How to solve (almost) any problem: pay the price

Today I want to share an amazing technique for dealing with problems. It’s called paying the price.

If something’s bothering you, if you’re experiencing discomfort, this technique can help you get rid of it. It works because it helps you precisely identify the problem, its consequences, and the solution.

And because it brings that clarity, this approach makes it easier for you to take action.

So how does it work?

The person who came up with this technique is Harry Browne. He was the Libertarian Party’s candidate for the U.S. presidential elections in 1996 and 2000. Because Browne was a libertarian, he liked to think economically, in terms of prices.

Browne figured that you can pay a “price” to solve a problem in the same way that you can pay a price for a loaf of bread. He explained how this works in his book How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World.

Browne’s technique has three steps.

First, identify the “box” you are in. “A box”, Browne writes, “is any situation that restrains your freedom”.

For example, imagine that you lied to someone. Now, every time you are around that person, you have to maintain the lie. You have to be on guard, shoulders drawn up. You might feel guilty.

In this case, you’re in a box that restricts your freedom to enjoy situations involving the person you lied to.

Now imagine if the box were gone. What would you do? How would you feel? Try to visualize the situation in detail.

In our example, you could be around the person you lied to without being on edge. You’d no longer feel guilty. You might be laughing, having a good time. Your shoulders would be relaxed.

Really spend some time visualizing how you’d benefit from getting rid of the box.

Then, identify the price you’d have to pay to get rid of the box.

The price is simply whatever uncomfortable action you’d have to take to solve the situation. In the example, the price might be meeting with the person you lied to, to confess and apologize.

But it’s important to identify the price as precisely as you can.

Go through the steps in your head. Think about calling the person, and about the words you would use to explain to them why you lied. How would you word your apology?

Think also about how you would feel during the phone call. Would you be anxious? Might you be relieved if the person responded graciously?

The point of walking through the steps mentally is to get a precise sense of the price of solving the problem. That helps you compare this price with the discomfort the problem causes. Is getting rid of the problem worth the price?

Browne suggests going through the steps in your head repeatedly. The more you do, he argues, the more likely it is you’ll be willing to pay the price and get rid of your problem.

I love this technique because it is also a great way to think about making lifestyle changes.

Let’s say you really dislike sitting in traffic on your way to and from work. It puts you in a bad mood, it pollutes the air, and it costs you time and money. But you do it because you have to be at work on time and because it would take longer to get to work by public transit.

Traffic jam
I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t like sitting in traffic like this.

Ask: what box am I in? Put differently: what freedom am I lacking?

In this case, you lack the freedom to go to work and go home outside of rush hour. You lack the freedom to work from home. You find it more difficult to enjoy the time you spend with your family, because you’re not cheerful when you get home at the end of the workday.

Then imagine what would happen if the box were gone. How would you feel?

Visualize yourself getting to the office, or getting home, in a great mood. Imagine what you’d do with the extra time you’d have if you didn’t have to sit in traffic. Think about the money you’d save.

Now ask: what’s the price?

Imagine you decide to ask your boss to work from home two days a week, so you won’t have to commute two days in a row anymore. Depending on your relationship with your boss, you might not look forward to the conversation—that could be part of the price you’d have to pay.

Working from home, too, has its costs: you might need to invest in some equipment, such as a big computer screen or a comfortable desk chair. You wouldn’t be able to socialize with your coworkers on days that you’d work from home. These are part of the price.

Visualize yourself sitting at home. It would be quiet—no normal workplace chatter. It might take more effort to have a quick meeting with someone when you’re not at the office.

And walk through the conversation you might have with your boss. What might you say? How might your boss respond and how could that make you feel?

How does the price compare with your dislike for sitting in traffic?

It’s not usually a question of whether you can get rid of a box; it’s a question of comparing the discomfort of the box you’re in (the price of the status quo) with the price you’d have to pay to get rid of it.

A key to good decision-making is the ability to recognize what you’re giving up when you choose something. — Harry Browne

Often you’ll find you’re willing to pay the price. That’s especially true if the price is temporary, but the benefit will last.

Sometimes, though, you’ll find that you’re not willing to pay the price. Even then, identifying the box, visualizing the situation without the box, and precisely defining the price can help you make a good decision.

Try applying this technique to some small discomfort in your life today. What bothers you on a daily basis? How does that restrict you? (What box does it put you in?) What would happen if you got rid of it? And most importantly, what price would you have to pay to get rid of it?

I’ll leave you with some advice from Harry Browne himself:

Cultivate the art of looking for prices anytime you notice a discomfort. Find out what it would take to be rid of it; there’s always a way.


Photo credits: Wayne StadlerJohn Grimm

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