Refining an Internal Yardstick for Fulfillment

This article is something of a sequel to an article I wrote four years ago, Developing an Internal Yardstick for Fulfillment. In that article, I discussed the idea of such an internal yardstick, a concept that I originally discovered in the wonderful book Your Money or Your Life.

In summary, an internal yardstick of fulfillment is simply an internal sense of when you have “just enough” of something. In other words, when you just cross over that point of having a need or a strong want to the point where that need or want is taken care of, you’ve reached that point of “just enough.” When you go beyond that, you’re incurring more and more cost for less and less benefit in your life. The most cost-effective expenses in your life are the ones that bring you to that point of “just enough” in the significant areas of your life.

The challenge, of course, is that so many indicators in our lives push us right past that point of “just enough.” Our natural instincts do it. Our desire for social oneupmanship does it. Marketing constantly encourages us to do it. We blow by that “just enough” point all the time and it ends up costing us greatly because we’re spending money on things that aren’t really adding to our level of fulfillment. It’s just… more.

We buy a big house that goes well past that point of “just enough” and then struggle with mortgages and utility bills that squeeze us dry while rooms sit basically unused in our home.

We eat and drink expensive, high calorie foods and beverages that go a light year past “just enough” for nutrition and even far past “just enough” for the enjoyment of the food.

Our electronics, our streaming services, our collections, our clothing… it all goes far beyond the idea of fulfillment and into an area of waste, where we don’t even have the time to really enjoy what we have before we’re on to the next new thing.

This doesn’t mean that you don’t have to stop enjoying the good things in life – in fact, if that’s your reading, you’re reading it wrong.

You should absolutely dress as you like. The problem is when your closets are full of clothes you barely wear.

You should absolutely have meals that fulfill your nutritional needs and taste good, too. The problem is when all of your meals are expensive and indulgent and you have tons of unused food just sitting in your pantry without any plan or organization.

You should absolutely have a book to read if you want to read one. The problem is having tons of unread books, so many that you’ll honestly never get around to reading and enjoying them all.

You should absolutely have a home that has the space you need for the things you want to do. The problem is having a home that’s far past what you need and you’re struggling to keep the bills paid on it.

You should absolutely have a means of getting to everywhere you want to go in reasonable comfort. The problem is having a luxury car that drastically overshoots what you actually need for commuting.

It’s in areas like those where we drastically overshoot that sense of “just enough,” and it usually happens when our internal yardstick for fulfillment is way out of whack. It’s not giving us the feedback we need to know when we’re going way past that level of “just enough.”

So, how do we calibrate it? How do we cultivate that internal yardstick of fulfillment?

In the first post, I briefly discussed four strategies I used for cultivating that internal yardstick:

First, I think about my purchasing decisions during my spare time.

Second, I think about whether I’m actually fulfilled in each aspect of my life.

Third, I involve myself in activities that benefit others.

Finally, I discuss purchases with my wife.

These are all great strategies, but they’re really only part of the bigger picture. Here are eight strategies – four from the previous post, expanded a little, and four that I’ve found myself relying on in recent years – that can really help you refine that internal yardstick of fulfillment.

Reflect Back on Your Purchasing Decisions

As I noted in the first article, I make a regular practice of reflecting on my recent purchasing decisions as part of a broader self-reflection practice.

Whenever I’m doing something like driving on an errand or picking up a kid from a sports practice or brushing my teeth or any little task like that, I reflect on something I’ve recently done in my life and ask myself if I did it well. Was that the right way to handle it?

Often, that thought comes around to recent purchases, and I ask myself that basic fulfillment question. Did I get sufficient fulfillment and enjoyment and value out of that purchase for what I spent on it? Is there something else I could have done, like buying a lesser item or not buying anything at all?

This isn’t meant to criticize my past decisions, but instead it serves to refine my future ones. I’m imperfect and I make mistakes and that’s okay. What matters is that I see those mistakes and I strive to not repeat them. I strive to get just a little bit better each day, and an effective way to do that is to reflect on recent decisions and their outcomes.

I’ve learned, for example, that I often regret hobby purchases a little while after the fact, particularly when I have unread books or unplayed games on my shelves already. Over the last few years, that has attuned me toward spending less on those hobbies and finding other ways to seek fulfillment in those areas (something I’ll get back to below).

