Monday, June 17, 2019

"Opportunity cost" and the pleasures of daily tasks while writing

Figure 1. Not me.
This is not the post where I reveal that I have become a Stepford wife, and I do not wear a straw hat while shopping.

However, I was recently reading about the new childhood guru Emily Oster and her "parenting by the numbers" approach.

(Digression and disclosure: when my kids were little, I skimmed a book one time--Berry Brazelton--that sounded sensible but aside from that figured that I knew how to parent better than the book pundits. "Be loving, be consistent, and see to it that they didn't get too tired or overstimulated" was my mantra, and aside from that, the experts could step right off. It seems to have worked.)

Back to Oster. This sentence stopped me cold:
As a child in the nineteen-eighties, Oster said, “we were the only people who ordered groceries from the grocery store.” When young Emily asked her mother, “Why don’t we ever go to the store, like regular people?,” her mother told her, “Because my time is very valuable. I have a high opportunity cost.”
I found this sentence  insufferable amazing. Maybe she didn't like grocery shopping, and maybe the "opportunity cost," whatever that is, was indeed too high. Okay. Different strokes and all that.

But if you're taking care of little kids, a trip to the grocery store can be an outing (if you are home with your kids).

And when the kids are grown and you are writing, a trip to the grocery store can be, yes, an outing.

Think of it this way: you're looking at a world in basically two dimensions all day when you're writing. Screen, meet eyes. Eyes, meet screen. Even reading books feels somewhat two-dimensional because it's all transactional: you search for what you want and hope you find it, with the aid of post-its and notes. It's black and white, or sepia and white, if you're dealing with old materials.

Then you go to the grocery store and things are in three dimensions. They have shapes. They have color. You make choices. You shift your brain to the sensory realm of cooking and eating. Your planning changes focus. You see people who are moving around instead of in a photograph.

Figure 2. I want to go to there.
Okay, it's not a walk around Walden Pond or even a lovely morning walk, but a trip to the store feels like a reward at the end of the day, especially when your eyes are watering and smarting from work.

Cleaning the house and doing laundry are somewhat the same, except that they don't get you out of the house.  When you're stuck on a piece of writing and you take a break to load the dishwasher or fold clothes, your brain is still working, but your focus has shifted. (Spouse is in a writing-heavy profession and does the same thing with housework as a break.)

So while maybe I have a high enough "opportunity cost" to order groceries and hire out some household tasks, the cost in terms of getting a break from work wouldn't be worth it to me.

On the other hand, it'd be nice to have the extra time. What about you? Do you hire this stuff out?


nicoleandmaggie said...

To be honest, I've outsourced grocery shopping with the kids to my husband. He needs to get out of the house to see adults and I need to be away from people (and DC2 needs energy run out). Of chores, I tend to enjoy grocery shopping, but not as much as not having to put on street clothes on a Saturday morning. The opportunity cost of having to wear pants is too high(!) We do do fancy groceries together about once a month after leaving the kids with my sister and hitting TJ's and WF in the city. Yesterday we went without my sister and the kids were so complainy about having to go grocery shopping instead of getting to go home after our other adventures. (In fact, DC2 almost had a tantrum in the store when our first stop that morning was a fruiteria which she thought was not interesting enough. My kids are spoiled!)

Walden pond is not my first choice of lovely morning walks, though maybe I'm missing something? I always figured the bar for nature in New England wasn't very high.

Whenever my DH is unemployed he just takes care of everything and I really do have more creative energy from not having that mental load to worry about laundry being done or food or whatever. There's a transition to that mindset. Not to say I don't take breaks to think, but they're not doing laundry.

JaneB said...

I do order in the groceries - but that's because I find the artificial lights and busyness and need to make countless decisions and all the excessive things I like to eat but shouldn't rather overwhelming at the best of times, and have had a couple of panic attacks queueing for the cashier, so I decided it counted as a high stress thing that I could and would outsource! Email counts as people contact, and most writing at home days involve a Skype with collaborators or similar, and I just don't have high being-around-people requirements. Now, if there was a place I could go to hang out with more kitties...

