How do I become less materialistic? Should I become a luddite?
June 23, 2006 8:13 PM   Subscribe

The things I own end up owning me. Should I become a luddite?

I am thirty-five and have a wonderful life. I have been married for eight years to a wonderful woman who I have known as a friend for 17 years. I have a beautiful, charming, and brilliant daughter. I am successful, appreciated, and in demand in my field. I am well-compensated for the work that I do. I am in great health.

I really have everything. Yet I feel like I am sleepwalking through life. Despite all that I have and all of the opportunities before me, I feel like I am pissing away too much of my life.

I spend way, way, too much time reading Treo-related and other tech-related forums, browsing geekware online, in tech-related irc channels. I spend too much time and too much money on stuff I don't need. I check e-mail too much. I think about work when I am with my family.

I am really considering giving away everything I don't truly need (clothing, computer crap, books I'll never read, etc.) . I want to sell the Treo and go to pen, paper, and a cheap phone so I am not tempted to obsess over it all the time (and so I have an excuse to use Thunderbird). I am one of those people you read about in the forums who owns an embarassing amount of accessories for their PDA, and I hate it.

Years ago, I decided that I never want to own a car that I care so much about that I can't clean the snow off of it with a broom. I want to apply this mantra to my whole life. My fear is that I will divest of all of this stuff, freak out, start buying more junk, and be right back where I started.

Has anyone else struggled with the kind of screwed up priorities that come from being too obsessed with "stuff" and worked through it? How did you do it? What would you do differently?

I am a committed Christian, so I have a good framework for this (do not store up treasures for yourselves where moth and rust consume and thieves break in and steal...") but man, I am really struggling with implementing it in my life.

Anyone who has made it this far, thank you so much for reading it. This has been pretty hard to admit to myself. Anyone who wants to be my personal Tyler Durden, I thank you as well.
posted by 4ster to Human Relations (42 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
No offense, but you should start reading up on philosophy.
posted by cellphone at 8:23 PM on June 23, 2006

Response by poster: cellphone:

That does not offend me, but could you be more specific? Like which philosophers? I have a Master's degree in theology, did reading in philosophy as an undergraduate, and now I am reading Thich Nhat Hanh. Any other suggestions would be appreciated.
posted by 4ster at 8:30 PM on June 23, 2006

I've always been a bit of a minimalist, and my big thing is to only buy/own/keep items that have utility. If it doesn't have a practical function, I'd prefer not to have it around. I just dislike clutter and the hassles of having too much stuff to manage - the more things one has, the more hassle it is if stuff gets broken, damaged, or stolen. You may want to start gradually and think of a few major excesses in your life and then sell or donate them to charity. Start small; trade the treo for an old-school cell phone and a plain paper calendar. Take a weekend and do some cleaning around your house. What do you frequently use? What has sat in a closet for years? Why has it sat there in disuse? Ask yourself those questions and depending on your answers, go from there. The big thing to remember is to take it slow and be gradual. It will be a major adjustment to change your life overnight, but it is much easier in bits and pieces over a period of time.
posted by galimatias at 8:39 PM on June 23, 2006

4ster, if you aren't familiar with it, you may enjoy the tao te ching.

Regarding your question, "should I become a luddite?", I would suggest not approaching this in such an absolute manner, take it step by step. Give away some clothes you'll never wear, decide to read no tech websites or use your PDA for a week or two, and so on. You will probably find out fairly quickly how you feel if you just start small and keep giving up whatever you are comfortable with. I find a good antidote to tech obsessiveness to be spending time in nature - a long walk, camping, bike ride, whatever.
posted by MetaMonkey at 8:44 PM on June 23, 2006

Consider a weekend at a zen monastery. A lack of attachment of material items, learning to live in the 'moment', and some quiet reflection might help.

This doesn't need to conflict in any way with your christian beliefs. Just use it as a framework to consider things that are your child.

Since your reading Thich Nhat Hanh, try something a bit lighter - the Accidental Buddist by Dinty W. Moore.
posted by filmgeek at 8:55 PM on June 23, 2006

I have this problem as well. For me, the solution was finding a more interactive, less idle hobby. Gadget collecting as a hobby is problematic because it doesn't involve setting and achieving goals--instead, you are always a step behind somebody else who has neater stuff than you and you end up feeling unsatisfied most of the time. The key, IMO, is to change the role of the stuff you buy from being the goal to helping you achieve a goal, if that makes sense.

