See if this sounds familiar to you…
You’re sitting there waiting for something to happen. Maybe you’re in a doctor’s office waiting room. Maybe you’re on the couch waiting for your wife to come home. Maybe you’re just feeling directionless at the moment.
Whatever it is, you feel as if you don’t know what to do with yourself right now. You grab a magazine and flip through it but don’t really engage with any of the articles. You pick up your phone, browse through a few meaningless social media posts, put it down, then pick it up again a moment later and do the same thing. Maybe you play a really dumb smartphone game for a minute or two. You fidget. You look around. You feel like you need something to fill that empty space.
Or how about this…
You have this vague idea in the back of your head that you need to get into better shape physically and maybe mentally and emotionally and spiritually, too. It’s a nagging voice in the back of your head.
Both of those things are what I like to call the “empty spaces” in our lives. They’re moments or events or aspects of our lives that feel empty when we don’t want them to be empty.
Maybe we just want something to engage and entertain us. Maybe we feel like there’s something missing in our lives. Whatever it is, there’s something missing.
It’s those empty spaces – and especially our barely-conscious awareness of those empty spaces – that provide a gigantic window for some of our worst money mistakes.
Take that fidgety state when you’re waiting for someone or something. In that moment, it becomes very tempting to stroll over to a vending machine and buy a treat or to buy and download a new smartphone app. When you do those things, you gain this false sense of fulfillment, as though you’re actually doing something to genuinely fill that time when you’re not actually filling it in any meaningful way. It’s just another form of fidgeting, except now you’re paying for it.
What about that sense of something missing in your life? If it’s left in the background of your mind, it creates a big empty space, too, a space that’s just waiting to be filled by something. Often, that something is a product, something that we can buy that gives the illusion of filling that empty space. For example, you might buy a yoga mat or a workout video to give a sense of filling that empty space, but it’s not really filled. You don’t permanently get rid of a sense of lacking spiritual or physical fulfillment by buying a workout video, though you may temporarily abate it.
What these two scenarios – and the many, many similar ones that you can probably envision in your own life – have in common is that we often find ourselves with some aspect of our life that we feel is lacking and it is extremely convenient to gain a short-term sense of “fulfilling” that lacking part of our life by buying something. The treat from the vending machine seems to “fill” that waiting time. That new jump rope seems to “fill” that sense of needing to exercise. You get the idea.
The thing is, purchases never, ever fill holes in our lives; it’s doing things that actually fills the hole. Buying that new game for your smartphone (or making an optional purchase within the game) might feel good in the moment and make that specific instance of something lacking pass out of your life, but it won’t get rid of those moments. They will come back. Similarly, buying a barbell set might get rid of that sense of needing to work out more for the moment, but it won’t eliminate that sense. It will come back.
If you want to stop fidgeting and (often) spending money during those moments of waiting and downtime, you have to address it in a bigger way. The same goes for that hidden sense of needing physical and mental fulfillment. You have to address it in a bigger way. The goal with both is to get rid of the core reason why those gaps appear in your life, and the way to do that is through changing the things you do, not temporarily filling that sense of emptiness with stuff.
In both cases, the same thing is happening. You’re feeling some level of dissatisfaction or discomfort with some part of your life, you don’t like that feeling, so you do something immediate and impulsive to get rid of that sense of discomfort. The problem is that you’re addressing the immediate discomfort and not the reason for that sense of dissatisfaction or discomfort.
It’s like when you’re facing a medical condition and you take medications to treat the symptom while the cause for those symptoms go unchecked. It might make you feel better for the moment, but that sense of feeling bad is just going to come right back. The best way to handle that situation is to treat the cause, not the symptoms. Sure, the treatment for the cause might be hard and it might be painful, but if you actually do that, you won’t have the symptoms any more.
So, let’s look at those two situations.
What about the situation where you’re fidgeting while waiting on something to happen? That fidgeting occurs because you’re caught in a situation without anything meaningful to do, and the answer to that is to have a toolkit of meaningful things to do in such situations.
For me, that toolkit starts with a book. I almost always have a book with me, and even if I don’t have a physical book, I’m usually in the midst of a book on my Kindle, which I can access from my phone, which is always with me. I’ll just read a chapter of a book.
I also have a pocket notebook with me at all times, which is perfect if I’m in more of a brainstorming mood. If my mind is flashing with ideas, I’ll pull out that notebook and pen and write tons of them down.
A final thing that I always have with me is… me. There’s almost never a situation in which I can’t take five or ten minutes to meditate or pray (I think of these as nearly functionally identical activities, merely with different focus). It’s a simple act that goes a long way toward making me feel calm and improving my overall ability to focus, deal with stress, and handle life’s challenges. Here’s what I often do: I just close my eyes and focus on my breathing. Breathe in, breathe out. If my attention wanders away, I notice that my attention has wandered and bring it back to my breathing. I do it for five or ten minutes and I almost always feel immediately refreshed and mentally ready for anything (and I’m firmly convinced it helps long term with focusing and handling stress).
Instead of feeling a sense of discomfort because I don’t have anything meaningful to do – and then sometimes filling it with a purchase – I instead dive right into doing something meaningful. That keeps my money in my pocket and makes me feel more genuinely fulfilled to boot, both in terms of the moment and in terms of my broader life.
What about the other situation? The one where you feel discomfort because you’re reminded of some area of your life that you should be taking care of… but you’re not?
The solution for challenges like those is to focus on finding time, not buying stuff. If you find yourself thinking that some area in your life is being overlooked, that’s your mind telling you that you’re not spending enough time on something, not money.
This comes down to the age-old question of how to find time in a busy life. My most powerful strategies for doing this involve maintaining a thorough to-do list and constantly adding to it when things come into my mind (so I can focus on tasks at hand without having to remember all of the stuff I ought to be doing) and then working through that list as efficiently as possible, and then having “focused” days and “unfocused” days.
Focused days are ones where I jam every possible second full of the things that I have to do and that I’m responsible for. I basically give myself virtually no downtime on focused days – I’m always working or cleaning the house or paying bills or running errands or something like that on focused days, from the moment I get up until I go to bed. I don’t stop to watch television for a couple of hours. I don’t stop to read a book. I don’t stop to fidget on my smartphone. I get things done in the most compressed way possible.
Having focused days gives way to other days which are “unfocused,” where I can actually wall off big blocks of time to do the things I want to do. I can spend an afternoon going on a hike. I can spend an evening going to a community event. You might want to find a way to block off an hour three days a week for exercise.
The goal here is to respond to that sense of mild discomfort by finding time to address that discomfort with activity instead of just buying something to postpone that sense of discomfort. In other words, you’re addressing the disease with time rather than addressing the symptom with money.
Following just these steps will go a long way toward genuinely filling the empty spaces in your life and deleting those moments of discomfort instead of just postponing them.