January 08, 2014

Discretionary Burdens

The other day I read a magazine article about the concept of discretionary burdens. We've all heard of discretionary spending, i.e., elective spending on non-essentials, but what's a discretionary burden (DB)?

A DB is an optional task that we peg as an obligation, burdening ourselves unnecessarily. Picture this: It's Friday and a friend or colleague is describing her to-do list for the weekend and complaining about how tired and overburdened she feels: "I have to take my mom shopping and I have to make the cake for my friend's birthday dinner and I have to get in a couple hours at the office and I have to go to yoga and I have to put away the Christmas decorations..." You're exhausted just listening to her list, but you're also skeptical: Does she actually have to make a cake? Can't she just buy one? Does she have to go to yoga? What will happen if she doesn't go?

The good news about discretionary burdens is that, because they're discretionary, we can just as easily unburden ourselves! The hard part is that we don't always recognize the discretionary nature of our burdens. While it's obvious to us that our friend or colleague could easily buy a cake or skip yoga, it's difficult to recognize our own burdens as discretionary. Therefore, the best strategy for unburdening ourselves is to read our to-do list to an impartial friend and let him or her point out the DBs.

The next time you find yourself complaining (to yourself or out loud) about how this weekend, you have to take the kids to visit your parents, attend your cousin's bachelor party, pick out paint colours for the bathroom reno, hit the gym, and read a couple articles for work, ask a friend to help point out the DBs. If you're not comfortable doing so, imagine that your list belonged to a friend. From an outside perspective, which tasks would you identify as discretionary? Can the paint colours wait? Will your cousin care if you don't make it to the party? Do you actually have to work on the weekend?

Let me know how this works!


  1. Very wise suggestion. Thank you!

  2. Outside help is always a good idea. So few things are essential. This post ties in with the concept of "busy," as in, "How are you?" "Busy!"

    What role are all these tasks playing? Is it important to feel busy in order to feel important?

    One question I find helpful when grouching over my own to-do list is instead of saying, "I have to do this and that," ask "What if I don't do this or that?" or in the case of something that has to be done sometime, like buying groceries, "What if I don't do it tomorrow (or whenever the list says)?"

    But I also like the idea of imagining the list belongs to someone else. Someone else would say "Buy what you don't feel like cooking" every time.

  3. Aka "It's really liberating to say no to shit you hate" -Hannah, Girls