YMMV, but I found that a hobby where I was actually out doing something (as opposed to collecting something) left me feeling much better. For me, that hobby was bicycling. It's easy to get in to, has nearly no learning curve, and allows you to set a nearly unlimited progression of goals that you can actually achieve. As a side benefit, i's good exercise and gives you good alone time away from all your stuff to decompress and let your mind wander/clear. I can't recommend it enough. Remember, endorphins are your friend.

Cycling might not be the thing for you--there are a ton of other activities that could be easily substituted if they are more your thing. Just focus on active things instead of passive ones, and you'll be on the right path.
posted by jtfowl0 at 8:56 PM on June 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

My riches consist not in the extent of my possessions, but in the fewness of my wants. ~J. Brotherton

This quote was stuck to my monitor for many years; it was a catalyst for change. I truly think about purchases now. I carry only a mobile phone and a laptop when truly necessary. I sold off my frustrations (boat/ motorcycle) and now have more time to focus energy on friends and family. Life is good.
posted by vaportrail at 8:58 PM on June 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

posted by RufusW at 9:02 PM on June 23, 2006

My fear is that I will divest of all of this stuff, freak out, start buying more junk, and be right back where I started.

Don't worry about this. You will enjoy it, and feel free. A retreat is in order. Do you have some vacation time coming up? Take it. Take the family camping for a weekend or a week. Do not take any PDAs, iPods, Laptops, mobile phones, televisions or electric tin openers with you. You may take a radio. If the radio only receives in the AM band, even better. Enjoy yourself. It will only take 1 or 2 days before you stop worrying about people not being able to contact you, and you not being able to reach the technological world, and start enjoying it. There is an incredible freedom in people not being able to contact you and tell you what to do. There is a special peace about having to wait for the news bulletin on the radio. And you will be surprised to discover that internet discussion boards and weblogs carry on quite well in your absence (and that no-one on there will miss you or even notice you're gone...unlike your family). Doing this might lead you to realize what you can and can't live without.
posted by Jimbob at 9:07 PM on June 23, 2006

Response by poster: Interestingly, I am five days into a 14 day vacation right now as I have this epiphany. I'll try no phone on the beach in the morning.
posted by 4ster at 9:11 PM on June 23, 2006

It is not the stuff, it is your attachment to the stuff. Externalize, try bird watching.
posted by hortense at 9:13 PM on June 23, 2006

Where abouts are you? The kinda stuff I'm thinking about involves the third world.
posted by RufusW at 9:14 PM on June 23, 2006

Response by poster: I live in Virginia.
posted by 4ster at 9:15 PM on June 23, 2006

Okay, shooting from the hip, disregard as you see fit. I don't think selling stuff, or not using your TREO (whetever that is), a short break, or (with respect) reading more philosophy is going to change the way you see the world or the position you're in. Travel, not to some resort but to some place in the third world - somewhere like West Africa, or India. Possibly volunteer for a month if you're feeling adventurous. Just experience how a huge percentage of the population of this world live. Note, not like you. One thing I have on my list of things to do in life - experience extreme poverty. I'm pretty sure I can't even imagine it. If that doesn't change the way you value possessions, or value the life you have - I dunno what will.

Obviously I'm presuming you haven't done this already, if so, I'll shut up :)
posted by RufusW at 9:39 PM on June 23, 2006

I basically became a luddite myself about 10 years ago. I kept it up for several years as I tried to figure out what was really important to me, and to reduce my overall stress and feelings of being trapped.
A couple years ago, I broke down and got a celphone. It's actually very handy. I own a tv now. I own a bed and more than one chair. I still don't buy alot of stuff, but over time I came to understand that what one finds necessary is quite different to each individual. Our North American culture is built on consumerism and work. Neither one is wholly bad, but it can be difficult to break out of the cycle.
All this is to say, do what you need to do. Don't force your lifestyle decisions on your wife or child, find a way to live harmoniously while you're dealing with these issues. Eventually, you will find out what you want and what you need. On your own terms. Reading philosophy, as suggested above, is a good idea. I would generally reccommend exposing yourself to other cultures and beliefs, freeing yourself to do nothing during freetime (don't think about what you have to do with the rest of your day, eg. Quiet your mind), and try seeing a therapist to get an objective view on what you're feeling.
Good luck. :)
posted by Radio7 at 9:42 PM on June 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

I think getting rid of the Treo, abandoning the tech forums, and so forth, would possibly magnify your personal crisis. You may end up realizing that what seemed to be a "fix" is actually a form of acting out that does not accomplish what you hoped it would.

I suggest that you don't do anything radical such as getting rid of all your stuff. Rather, expand yourself in new areas that leave less time for the tech forums and the Treo. You might try exercising a lot; reading all of a certain author's books; taking a class; working on a Ph.D.

