One of my biggest work distractions is looking at interesting websites, particularly ones that I think will help improve my life (this might sound an awful lot like you at the moment). Quite often, I’ll stumble across an article that will talk about a particular book or a particular app or a particular item that really seems to click well with what I’m doing in my life, and that article sets my mind in motion. I’m suddenly thinking about something that wasn’t on my radar at all, and if I think about it for too long, I’m suddenly making a case for buying it.
A few weeks ago, I was at a store that sold a lot of pretty high quality do-it-yourself kits. Many of them were focused on hobbies and tasks that I basically never really considered before, but I brushed by most of them without much of a second glance. What did attract my attention was a calligraphy kit, which they had set up for people to try. I had never even attempted calligraphy before, but I had quite a bit of fun following the instructions and spelling out my name and I couldn’t help but think of some really neat projects I could do if I mastered this skill. Suddenly, there was a thought in my heat, one that quickly started to turn into a desire.
It happens over and over again, in my life and likely in your life. For any number of reasons, something you never really thought about before is brought into your attention. Most of those things just slide off of you, but some of them catch in your thoughts, and they come up again and again in your thinking. Soon, those thoughts become desires and you find yourself wanting something that you weren’t even aware of yesterday.
Thoughts become desires.
This is something I’ve struggled with for a long time, all the way back through my entire adulthood. I have a strong imagination, one that easily visualizes a lot of scenarios in which I could use a particular item or technique. The first time I saw a truly good smartphone, my mind reeled with the possibilities for weeks. I actually made a list of more than 100 smartphone apps I’d like to see (almost all of which now exist, unsurprisingly). Whenever I walk into a bookstore, I don’t see just one book I want to read – I see hundreds and the challenge becomes ignoring the ones that most draw my attention, because I can imagine myself enjoying multitudes of books in pretty much every section. Whenever a hobby begins to really click with me, I visualize many, many enjoyable experiences down the road and those visions include enough details to include a lot of gear that I become suddenly convinced that I must have.
Overcoming this tendency of my thoughts running wild and turning into expensive desires has been a real challenge. I’ve only really come up with a small handful of things that work in terms of keeping these desires at bay so that they don’t transform into expenses that I don’t need in my life.
Asking “Why Do I Want This?” and Repeating the Question
Whenever I find myself desiring something, I simply ask myself “why do I want this?” If I can’t answer that question, I don’t buy it. Then, whenever I come up with an answer to that question, I ask myself “why do I feel that way?” and then I keep repeating that question.
Eventually, I end up coming around to some sort of sense of personal inadequacy. My desires are usually founded in some sense that my current life is somehow not up to snuff and the desire I have is usually perceived as some way of fixing it. I’m patching some hole in my knowledge or I’m making up for poor choices in terms of my time use or something like that.
The solution, then, is to directly attack that flaw. Rather than focusing on the desire, I intentionally focus on fixing whatever flaw I’ve discovered and I find that when I address that flaw specifically without throwing money at it, the desire usually goes away on its own.
A second strategy that I find invaluable when putting desirous thoughts to bed is to simply postpone taking action on that desire. When I desire something and want to spend money on it, I postpone it for at least thirty days if at all possible. There’s almost nothing that I desire that I can’t agree to postpone for a while.
Almost always, when I decide to postpone a purchase, anything that isn’t a truly, deeply held desire fades away pretty rapidly. Often, I don’t even remember the desire thirty days later.
What I do is pretty simple. I just mentally agree that I won’t buy the item for thirty days. If the item is still in my head after a few days, I add it to a list with a date that’s about a month or so in the future, which can give me the sense of “taking action” on it. When I do that, I look at all entries that are past the date and, perhaps unsurprisingly, I almost always delete those entries.
Why? Over the course of a month, those desires just fade away. They seem so urgent right now when the thought is fresh in my mind, but when I don’t buy it and I go on with my life, I think about other things and unless that desire is really meaningful, it fades. Eventually, it vanishes.
So, if I can simply get myself to agree in the moment to put off the actual choice to buy, that desire often becomes nonexistent on its own, which means that it was a pretty good choice not to spend the money! If something actually is important to me over a period of time, I can always still buy it later.
Focusing Intentionally on Things Money Can’t Buy
Another valuable strategy for keeping my mind from wrapping around desires is to intentionally spend my time and focus on things that don’t encourage spending money. I read a book. I go on a hike in the woods. I play a long board game I already own. I play soccer with my kids. I pray. I meditate. I write in my journal. I study something.
Those activities force my mind to focus on different things. I think about nature. I think about big ideas. I think about strategy. I think about the details of my life. I think deeply about my stances on the issues of the day.
When I intentionally move my mind onto topics that aren’t going to lead me to building up the desire to buy things, I find that any desires I have hanging around simply fade away over time… and new ones don’t come in to replace them.
This goes directly hand in hand with the final strategy.
Limiting Media Consumption
By this, I mean that I make a conscious effort to minimize the time I spend watching television and other videos and reading low-quality articles and social media. I enjoy entertainment as much as the next guy, but I make a strong effort to choose things that won’t persuade me to buy things or ignite desires or bring me to poorly-founded conclusions.
If I’m too tired to read a thoughtful article, then it’s time to go to bed. If I just want to be entertained, I turn on a comedy routine or a well-regarded movie – for example, have you actually watched all of AFI’s 100 greatest movies? I’ll read a well regarded book or an article from a writer or a publication that I really trust (and there aren’t many of them). Those things alone provide more entertainment than I’ll ever need.
I’m also slowly cutting all social media out of my personal life, though I still do use it for professional purposes like communicating with readers who send me individual questions.
Why make these choices? Social media, television, and low-quality articles seem to do little other than to drive desires and emotions. I’m left either feeling upset or feeling a strong desire for something I didn’t have just before I started reading – and that desire usually isn’t a useful one, either. There are too many good options available to me that I feel I have the freedom to choose things that don’t inflame my desire to buy more things and spend more money without giving up any quality of life.
Thoughts left unchecked become desires, and the wrong desires left unchecked become expenses. Avoiding that pathway is a challenge, but when you find ways to reroute your thoughts and your desires in new directions, you can find yourself with a deeply fulfilling life without the need to open up your wallet in the face of every desire you can conceive of.
When you do that, it becomes a lot easier to build the type of financial independence that you want.