it implies that smart work is not hard work.
However, there is something to be learned from this. A key component of smart work is the establishment of healthy boundaries; a strong ability for focusing on what matters most for the task at hand, and throwing the rest aside. For canceling out the noise.
If you don’t draw your own boundaries, someone else will. Ever neglected a high-priority task at work for an entire day due to a calendar full of meetings? So have I. It doesn’t feel good, and the reason for that is precisely due to the issue of boundaries. I’ve found that the default mode in these situations is to accept the status quo and not challenge it, to never attempt to take ownership of the limited time in the day.
Over time, I’ve become much better at saying no when I need to. At first, I was bracing for a backlash. The more I never got such backlash, the easier it became to claim control of my own time.
A diminished ability to balance competing demands is a problem that is very difficult to avoid, given the esteem that comes with being busy. A common cultural example of one particular energy-sucking demand is workplace burnout.
A Look At Workplace Burnout
Coming from a personal background in the corporate world (information technology, to be specific), I have many first-hand examples of what leads to workplace burnout. Here are a few that come to mind from my personal career experience, I’ve seen them play out in front of my very eyes:
- Mandatory work weekends with no additional compensation or time off granted later
- Mandatory 60-hour work weeks to ensure on-time project delivery, again, no additional compensation or time off granted later
- Official direction from leadership that if you are only working 40 hours each week, you aren’t doing enough.
- Office culture that encourages coming early, staying late, and replying to emails at all times.
- Peer pressure and fear tactics to ensure that not doing the above will get you noticed, and not in a good way.
- Vacation days and personal time left on the table each year due to the perception of what would happen if work were to be missed.
- Honest feedback given to (and at the request of) management coming back against you.
- The amount of mental anguish caused by all of the above.
Did I mention that mental anguish is to energy and wellbeing as a Hummer is to gasoline? It simply guzzles it all right up.
At one point in my life, my job was so stressful that it consumed my thought cycles 24×7. There were multiple factors leading to this, many of them internal, but I can safely say it was the least enjoyable phase of my adult life to this point.
It is unfortunate that a healthy, balanced life is often lost in the name of a job that would likely have no qualms not returning the favor at the end of the day.
Last week, I discussed five life-changing money lessons. Two key points discussed in that article were tracking every dollar, and performing an audit of the things you spend money on.
In a very similar fashion, the same exercise can be applied to your time. Taking a hard, honest look at the energy you have available and how it is allocated goes a long way to living a peaceful existence. This will lead to a knowledge of where to draw boundaries and what is truly a worthwhile consumer of your limited time.
In a world where stress and anxiety are through-the-roof, where the morning rush hour could almost fool you into thinking the entire city is on fire and everyone is running opposite directions, being able to maintain perspective will go a long way to restoring sanity.
When misplaced fears, misplaced obligations, and misplaced priorities are enabled to enslave us to burnout, debt, and anxiety, there are dangerous consequences. Not unlike the dangerous consequences of a surplus of cars idling about on sprawled highways.
So next time you are at dinner with your wonderful family or significant other, put the phone down. That work email can wait.