The sudden "reform" may feel just as inauthentic as the life you are living now.
posted by jayder at 10:14 PM on June 23, 2006

You could try the Landmark Forum. It answered this very question for me. It's a little philosophy + Tyler Durden + "WTF am I obsessed with stuff" all rolled into a nice little weekend package.
posted by blahtsk at 10:21 PM on June 23, 2006

The problem is not the stuff. It's your devotion, engagement, and fascination with it, it is your behavior, which you have basically characterized as a waste of time.

You can change your behavior, and the fact is you are already on your way to doing so. You're noticing how you're spending your time and you are noticing that you're getting uncomfortable. It's like you're sitting in a chair that once was new and plush and very comfortable, but over time it's become not so comfortable, too mushy, lower back getting sore! wow, I need to get out of this!

Not that you're striving for comfort, perhaps more of a challenge, something new and engaging is in order.

Just watch yourself, look over your own shoulder, say to yourself, "there he is using the treo." It will soon become less than it was, just a gadget, not a way of life.
posted by anticlock at 10:39 PM on June 23, 2006

Best answer: First of all, I know where you're coming from. I used to spend a lot of time reading gadget blogs, and reviews of gadgets and computer hardware. It's easy to make believe that you're acquiring useful knowledge, but the fact of the matter is, if you actually need to know something about a gadget/whatever you can probably look it up in a couple minutes when the need arises.

What did I do about it? I don't pore over stuff in detail anymore. I still like to have the feeling of having my finger on the pulse of gadget/science/tech news, so what I do is I scan the headlines, and only if an article seems really really interesting do I actually read it. This has cut my general surfing down from several hours per day to maybe half an hour.

I'm a pack rat, and I've been getting rid of stuff for weeks now. I've thrown out a couple garbage bags full of random junk just from my room alone. I've filled boxes with paper recycle. I sold my desk and got a smaller one.

I also started reading books again. That's helped too.

Based on my experience, I think you'd benefit from systematically getting rid of your excess stuff. It would be cathartic to load it up and give it away all at once, but ultimately I think you'll be more satisfied if you put more time into it.

Sell what's worth selling. Give away what's not worth selling but is in good shape. Shred/recycle/throw out the rest as appropriate.

There are lots of simple and satisfying things you can do with your time (getting rid of your excess stuff is one of them), that can be goal oriented, but don't need to be, and don't require a lot of ambition, planning, or money. Cooking springs to mind as a good example. You'll never run out of stuff to learn, you get a great return on the effort you put in, and you need to eat anyway! Another good one is gardening.

To wrap this all up, I just want to say that I don't think you need to do anything too drastic. I don't think you need to become a luddite. You should try to be more mindful of how you're spending your time, and get rid of your excess stuff, but it sounds like you're on the right track, so there's no need to be hasty. I apologize for going on at such length, but your question hits close to home for me.
posted by benign at 10:59 PM on June 23, 2006 [2 favorites]

But seriously, 4ster, your particular obsession isn't the problem. You could replace your Treo-PDA obsession with almost anything: bowling, the films of Woody Allen, stamp collecting, whatever.

Your problem is in two parts -- that you perceive it to be an obsession and you perceive it to be worthless.

There are plenty of people far more obsessed and far less self-aware than you. People who spend their entire salary on outfitting their home like the Starship Enterprise for instance.

So, your activity is focussed in one direction and it takes up a lot of your life. Your "Luddite" idea is one solution, but a pretty dramatic and self-punishing one.

There are two other avenues I'd suggest:
  1. get a new obsession, hopefully in the area of charity or other good works, so that you feel you're doing something worthwhile instead
  2. harness your current obsession in the direction of some good work or charity so that you feel you're doing something worthwhile as well
Could you, for instance, create some kind of useful software for, randomly, deaf people to use Treo PDAs in some new way? Or inner-city schools? If you're a Christian perhaps you should be working on versions of the Bible for PDAs? Use your contacts on the message boards to collect old ones, refurbish them and sell or donate them in a worthy cause? These are just plucked out of the air but you see my point.

If you've got that kind of personality which focusses on a particular topic to the point of obsession, you might as well harness it rather than punishing yourself.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 11:05 PM on June 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Try reading David Chess's weblog. He muses a lot about how one should live one's life, but he's from a similar state of mind, if I'm understanding where you're coming from. Also, read wood_s_lot, a slow, meditative, intelligent, cultured website. And How to Save the World, pretentious as it sounds, tries hard to make sense of how to live well in the world.
posted by cgc373 at 11:19 PM on June 23, 2006

Excellent suggestions here; if you're reading Thich Nhat Hanh consider incorporating some sort of mindfullness based meditation into your life as well. It's not a cure, but does help address one's spiritual side and can compliment your existing belief system.

