It’s hard to stop adding things to your life.
When I spot a new phone app or a new physical object that confers a benefit, my first instinct is to try to acquire it. I look at the cost; if it’s free like a cool phone app then I don’t think twice. The only thing that makes me move along is the price tag.
I’m sure I’m not alone. It’s normal to want to have things that add value to your life. But as people are slowly realizing, that can come at a hefty cost. You pay not only with your wallet but also with your time and attention.
It’s especially evident with digital products. Google changed everything when it realized that it didn’t have to make money off consumers. Instead, they targeted advertisers who not only had deeper pockets, but were also happy to pay to get their product in front of thousands of eyeballs.
For a long while, it appeared that this was a win for everyone. Consumers won because they no longer had to pay for the products. Advertisers won because they could finally get the attention of consumers. Google won because they figured out how they could generate billions of dollars.
Today, Google is joined by Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and a consortium of other companies. The name of the game has changed. They’re no longer going straight for our wallet, but instead for our attention.
What does this mean for us? For one, we can’t go about viewing things through what Cal Newport calls the “Any-Benefit Mindset”.
It’s a brilliant description of what we do. We identify any possible benefit as sufficient justification for using or acquiring a tool. But this disregards all the negatives that come along with such usage.
To use the example of Facebook, we use it to connect with friends, catch up on the latest news, and find like-minded communities. It’s a network tool that sounds brilliant, but we’re also paying for it in extremely subtle ways. We spend more time and attention on our phones and laptops, hunt for social validation in the form of likes, and even risk our personal data.
Of course, not all devices or tools can hurt us in such a manner. But every purchase or acquisition comes with it hidden costs such as time, attention, and storage. We cannot just chase benefits without factoring in costs as well.
The solution to this problem is what Cal Newport calls the craftsman approach to tool selection: adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts. When we view things this way, we’re more hesitant about adding more into our lives.
With less clutter, we have more space to pursue what really matters. Beyond just objects, I think it’s worth considering how we introduce things into our life. When our life is filled up, it’s hard to remember what’s important and what isn’t.
The jar analogy, while cliche, provides some guidance here.
If we were to fill a jar with rocks, pebbles, and sand, there is a fixed order we must follow. We can’t fill up the jar with either the pebbles or sand first, because that lives no place for the rocks. The biggest object must come first, then the next in size, and finally the smallest.
It doesn’t matter if the biggest object is your family, health, or career. The important lesson is that we must put first things first. If we introduce new objects into our life indiscriminately, we’ll quickly find that there’s no space for anything else.
We can’t have it all. For everything we include, there’s something we must exclude as well. That’s the mentality we must have when deciding whether to introduce new things into our lives.
The people and things we already possess will thank us for it.