What highway congestion can teach you about your goals

Photo courtesy of Matthias

 

Many of you spend a large chunk of your life stuck in traffic.  And I feel for you; I lived in New York City with a car for seven years, and while I never commuted to work using my car, whenever I had to drive anywhere I felt like was living in my own personal Black Friday Mall Parking Lot.

And while you’re stuck in your car, fuming at how late you are, or how much of a jerk the guy in front of you is (and as an aside, why is it always the “guy”), you might look around and the road surface and think, “why don’t they widen this road?”  If there isn’t enough road space, it seems like an obvious solution would be to just make more space, right?

Except, it turns out not to work.  The reason for this is what is known as “induced demand“.  Here’s what ends up happening when new lanes are built on a road:

  1. Traffic flows more freely (yay!)
  2. The road becomes attractive as a means of travel (yay!)
  3. People divert from their original routes to travel on the road (hmm)
  4. Other people who may not have made a trip at all may be induced to use the road (umm)
  5. More cars end up on the road (boo!)
  6. Traffic slows to a crawl again (no!)

If you doubt this, look around you.  The road you’re on was once a two lane country road and now it’s a six lane arterial leading through a dense grove of strip malls.  The New Jersey Turnpike, when it opened in 1951, was two lanes in each direction for most of its length, and yet now it is up to 14 total lanes in places (and they are currently in the process of adding six extra lanes to a 30 mile section).

The law of induced demand is a fascinating look into how we collectively misjudge situations, and I confess that I could write about it for hours.  But even if transportation planning doesn’t interest you, it turns out that the law of induced demand has lessons to teach anyone who is interested in productivity, goal setting, and making awesome things happen.

You don’t need more

If you only had more money, you’d be able to do so much.  You’d pay off your debt, travel more, buy all those things you’ve been wanting, etc.  You could climb Everest, if only you had the money.

And yet, have you ever met someone who makes $250,000 a year and yet feels the exact same way?  This person makes a ton a money–way more than you–and yet here they are, lamenting their sorry state of affairs.  Makes you angry, right?

Well, don’t get too angry.  At this very moment someone who is making much less than you is probably clenching a fist in your direction.

The point is, after basics are met, money often follows the same law of induced demand.  The more you have, the more you end up using.  From making sandwiches at home, now you go out to lunch.  From having thrift store furniture, now you can afford to buy new.  Options become available, and you’re likely to use them, keeping you in the same situation you were before.

Same problem with time

Who isn’t strapped for time these days?  We’re running around all day, working hard, running errands, with little if any time to just sit down and relax.  If only you had more time, right?

Problem is that it often doesn’t work that way.  The more time you have, the less urgency things take on, which means that you might not gain any extra productivity.  Your “new lanes” will fill up with the same slow traffic.  And worse, with too much unstructured time, you could become paralyzed, in a way that you just couldn’t afford to do when your time was limited.

Do I dare apply this to friends too?

It’s a rare person I find who feels like they are fully surrounded by love and understanding, and that is a shame.  “If I only could find more people who understood me” is not an uncommon lament in this world.  But are more friends really the answer?  Is filling up your preferred social network with more “friends” really the answer?  Well, have you ever been out with your friends and no one had anything to say to each other?  Take it from me:  more isn’t the answer.  Something else is.

In short, it does not follow that having more space for something implies that more will happen.  You probably don’t need more money.  You don’t need more time.  You need something else.  Can you figure out what?

But enough about me.  What do you wish you had more of?

Mike Pumphrey

Mike Pumphrey

I'm the founder and author of Unlikely Radical, a site to help people succeed with money, achieve their goals, and live intentionally.

I offer a free phone consultation to anyone who is interested in changing their financial narrative. Are you ready? Click here for details.
Mike Pumphrey
Posted on January 14, 2013