You're not the only one going through what you're going through - although some of us are still stuck in the wilderness :( Let me be another person who periodically mentions the school of Getting Things Done - some people swear by it.

I also really, really like AmbroseChapel's excellent suggestions of infusing some of your interests with gadgets into some sort of creative products. I had a mech eng. friend in college who was increasingly frustrated with what he was studying - yet loved cars, and loved building things. I suggested he suppliment his studies with things related to it but with a different twist - i.e. don't just read up on current cars, but explore designing your own, or alternative energy, or other issues related to science and tech. He ended up working on the annual solar car may not work for everyone, but sometimes a new spin on a familiar topic can be just the thing to get creative juice flowing and/or passion reignited. Not the passion of purchasing new gadgets, but more like a creative outlet for you to explore the topic. Again, harness it and don't punish yourself, and let the rest of us know how it goes...
posted by rmm at 11:27 PM on June 23, 2006

Most people on here have already given you good advice.
Mine would be simply to cut back gradually.
Leave the phone at home when you head out for dinner.
Get one of the myriad software timer packages to remind you to get off the computer after an hour.

And probably most importantly, involve your wife.
Tell her to remind you when you are getting too obsessive.

A personal anecdote that may help you:
My wife is very gadget unfriendly. She loathes things that are too complicated, too finicky, etc.
So, now, when we go hiking or something, I take only things that are "Wife Approved". I've found that this drastically pares back the things that I carry, since most gadgets don't meet the criteria.

Oh, and ah..if you've got some Treo accesories that need a home, my email is my profile..strictly to help you with your therapy, of course...
posted by madajb at 11:49 PM on June 23, 2006

Run a 30-days trial
posted by gmarceau at 12:54 AM on June 24, 2006

Sorry, re-reading my comment, I meant experience extreme poverty as in see it - not become extremely impoverished. D'oh
posted by RufusW at 1:10 AM on June 24, 2006

When was the last time you talked to your wife about the fears and anxieties that entrap your mind and your heart? Talk to her. Don't hold anything back. See what happens. Ask her about what's going on with her, too.

What about your parents? Are they around? Same thing. Siblings, too.

Engage with the people who are dear to you. Tell them what you've said here. Something wonderful might happen. Open the dialogue and keep it open. Let go of the shame you feel and let the ones you love become involved in your process.
posted by clockzero at 2:41 AM on June 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

Do it.
posted by unixrat at 5:34 AM on June 24, 2006

What clockzero said. Taking that a step further, consider this: If you make these sorts of changes in your life, your wife and daughter will probably be making some (if not all) of these changes along with you. Shouldn't they have some say in this discussion and decision?
posted by Robert Angelo at 8:22 AM on June 24, 2006

Response by poster: Well, that's the thing. They are already this way. A part of my desire to make the changes in my life is to make it more congruent with theirs. If they knew the level to which I was considering this, they woud be overjoyed, providing that they could believe I could stick with it.
posted by 4ster at 8:31 AM on June 24, 2006

Response by poster: oops...provided they believe..
posted by 4ster at 8:31 AM on June 24, 2006

They are already this way

Thanks for clarifying that; it wasn't clear from your original post. Not to say what you should do or how to do it, but it certainly helps that you have their support and (yes) guidance to rely upon.
posted by Robert Angelo at 9:18 AM on June 24, 2006

I think you should make the change gradually, and ring in each new lessening as a celebration.

As you use and obsess over item X, you say to yourself "Isn't it silly that I spend all this time with item x, performing unnecessary procedure Y? It will be so great when I throw away item X in two weeks."

Then, as you throw the thing away / sell it / give it away, feel the weight lifting. Remind yourself that you don't need to do process A, B, C, D, ever again, now that your life is free of silly item X. You don't ever need to go to website P to waste time reading about silly item X again.

If you can afford the financial hit I would destroy or give the things away. More celebratory and cathartic than selling.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:38 AM on June 24, 2006

Read Clutter's Last Stand.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 9:46 AM on June 24, 2006

You're a geek, and geeks typically get very interested in/distracted by gadgets. If you get rid of the machines, you're still going to have the curiosity, the desire to tinker, the desire to discover new ideas. You can aim your geekiness in a direction that adds to your life.

Example: A friend retired filthy rich from his software job and got bored and depressed. He heard about a team of high-school kids who qualified for the national finals in a robot competition, but had no money for travel. He met with them and wrote a press release, which attracted lots of money. And he spent some time with the kids, gave them pointers, and proved by example that geeky kids can go places. The kids did at least as much good for him as he for them.

