Think back to the last meeting you sat through that lasted for approximately a thousand years. The one someone scheduled for 3pm on Friday, or at the tail end of an already long stretch of brainstorms and touchbases. The energy is low. The problem you’re trying to solve is starting to feel intractable. And yet you all keep hammering away at it, growing increasingly short-tempered and irritable.
That feeling? That’s scarcity mindset—a lesser-known form of burnout that’s completely avoidable with the right tools, as Katia Verresen, an executive coach who has worked with leaders from The New York Times, Apple, and Stanford Business School, explained in a recent interview with Charter.
“People are familiar with fight or flight or rest and digest,” she said. “But we are all familiar with situations where things feel complex, we can’t think straight, and there are no solutions. Everything feels absolutely threatening to us, and our body is contracted.”
In their 2013 book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, behavioral scientists at the University of Chicago and Princeton, argue that scarcity can dramatically influence the way we make decisions and see the world, largely for the worse. However, they also maintain that it is a state that can be changed, not a fixed condition or individual failing.
“Rather than a personal trait, it is the outcome of environmental conditions brought on by scarcity itself, conditions that can often be managed,” they write. In one experiment described in their book, Mullainathan and Shafir asked participants from a wide variety of socioeconomic circumstances to decide how to spend $150. There was no significant correlation between the decisions people made and their income, but when the same people were tasked with figuring out how to spend $1500, poorer participants tended to make poorer decisions. Their innate problem solving abilities hadn’t changed between rounds; the difference, Mullainathan and Shafir argue, was the stress of dealing with a larger sum of money, which increased their cognitive load and reduced their capacity to work through the problem.
Now back to that terrible meeting you’re stuck in.
Developing a shared language is the first step. Learn to identify the specific physical and mental sensations that accompany your own experience of scarcity mindset—and try making it a team exercise, so everyone else knows when they’re going through the same thing and feels empowered to say so. From there, moving out of scarcity can be as simple as naming the problem (maybe note that mid-afternoon is a circadian low for most humans when creative thinking is especially challenging) and suggesting a break.
“[T]ake any action that takes you back into abundance,” the opposite of scarcity mindset, Verresen said in her interview. ”It could be a dopamine hit through music. It could be pausing and stepping out of the meeting to get some water. It’s any kind of pattern interrupt to get yourself back and resettle.” Setting a timer and giving everyone 10 or 15 minutes to reset in the way that works best for them is a simple way to rescue the situation—or at least acknowledge that people may be struggling.
Or step away entirely and reschedule, if you have the luxury of time. The renowned therapists John and Julie Gottman point to a phenomenon they call “flooding” that takes place during interpersonal conflict: We become so emotionally overwhelmed that we cannot productively continue the conversation because our cognitive capacity has been reduced. Again, the solution is shared language to identify what is going on in a non-judgemental way, and willingness to step away, pause, and recover.
If that sounds a bit woo-woo for the workplace, consider Verresen’s take. “In scarcity, we don’t hear human voice as well,” she said. “We see threats that aren’t there. Our aperture is very small, so that’s not where we’re going to get our best solutions. Biologically, it’s an impossibility, or it’ll just take so much more effort or time, which is not efficient.”
By contrast, she said, “Abundance is that state where there’s a sense of safety—a biological sense of safety—and we tend to have clarity because we are tapping into more elevated emotions, like inspiration, a sense of power, and a sense of inspiration.” In the long run, identifying and working around scarcity mindset doesn’t just benefit the individual who’s hit their limit—in any scenario where people rely on one another to get things done, it’s good for the workflow of the entire team.