Servetus said...

Yup -- we do a weekly pickup at the store (drive truck in, lower tailgate, let the worker put the groceries in, raise the tailgate, drive away). The sheer tedium of shopping (put something in the cart, lay it on the checkout belt, put it in a bag, put the bag in a cart, roll the cart outside, put the bags in the vehicle, drive home, take it out of the vehicle into the house, then figure out how to put it away) plus the need for superfluous decisionmaking and the fact that pickup is free made this a no-brainer. They pick produce from the back of the store, which meets our needs for fresh items that don't necessarily have to be consumed immediately. Usually I take a previous week's order, edit it slightly, and click the button, which means it takes me 3 minutes or less to buy the stuff and roughly half an hour to pick the stuff up and return home and put it away. It's also cut down drastically on impulse buys. Big fan here. Every now and then I'll still go to a farmer's market (although I'm thinking next year we'll just sign up for a CSA) or to a specialty store (butcher, fishmonger, spices) if I'm feeling the need to actually shop.

Servetus said...

ps: Also, no screaming children this way.

gwinne said...

Yes, like you I do enjoy some of those mundane household tasks as a way to reboot from writing/academic labor. I will say, though, that if I actually SEE the work that needs to be done around the house (toys on the floor, dishes piling up, etc) I'm distracted from intellectual work. This is one of the bonuses of having more space in this house.

I'm torn about shopping. I do really love Whole Foods and the farmer's market and things of that sort. I absolutely loathe the big cheap grocery store (way too overstimulating). I've reached a sort of happy medium of shopping at the places I like and trying to use amazon and chewy and other online places for the stuff that still needs to come into the house (like toilet paper and cat food!). I could be better at it. At various moments in my life I've decided it's worth keeping a kid in childcare so I don't need to take said child to the grocery store. I'm mostly past that stage....

Anonymous said...

In no universe is going to the grocery store a reward at the end of a long day of working hard. It's an additional stressor.

undine said...

nicoleandmaggie--that sounds like a good outsourcing all around. Trader Joe's (we don't have a Whole Foods) is more entertaining. As for Walden Pond: there is just something about that place, I guess, though there are a lot more beautiful walks.

JaneB--that makes sense; a store is a high-intensity barrage of lights and noise, and I can see why it's overwhelming. I don't get to see or talk to people otherwise (no Skype collaborators), so maybe thta's the attraction.

Servetus--that sounds like an ideal process. You answered one of my questions about ordering online: how do you know you'd get fresh produce and not the wilted lettuce and limp carrots?

gwinne--that sounds like a good mix. About the distractions: After my paean to getting out of the house or doing housework, this week it has all disappeared because I've actually been getting writing done. "Getting groceries" (AKA "going to Costco to get cat litter") has become "nah, we can make do for now" because it's an intellectual distraction, as you say.

Anonymous--thanks for stopping by! It really is kind of pathetic that it seems to be a reward, because it really isn't, but since I have to get groceries anyway, at some point it became a way to accomplish two things at once--necessity as the mother of invention and all that. In no universe do I ever, ever want to shop for clothes, however, so I do get it.

Servetus said...

At least in our case, they offer you the opportunity to check out and reject the produce they pick for you each time. They explicitly say, "did you want to look at your produce order?" I don't anymore because I've never had even one issue with what they picked, but it's theoretically an option. (If I order eggs they are also prompted to ask me if I want to verify that they are not broken.) I've been told some people have an issue with sell-by dates, i.e., they don't go through the entire milk refrigerator and pick the most remote date, but we've never had any issue with rapid expiration, either. I am extremely satisfied. Very occasionally there's a computer glitch problem, i.e., something I ordered gets lost between my screen, their computer, and the local store. I would say twice a year, maybe.