I'm so sorry if this sounds sappy, but you get the idea.
posted by wryly at 10:37 AM on June 24, 2006

As the wife of a packrat, I can speak from a bit of experience.

We originally de-cluttered our apartment because we thought we were selling it. We left ourselves with only the things we used on a regular basis, and put everything else we owned into storage. This was emotionally pretty easy to do because it was just for the short term, just until we sold the apartment.

Well, one thing led to another and we didn't end up moving. About a year later we returned to our storage unit, and found that we'd been living happily for all those months without even thinking about most of the contents of the unit. We got rid of the vast majority of it then, without ever going through a tough emotional separation.

I could see an adaptation of this process where you use a storage unit as a transitional space. It would allow you to de-clutter to a deeper degree without fear of the cleaner's remorse. Your things are out of sight, and inconvenient to access, but still there if you really really want them back.
posted by nadise at 10:55 AM on June 24, 2006

One question I would start out asking is, where are the fulfillment gaps in your life? The gadget fixation you're describing sounds like a substitute for something. I can't help notice that of the positive qualities you describe about your working situation (successful, appreciated and in-demand) there isn't anything about your enjoying or feeling fulfilled by your work.

The other advice that occurs is to think carefully about what the gadgets and their attendant accessories do for you. Think about your actual use, make a list, and think about each thing you really use it for - is it positive, negative or neutral, is it essential, non-essential or detrimental to things you want to achieve? You need to make sure that you provide yourself with appropriate tools to address the essential and positive, or it will make it easier to backslide.

I have yet to own a PDA or a cell phone, so take it with a grain of salt.
posted by nanojath at 1:03 PM on June 24, 2006

I'd kill the data part of your celphone account, at least.

And quit reading the forums. 90% of them consist of people insulting each other and WinCE-vs-Palm flamewaring anymore. Go back if you actually have a problem you need to fix.

There will always be the Next Greatest thing - It dosen't make your current Great Thing any less so - I bought my Treo 270 two years ago for $50, and it does everything I need, and then some. If you start to think you're getting 'Left behind' by whatever Palm comes out with next week, you can email me a quick 'Hahahahahaha!' and feel better :)
posted by Orb2069 at 4:42 PM on June 24, 2006

similar to nadise's comment. my wife and I are in the midst of a weekend of a moving sale. we are trying to sell about 4/5ths of what we own, along with our house, and we are going to take a few months to drive around North america. But the relevant point is the act of selecting what items we want to keep to take with us or to put in storage for the few months that we know we will need when we settle again. That practice in sorting and setting aside all the stuff we are trying to sell has been amazing. Now our house is full of junk, when just yesterday all that junk was our posessions -- its all still in our house, but simply by putting it in the 'for sale' pile we have changed the nature of the things in our house, or changed our relation to them.

Short answer: have a (big) garage sale.
posted by iurodivii at 6:06 PM on June 24, 2006

To echo the sentiments of jtfowl0, Jimbob, and rufusw and continue on a similar theme, I find backpacking incredibly helpful in helping to cut down my consumerist lust. Not only is there immediate gratification in learning how little you actually need on a day-to-day basis, but less stuff=>lighter weight=>easier travel! I have no idea if you have any inclination towards it, but it helps me; it becomes a culture shock to return to my own apartment after a long trip.

I empathize strongly, though: I spend way too much time on camera/photography (and they're listed in that order for a reason) resources and not nearly enough time photographing...
posted by mhespenheide at 6:36 PM on June 24, 2006

The odds of getting rid of all of your excess is small, and the chance of getting more is high. Might as well love it, it's who you are, until it's not. Same with people who live without much junk, they can't help themselves. If you really wanted to spend less time on the internet, you probably won't be posting this question.
posted by zackdog at 9:11 PM on June 24, 2006

A friend retired filthy rich from his software job and got bored and depressed. He heard about a team of high-school kids who qualified for the national finals in a robot competition, but had no money for travel. He met with them and wrote a press release, which attracted lots of money. And he spent some time with the kids, gave them pointers, and proved by example that geeky kids can go places. The kids did at least as much good for him as he for them.

That guy very probably helped a FIRST robotics team. I am a recent graduate of a team and I can't tell you how much I appreciate the mentors that worked with my team. Getting involved may very well be a good thing for you, and will almost certainly be a good thing for the students.
posted by phrontist at 6:38 AM on June 25, 2006

Response by poster: I just want to thank eveyone for posting. This has been immensely helpful and full of great suggestions that I can look into. If I could mark every answer as "best" I would.
posted by 4ster at 10:04 PM on June 25, 2006

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