Thinking on the Margin

Decision tactics
to Beat Back Black and White Thinking and decision anxiety
so you can move forward


by Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
Another of The Black & White topic articles
from the Challenges Inventory™ Series

Balancing our Books by Thinking on the Margin

Most frequently associated with economic theory, “thinking on the margin” is also a handy concept that can help break the back of black and white thinking for those of us with Executive Functioning Disorders.

It’s an interesting theory of how we make decisions that relates to increasing personal productivity, avoiding an increase of the time we spend on task. It is worth taking the time to understand.

So let’s check it out!

Costs and benefits

Most of us have probably been exposed to the concept of performing a cost/benefit analyses to help us determine whether something is worth doing.

That technique can be simply described as one where we tally up the costs and downsides to an endeavor and compare them to a tally of the benefits and upsides that might be derived if we went forward with something we have been considering.

That’s not exactly what “thinking on the margin” advocates.  Once some basic data has been gathered, this second concept asks us to compare the cost and benefit of any additional action.

It means to think about your next step forward, not ALL possible steps forward.

Lemonade Economics:

Let’s pretend you are an unusually economically savvy kid operating a lemonade stand at the end of an especially HOT summer day.

You’ve done the math and determined that, based on the traffic in your neighborhood and how many cups you expect to sell, you need to get no less than 25 cents each to cover the cost of cups, ice, lemons and sugar – and pay yourself enough for your time to make it worth doing at all.

So you make your sign:
Ice Cold Home Made Delicious Lemonade,
only a quarter a cup!

But once you’ve recouped your costs, the equation changes.  Everything from that point on is profit, right?  So when you are offered a measly dime from the kid next door, you have a different decision to make.

  • Based on the traffic today, how much longer are you likely to have to tend your stand to sell the rest of your lemonade at full price?
  • How much longer before your ice melts?
  • How eager are you to sell it all and get into the air conditioning?
  • Even, how much do you like the neighbor-kid with the dime?

The optimum benefit for you would be where the marginal benefit (what you receive as a result of your decision) equals the marginal cost — which, in this case, is settling for less than what you’d hoped you would receive for every cup of lemonade.

Were you this young entrepreneur, economists who advocate “thinking on the margin” would advise you to accept less than 25 cents a cup exactly when the marginal benefit of selling an additional cup of lemonade at your original cost equaled the point where staying out in the sun much longer was no longer worth it to you — regardless of what the average benefit from your work had been to that point.

They say that, to work smart, we always need to work at the margin.
I say, it’s a good concept to keep in mind for some decisions.

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Marginal Thinking and Personal Productivity

Most of us who are big on getting things done already think on the margin, even if we don’t consciously consider our decisions in those terms.

  • When we are least productive, we spend our time on those items that don’t really yield a great deal of forward movement in our lives: like playing Words with Friends™, or browsing the internet for pins with productivity tips — or even frittering away the day handling those bazillion “minute” tasks many productivity gurus counsel us to handle immediately.
  • When we are most productive, we ask ourselves, even unconsciously, “What can I do that will produce the highest Return on Investment [ROI] for my time right this very minute?”

Said another way, thinking on the margin where our personal productivity is concerned helps us decide when to STOP one endeavor to move on to something else.

Consciously changing our way of thinking about how we determine what we do with our resources to include the economic concept of thinking on the margin can help us be more efficient or intentional about our decision-making.

But there is another concept it would be good to factor in as well.

Opportunity Cost

What else could you be doing with your resources – time or money, for example? In other words, what would you be giving up to continue on your current path?  While that might sound like the same thing, it’s more like looking at decision-making from two different viewpoints.

  • Marginal cost refers to what you’d have to consider in order to sell or produce one more item.

It’s easier to understand when you are dealing with when to stop producing another unit of product, but in productivity terms that might mean, for example, giving up the additional time to make sure that today’s blog post is error-free before you hit publish.

When you’re hungry or sleepy it might be well worth it to you to pack it in without a final pass. You might well change a few more things were you to keep on keepin’ on, but perfection is no longer worth it to you at that point.

Related Post: Getting to Good ENOUGH!

  • Opportunity cost is considering that time spent from, effectively, the other end of the telescope — looking specifically at what you’d have to give up, were you to spend that additional time making sure everything is the very best it could be.

How perfect does it really need to be,
compared to what it would “cost” you to make it so?

After all, you can’t spend your time on something else while you are still working on making today’s blog post just so, any more than you can spend money on one thing and have it available to buy something else.

* Does spending additional time mean you won’t have the time to fix the dinner you’d planned, so your family will have to eat take-out one more night?
* Does it mean you will be late for something else you’d looked forward to doing – or that, perhaps, it wouldn’t be worth attending at all if you couldn’t be on time for, say, a theatre curtain?
* Will you be unable to get in bed in time to get enough sleep to be really sharp for that early meeting for your important client presentation tomorrow?

