Sunday, July 8, 2012

Learning to Want, Part III

In Part I and Part II of this series I explained how I came to the point where I decided to unwind my consumption-driven lifestyle. Now I'll finally get to explaining some of the specifics of what I did that helped me to implement what I call my Principle of Contentment:

"If you learn to want what you have, you'll already have what you want."

Some of these practices were accidental discoveries, and others were ones that I reluctantly adopted out of necessity. The first of these was completely accidental and actually started long before I began making more conscious efforts to reduce my impulse to consume:

I reduced my exposure to advertising.

It all started when I bought a TiVo in the mid 90s so that I could watch my shows on my own schedule. Once I got used to fast-forwarding through all the commercials, advertisements in other media began to be increasingly annoying to me. I eventually went on to cancel cable altogether, and now just about everything I watch is through Netflix Instant (using a Roku), on DVD, or on YouTube. Actually, I don't even watch that much TV anymore nor do I miss it. I've also dropped all my magazine subscriptions, and I have Adblock Plus installed on all of my web browsers.

As I've reduced my ad exposure, I've noticed a significant decline in my interest for "what's new". I have no clue what new movies are playing, whether there's a new iPhone being released or what new flavor of Doritos is going to make my head explode. I am blissfully unaware of all the new and improved, greatest and most exclamatory-adjective-laden products that are now available to make me dissatisfied with what I already own. I don't have a constant stream of professionally engineered sounds and images trying to separate me from money, only to obtain yet another thing they will make certain I am dissatisfied with before I'm even done paying for it.

Corporations spend billions and billions of dollars on advertising. For many products, a great portion of what you spend on it goes to cover the advertisement costs of convincing you to buy it. Practically every TV channel, magazine and radio station is utterly dependent on advertising to stay in business. Those corporations are not financing all that "free" entertainment out of a sense of goodwill or a charitable desire to sponsor the arts. They spend that money because advertising works. Period.

This doesn't mean I never buy new things but I'm rarely even aware of what my options are until I actively seek something out. I only do that when I am ready to buy because the old one broke or no longer meets my needs. It's shocking how much longer the old stuff remains satisfying when you don't even know that new things have been released.

Just a bit of proactive ad avoidance resulted in a significant increase in contentment with the things I already had. It surprised me, especially since I considered myself to be practically immune to advertising. The most insidious aspect of ads is not just that they are intended to promote a specific product, but they seem to stimulate consumption in all aspects of life.

I like to think that I'm a strong, independent thinker and savvy consumer. Even if I am, that doesn't make me immune to advertising and being aware of that:

I became more conscious of environmental influences.

I had heard the conventional wisdom as long as I could remember: If you're trying to stop drinking, don't hang out at the bar. If you're trying to quit smoking, don't hang out at the smoker's bench. If you want to manage your portions, don't go to the all you can eat buffet.

Even though I was familiar with the concept, I didn't really think about it too deeply before. Besides the obvious factor that I was more likely to give in to temptation I'm influenced by peer pressure, there was an other level. Even when I had the discipline to resist those temptations, just being around those environmental influences made me less content with what I had.

This is an ongoing process and I suspect it always will be. My environment changes over time but I try maintain an awareness of how it affects my contentment. I try to minimize the most negative influences. I don't want to become a complete hermit or a social outcast (well, not usually) but I find myself avoiding social situations where I know I'll be tempted by too much food and drink. When I do partake, I accept beforehand that I may indulge, even to excess. I'm learning that there's no need to feel guilty about an occasional indulgence or that it's in any way a reason to abandon all the positive changes I've made. It's a part of my life where I'm still trying to find a balance but I think I'm mentally in a much healthier place than I was before.

I found that these small adjustments to the external influences in my life were very helpful in reducing the all those unconscious impulses to constantly consume. Just being aware of the influences of advertisement and environment was remarkably powerful. Having turned down some of the external noise and pressure, I was able to listen to the internal processes that needed to be addressed. I'll talk a little bit about those in the next part.


  1. What tool are you using ot track weight / calories? As soon as I move, I want to get serious about some weight loss - following the Mike plan. But I think you might have a stability and balance in your home/work life that enables you to create a very consistent environment. ??

    1. I use both Fitbit and CalorieKing but I'm only tracking calories on Fitbit right now (I have daily weight data in CK going back to 2008). If I was forced to choose, I'd pick CK. While Fitbit is flashier and the device is nifty, I don't find it particularly useful and the whole "adjust your day's calories to your day's activities" concept is more aggravating to me than it is motivational. I'll try to work up a post that details the tools I use and how I go about tracking and how I determine calorie allowances in more detail.

      As far as stability goes, I don't know. I work graveyard shifts that run 12 hours leaving me very little time to prepare meals and get sufficient sleep. I do have longer weekends but I have to be proactive about planning ahead. Most people gain a lot of weight when they work nights but I've managed to lose quite a bit in spite of that.

      I've had much easier schedules than this in my life and have gotten fat on them by eating crap food.

      I'm not saying it's all a matter of discipline and self control. I'm about the laziest person I know. I just took some time to work out routines and recipes that allow me to stay "on plan" with very little effort.