The Downside to ‘New’ and ‘Improved’ and ‘Better’

Not too long ago, I made the decision to upgrade my cell phone. It was several years old and there were a few hardware problems with it: The screen was cracked, it was very difficult to charge it, and it was old enough that it could no longer receive operating system updates.

I spent some time shopping for a new cell phone and, as I usually do with purchases like this, I had a small list of requirements for this new phone. I had to be able to check my email on it and update Evernote on it, which were two features that I had become completely accustomed to over the years.

The thing is, once I started researching phones, it became clear that most smartphones could take care of exactly what I wanted. After that point, it became all about extra features – the “new” and the “better.”

Unsurprisingly, at least for anyone who has shopped for a cell phone recently, it’s not too hard to be wowed by the new features and to see how they might be useful in your life. A bigger screen? A great camera? Those are things that could actually be useful to me, and it’s tempting to spring for them.

I eventually managed to talk myself into a pretty reasonable mid-grade phone, one that had a good camera on it but didn’t have the biggest screen ever (and it also happened to be on deep discount). It suits my needs really well.

So, how did I keep myself from jumping in and buying the “new” and “improved” phone, the one with all of the best features?

Well, as I noted above, I created a list of the features I really needed before I went shopping. I needed a camera of some kind, but it didn’t have to be a mindblowing one. I needed the ability to check my email and my calendar and update Evernote. I needed to make calls and send and receive texts (obviously). I needed a phone that came in a reliable and sturdy frame that had a low chance of scratching or breaking.

Then, as I shopped, I came across a lot of interesting features. When I saw something that struck me as compelling, I asked myself a few honest questions about those features.

Does the “new thing” actually meet an unmet need? Is there something I truly need to do on a regular basis that this phone meets that other phones do not?

Is this feature or item that I’m eyeing just merely a strong “want”? When I’m honest with myself, that’s the truth of the vast majority of new features and items that I see.

But here’s the real kicker: does this item or feature make something that’s perfectly good seem less good than before?

Let’s say I’m looking at the absolute best phone on the market. After looking at the beautiful screen and seeing the great pictures it can take, does it make the otherwise great phone I was considering earlier seem less good?

This is where perception battles reality. In truth, the presence of a feature-laden phone does not make another less-expensive and less-feature-laden phone any worse – they really have nothing to do with each other. That less expensive phone is just as good as it was when I first looked at it.

The problem is that I’m comparing it on equal footing with the much more expensive and much more feature-laden phone. When I sit them side by side without considering the price, the less feature-laden phone seems bad by comparison, when it’s not actually a bad phone at all.

That’s why, when I’m shopping around, I’ve learned to look at the lower-end models that actually meet my needs rather than expensive models that just shove a bunch of gee-whiz features at me that look nice but that I don’t really have a use for. I don’t need a huge screen – it doesn’t serve any real purpose for me. I don’t need a 12 megapixel camera to take decent shots of my kid playing soccer. I don’t need some weird feature where I can tap my phone with someone else and exchange audio files.

This isn’t just a phenomenon that happens with cell phones, either.

When we upgraded our old CRT television because the picture tube was dying, it was at a point where HDTVs were rolling out and some cable services supported it and Blurays were just coming on the scene. The HD picture looked gorgeous next to the ordinary picture of other televisions, but without that side-by-side, the standard picture looked quite good on most of the televisions we shopped for. We ended up hedging our bets for a year as our CRT TV died a slow death, at which point HDTVs had become standard so the choice was easier.

Sarah and I had a tent from when we were first married that we used for the first several years of our marriage on countless camping trips. Eventually, we needed a bigger one, as stuffing a family of five into a four person tent is not the best idea. When we shopped around, we were amazed at the features of all of the different tent options, but we ended up going with an extremely basic tent that met our one true need – keeping us dry on a rainy night when camping.

This type of “look at these amazing new features” shopping experience pops up in almost everything you shop for, from home furnishings to DVD players, from kitchen faucets to washing machines, from automobiles to laundry soap.

It all follows more or less the same pattern. New stuff often offers an “illusion of benefit,” not offering substantial improvement but creating the appearance of substantial improvement. It offers a feature that looks like it really matters, but it’s often very minor and sometimes isn’t actually useful at all.

Besides using a list of necessary features, here are some of the techniques I use to give a critical eye to “new and better” things and figure out whether they’re really worth that extra money.

First of all, I try to avoid devoting time to window shopping. I don’t go shopping at all unless I intend to buy something, and when I’m doing that, it’s either because I’m addressing a genuine need or because I’m addressing a want that I’ve already considered. Wandering into a store without really wanting anything is something I avoid, as is shopping without any real concept of what features I actually need in a product. Both of those situations make me ripe for falling into throwing money at unnecessary items and unnecessary features.

Second, I largely avoid “consumer” media. I don’t read articles or websites or publications that exist to inform me of new products to buy. Knowing about the latest stuff serves no real purpose in my life. My way of discovering new stuff is to actively search for better ways to do things that I normally do every day. Is there a better way to manage my time? Is there a better way to jot down notes? Is there a better way to chop vegetables? Occasionally, those kinds of approaches do lead me to new items, but mostly they lead me to new techniques, which I find far more useful (and they’re far cheaper, too!).

Third, I try to differentiate between “flashy” and “meaningful” wants. When I look at a brand new phone, for example, there are unquestionably some features there that I want to have. It’d be nice to have a bigger screen, as I noted above.

However, I recognize that such a feature is a “flashy” want for me. It’s something that would be cool to have, but not having it does not detract from any real purpose I might have for the phone.

There are some “wants” that are more meaningful, though, and they’re trickier. For example, a great camera lets me take better pictures in a variety of conditions, as being able to easily take action shots of my kids at their soccer games and also taking indoor shots of various things are both important to me and I’d like both styles to be easy and legible.

The truth, however, is that there is no cell phone camera that is going to take amazing shots in every condition. If that is truly something I want in my life, then I should be looking at using a digital SLR camera… and when I start looking at the prices there, I realize that I don’t actually want this too bad. The truth is that there’s not a giant difference between cameras on most cell phones – sure, one might be a little better than the other, but they’re both substantially behind a truly good camera and far more similar to each other than any of them are to a good camera.

Thus, my “want” of being able to take decent shots of my children is honestly fulfilled in roughly equal fashion by all cell phones, and if I truly want great pictures of them, I’ll invest in a digital SLR camera (which I’m not going to).

This leads me to my final principle: trying to have everything will bankrupt you. Eventually, it comes down to a core decision as to whether or not you’re going to try to fulfill every desire you have, or even try to fulfill every desire that you convince yourself is “meaningful.”

The truth is that you can have a wonderful life without the vast, vast majority of those “meaningful” wants. Meaning isn’t created with “stuff.” It’s created by spending time with the people you live and the activities that bring you lasting joy. For me, it’s time spent rolling around in leaves with my kids or curled up in a chair with a book from the library.

There is no “new” or “improved” or “better” feature or product that will add meaning to your life. If you’re looking for meaning in a product, look instead at how you use your time and your attention.

Once you start evaluating things from that perspective, a lot of “new” and “improved” and “better” products don’t really seem like much of a big deal after all, and you’ll find yourself keeping your wallet in your pocket instead.

Good luck!

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