Another example: I usually regret non-minimal meals eaten by myself. I usually don’t regret most meals eaten with friends, particularly when the meal together is meant as a social occasion.

I catch those things with these kinds of after-action reflections, and then I follow that with thinking about how I should do things differently going forward, always aiming for that “just enough” target. I visualize future situations where I’ll do things “right” and, over time, those thoughts add up to a better internal yardstick.

Question Your Fulfillment in All Life Areas

Just ask yourself these questions:

Am I fulfilled with the current state of my health?

Am I fulfilled with the current state of my spirituality or faith?

Am I fulfilled with the current state of my marriage? My parenting? My social life?

Am I fulfilled with the current state of my finances?

Am I fulfilled with the current state of my leisure and hobbies?

Am I fulfilled with the current state of my intellectual growth?

Now, here’s the kicker: if I’m not feeling fulfilled in those areas, would buying things actually get me to a sense of fulfillment, or do I need to take action to get there?

The thing is, when we’re not actively thinking about our lives in this way, purchases can seem like a reasonable route to the kind of fulfillment we want. However, when we step back and look at the areas of our life through a lens of fulfillment, it quickly becomes clear that the thing that will bring us to fulfillment isn’t buying things, but personal effort. Buying stuff won’t make us fulfilled once we’re beyond our basic needs and a few deep wants, and this exercise reveals that.

Engage in Activities That Benefit Others

This might seem like a strange strategy at first glance, but my own experience has shown me time and time again that when you spend significant time helping others who are in a troubled place, you begin to appreciate how good your life really is.

Spend an afternoon helping people meet their basic needs – food, clothes, companionship – and then go back to your life and your life immediately looks far more amazing than it did beforehand. Just simply having your basic needs secured can feel like a wonderful thing.

Watch someone experience incredible thrill at a simple thing and you begin to appreciate it in a way that you might never have, or haven’t for a very long time.

Charitable work is an incredibly powerful way for really honing in on what you actually need to be fulfilled, and it’s surprisingly less than you think.

Have a Supportive Partner To Whom You’re Accountable

Sarah and I support each other in countless ways, but one powerful way we do it is by simply being accountable to each other. Simply put, if I can’t explain or reasonably justify something I’m doing to Sarah, it’s probably not something I should be doing at all. The reverse is true.

This isn’t policing, it’s accountability. Sarah doesn’t demand that I “report” to her, nor do I demand it from her. Rather, I just know that she has a high opinion of me and believes that I am a good person and I feel the same about her, and simply knowing that is motivation to try to make good choices in everything that I do. I want to be a good partner, in other words.

This only works if there’s a strong two way street of communication and trust in your relationship. Sarah is my partner in every sense of that word, which means that I want her to have a great life and succeed in everything she can, and to do that, I have to be the best person I can be. She does the same for me.

That’s hard in many ways, but it’s also easy because, again, it creates a certain level of baseline fulfillment in life that makes it easier to realize that a lot of things I might buy blow right on past that baseline of fulfillment. At the same time, I recognize that excessive purchasing not only buys me diminishing returns, but lets down Sarah, too.

Having a strong relationship with your partner to which you’re accountable makes it easier to have a yardstick of fulfillment right on the line of “just enough,” because there’s less desire to exceed it and a sense that exceeding it is more consequential because you’re letting that partner down.

Default Toward “Too Little” Rather Than “Too Much”

There’s a tendency in American society to default to getting “too much” rather than “too little.” We do things like ordering the bigger portion at a restaurant or buying a bigger house because we’d rather have too much food or too much space than not enough.

That perspective is almost always a short term one. You’re often left with a bunch of uneaten food or a bunch of unused space and you paid more for it.

Rather than trying to always aim for “too much,” aim for “too little.” Rather than getting the high end phone, get a lower end one that just meets your needs. Rather than getting the huge portion, get the smaller one. Rather than renting the huge apartment, get the smaller one. Rather than getting a shiny new car, get a used one that gets the job done. Rather than buying the name brand option, buy the store brand.

Most of the time, the lesser option will be perfect. On the rare occasion when it isn’t, you haven’t invested that much in the lesser option and can upgrade from there without losing too much.

Not only that, by always going for the lesser option, you’re cultivating a strong sense of what it actually takes to fulfill you. You’ll see, time and time again, that you don’t need the big or expensive or flashy or deluxe item to fit the bill, and that will help you hone in on your internal sense of fulfillment.