Those are all examples of the opportunity cost of working for additional time perfecting that blog post. It’s another way of deciding to let good enough be good ENOUGH.

Related Post: The Virtues of Lowering your Standards

On the margin decisions

A decision at the margin is not deciding whether to go to a restaurant to celebrate your father’s birthday, or whether to have a party at your home or your sister’s.

It’s more like deciding whether to have another drink (or dessert) after the birthday meal is concluded, regardless of environment.

Once dinner is over, you need to factor in a number of things, most of which you couldn’t possibly have known ahead of time: how much you ate for dinner and whether you have “room” for dessert without making yourself uncomfortable, for example.

Or whether there is somebody else willing to drive you home if you have that additional drink — or even how far you have to drive, how busy the route, and the likelihood of getting into a fender-bender before you are safely home.

Somewhere there is a point where the cost and benefit are equal,
and that is exactly the “margin” that economists encourage you to consider.

This theory of economics suggests that the most effective manner of thinking at the margin would be to decide whether to proceed with an action at the tipping point where the marginal benefit begins to outweigh the marginal cost (or vice versa).

Beyond an initial cost-benefit analysis, it requires a more nuanced system of decision-making that is actually less detailed.  Every time circumstances change, a limited set of opportunities and challenges arise that you couldn’t have factored in to begin with.

Now let’s look at the opportunity costs of this example:

Did your partner bake a special birthday cake you won’t be able to enjoy once you return home if you eat another bite before leaving the party?

Will you have to diet for several days to “pay” for the additional calories consumed by selecting something from that luscious-looking dessert-cart?

If you are the one paying for the meal and call for a round of after-dinner drinks what else will you be unable to purchase unless you work some overtime?  What else would you have to forgo to have the time to work the additional hours?

Why care about this at all?

Life is about more than productivity, of course – there are things that are just as important as getting things done, and some that are even more important.  We each deserve down time – and we are entitled to spend some of it goofing off.

We are ALL more than our to-do lists.

However, making these frequently unconscious ways of deciding conscious not only helps us make better decisions in the moment, it helps us avoid agonizing in indecision every time we need to make one — without falling prey or giving in to impulsivity.

Conscious consideration offers us something to keep our brain’s juices flowing, often helping us to skate past the brain-lock that sometimes rides along with those pesky prefrontal cortex-intensive decisions.  And life gets easier!

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About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

14 Responses to Thinking on the Margin

  1. Chuck says:

    Hi Madelyn,
    Haven’t seen any post for a while. I hope everything is well. HUGS

    Liked by 6 people

  2. Lots to think about in this post Madelyn. Perfect for January.😊

    Liked by 3 people

  3. paulandruss says:

    Madelyn. Sent you and Email PXX

    Liked by 3 people

  4. This was a most interesting read, Madelyn. I have not thought about it but this is something I do all the time – cost/benefit analysis.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. dgkaye says:

    Hi M! So nice to see you. I was glad to see your post because I was wondering where you’ve been. I know where I’ve been and let’s just say 2018 hasn’t started with a bang. But I’m now back, albeit desperately trying to catch up on things I was well behind before the new issues came along.
    I’d also say that your Lemonade economics remind me a little about selling our books. In that case, you really have to love what you do because the money barely covers costs, let alone the no pay for our time, lol. 🙂 Hugs my friend. xxxxx

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Jennie says:

    Madelyn, it is wonderful to see / read your post! So good (as always). Black and white is what we instinctively go to. Heart ruling the head? Or maybe survival DNA since early man? Thinking on the margin — oh, yes!

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Tina Frisco says:

    I’m such an intuitive regarding decision-making. I’m aware of the pros and cons but almost always listen to my little inner voice, and usually get into trouble if I don’t. Yet, I seem to have reached a crossroads with one decision in particular, and my little voice is silent. I’m reading this at a most opportune moment 🙂 Hugs and Happy New Year, dear friend Madelyn ❤

    Liked by 3 people

  8. John Fioravanti says:

    Reblogged this on Words To Captivate ~ by John Fioravanti and commented:
    Madelyn Griffith-Haynie shares some interesting and helpful ideas around decision-making and discusses the tactic of ‘thinking on the margin’. Please share…

    Liked by 3 people

  9. paulandruss says:

    Happy new Year Madelyn and Nice to see you back and in such grand style as well!
    When we are least productive, we spend our time on those items that don’t really yield a great deal of forward movement in our lives…
    That is going to be my 2018 mantra ( I have already deleted solitaire off my computer for just that reason!) Pxx

    Liked by 3 people

  10. -Eugenia says:

    Nice post, Madelyn. A lot of food for thought.

    Liked by 4 people

  11. Lucy Brazier says:

    This is brilliant!! I love this post. Not only have a learned a little about economic theory but it has given me a new perspective on decision making. You never fail to amaze and inspire, my dear.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. Very interesting article, and where have you been, my friend? I was concerned about you, and I am very happy to see you back here with yet another excellent post!

    Liked by 4 people

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