Limit One Per Customer

I was putting away groceries the other day and went down to my basement where I store the paper towels. As a father of three, I often buy pretty large bundles of those, so I was putting away the 12-pack I just bought… in the stack of about four other 12-packs that were already down there.

Paper towels don’t expire so it’s fine to have a lot, but I definitely didn’t remember getting so many. What happened?

Then I thought about it. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, supply shocks were happening and paper goods in particular were in short supply. So many stores instituted a “limit one per customer” rule. Prior to that, I did what most people probably do – before going to the store, I check to see if I’m out of something and then I only buy it if I am, or close to.

But the supply shock and “limit one per customer” rule changed my habits. Instead, I just always bought the one I was allowed to, every time I went to the store. There was no guarantee that when I was out there would be replacements, so I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to get a scarce resource.

Now (at least where I am), the supply lines are mostly evened out, and paper towels are easily accessible. But I just never really reset the habit of always grabbing a pack when I was at the store. Now that I’ve thought about it I will, but it shows how easily we can fall into habits surrounding scarce resources – or events.

“Any time is never.” If you can do something at any time, you’re far less likely to do it with any sort of frequency than if you can only do it under very specific and infrequent circumstances. Some people love the idea of 24/7 gyms because they don’t feel pressured to get there by a specific time or miss their window, but for many other people the pressure is exactly what gets them there. Needed to get there by 8 PM before they close motivates you – “not needing to rush” really quickly slides into “not needing to do it.”

I think this is the reason why “accountabili-buddies” can work so well – study partners, workout partners, or project collaborators. It’s not because you’re cajoling each other into working harder (or at least, that’s a very small part of it). It’s because the crossing of schedules naturally provides a limit on when you can do the thing you’re doing together. And when you only get 2 opportunities a week to get together with your project partner, you’re far more likely to make sure you take advantage of those opportunities.

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