Give Purchasing Decisions Time To Breathe

I use two techniques for every non-essential purchase that I make.

For small purchases, I use the ten second rule – it’s usually more like thirty seconds, but you get the point. When I’m considering adding a non-essential purchase to my cart that I didn’t plan for, meaning it’s not on my shopping list, I wait ten seconds before adding it and spend that time thinking about why I shouldn’t buy it. Do I really need this thing? Don’t I already have things that fulfill that purpose? Isn’t there a less expensive version?

For bigger ones, I use the thirty day rule. When I’m thinking about a big purchase that isn’t essential and urgent, I give myself thirty days to think about it. Do I really need this item? Is there a way I can fulfill what it does with items I already have? Can I borrow this item and take care of what I need from it? Can I get it used? Can I get it at a lower price? Will I actually even use it? I’m mostly trying to convince myself that I don’t need or want it, and often a thirty day waiting period is enough to nudge me away from the purchase.

Those two tools are invaluable in terms of giving me time to actually incorporate that yardstick of fulfillment into my purchase rather than just acting rashly and quickly when it’s time to buy.

Cultivate Hobbies and Life Choices Centered Around Doing and Achieving and Completing Rather Than Accumulating

What you’re trying to do here is reorient your internal sense of fulfillment away from the things you acquire and toward the things that you do. Rather than having a sense that you need to buy a book to feel fulfilled, you want to have a sense that reading a book is what brings you fulfillment. Rather than having a sense that you need to buy a computer game to feel fulfilled, you want to have a sense that mastering a computer game is what brings you fulfillment. This goes for almost every hobby or passion you might have – focus on achieving and enjoying things rather than acquiring things and spending money.

What you’ll find is that your internal yardstick of fulfillment begins to recognize that unplanned hobby spending isn’t going to fulfill you and your mind starts to flag it as unnecessary spending. After a while, things like the thirty day rule and the ten second rule, noted above, become very effective at filtering out nonessential expenses because you recognize that doing things is where the fulfillment comes from, not buying stuff.

I keep a careful list of the books I’ve read and the tabletop games I’ve played. I get a lot of value these days from having a long list of books I’ve read, and much less value from an overstuffed bookshelf. I get a lot of value from having played a lot of games (I usually aim to play 20 different games 10 times each in a given year) and less value from shoving more games on my shelves. I get a lot of value out of making interested fermented foods and having lots of batches of them going and much less value out of purchasing less kitchen gear.

In short, I realized that stuff doesn’t fulfill me – it’s just a quick and very empty burst of pleasure. What does fulfill me is actually putting aside time for my hobbies and interests. I literally block off time on my calendar for things like reading or playing complex tabletop games or making fermented foods or going on hikes or geocaching.

If You Have Unused or Little-Used Stuff, Use It or Ditch It Before Buying More

For example, if you have unread books on your shelf and you’re tempted to buy a new book, that new book won’t fulfill you. It’ll give you this brief burst of pleasure that almost immediately fades and then you have another unread book to jam on a shelf and you also have $10-20 less in your pocket. Neither of those things are wins.

The same is true for almost everything in your house. If you have stuff in your home that’s unused or scarcely used, use it before buying more similar items. If you have barely-worn clothes, wear them. If you have a barely-used fermenting crock, use it. If you have an unplayed board game, play it.

If, for some reason, you realize you actually don’t want that item, get rid of it. Sell it off. Swap it. At the same time, ask yourself why you picked it up in the first place if you have no interest in using it, and use that line of thought to modify your internal yardstick. Yep, this circles right back to that first strategy of reflecting on your purchases. Why didn’t you want this item? Figure that out and use that revelation to avoid purchases in the future.

An unused item on your shelf or in your closet or pantry that you no longer want is an absolute sign that your internal yardstick of fulfillment needs some attention and care.

Final Thoughts

Here’s the thing: you change all the time as a person. That change is gradual, but it’s real, and it’s because of that change that your internal sense of what fulfills you often slowly drifts away from what actually fulfills you over time.

That’s why these strategies should be a regular part of your life, especially ones that involve reflecting on purchases and being patient about them. Give yourself some time to figure out what you really want, and as you think about those things, you’ll find that your internal yardstick for fulfillment will keep up with where you’re at and be a useful instinct for you rather than something that’s out of line with your life.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.