Ep. 52 – What Matters: What We Own vs. What We Have

When I was growing up, my dad would often say to me: Your wants are many and your needs are few. 

I disliked it at the time, but, boy, did that turn out to be true. 

This episode is about how we often take our wants and convince ourselves that they are needs. Once we do, it’s hard to sort out what really matters – meaning: what has value and what simply carries cost.  

What’s the difference? You tell me. 

If I were to ask you what the best meal you’ve ever had was, can you think of it right away?

What about your favorite vacation or holiday? Who were you with? What did you do? What do you still remember?

The Bottom Line on Top of this episode is that what we have is far more than what we own. 

But let’s talk about what we own. In 2020, global consumer spending was estimated to be around $44 trillion dollars – that’s with a ‘t’. And a study by the University of California Los Angeles indicates that the average American household has 300,000 things (from paper clips to appliances). Oh, and that study, it was done over a decade ago. 

How much do you think Covid increased our consumption of stuff? And not just more stuff, better stuff – or more of the same stuff. We explored this topic a bit in episode 45 about the “happy when” effect of wanting just a smidge more of this or that. 

But a lot of what we own isn’t always accumulated by conscious choice. A lot of times it’s the gradual growth of more. If we like something, it tends to expand. I just went and checked my closet and I have 13 black t shirts. Just t shirts. I didn’t even count the black shirts in other parts of the closet. I will also note that I’m a pretty good purge-er. I donate clothes and household items on a fairly regular basis. I actually mention this as part of the One In, One Out strategy from episode 31 which was about the case for more space. Turns out, I’m also a pretty good consumer, too. And a lot of us are.

And it’s not just about the physical things around us that are cluttered. The other day, my son was showing me something on his phone and I saw that he had 243 windows open. “I don’t even know what they’re for,” he said – and that’s exactly the point. He closed them that same day without much of a thought.

Our digital lives are just as jammed as our physical ones. One of the most popular workshops I teach is on productivity and part of the insight in those discussions is about how we aren’t alone in our super-size surplus of stuff. From unread emails that make us feel guilty to boxes and bins that squire away what we once thought was so necessary, we harbor our things without valuing them. 

A friend of mine recently lost her father and she’s been sharing snippets online of her experience as she wades through the business of death – the paperwork, emotions, and all the stuff to do about all the stuff. Her father had just bought a new bed 10 days before he died, and now she just sold that bed – plus donated, shredded, and sold so much more. 

All of the thousands of things he once owned are now thousands of things to manage. 

Look around right now. How many things that you can see are really valuable to you vs. convenient for you? And what about the clutter of those conveniences? How many apps are on your devices that you don’t use anymore? How many browser windows are open to help you remember something at some other time? How easy is it to add-to-cart with a simple click so we don’t have to get up and go? But all that stuff  that gets delivered and downloaded, it then simply sits around. 

The extra extra also has psychological and neurological impact. The cognitive cost of too much stuff is part of what’s known as “cognitive load theory.” This refers to our brain’s limited capacity to process information. And when we are surrounded by too much, it can lead to overwhelm and stress, which then impacts our ability to focus, make decisions, etc. 

More simply put, clutter causes stress. 

This can certainly be felt mentally such as when we’re exhausted, impulsive, or we procrastinate. There is also a physiological connection seen in some cases when the body has increased levels of cortisol, which is the stress hormone. 

Wow, that’s a lot of a lot. So what to do about what we have. A few thoughts:

  1. Pause. The best way to reduce clutter, says the experts, is to curb our consumption. Once we own something, we form an emotional attachment to it. Even if we didn’t buy it and were given it, we still think of it now as ours. And if we get newer, better things, there’s part of our brain that says we should still keep that “just in case.”
    • Not sure if you do this? Ask your pantry, garage, that one closet over there, or your digital desktop, email account from over a decade ago, etc. 
  2. Start small. Episode 33 talks about Ridiculously Small Steps. Our things have strings – emotional ones, that is. So start in an area that you’re less anxious about. And combine this with:
  3. Set a timer. Use a clock to release your brain from getting overwhelmed with decisions. So try something like this: I’m going to sort through all the towels for 10 minutes or I’ll delete 5 apps and close 5 browser windows. This isn’t about finishing, it’s about starting. And there’s something magical about a little momentum. 

I was recently reading the book Die With Zero by Bill Perkins. In it, he makes the argument to invest more in experiences rather than adding to the math of our money. Want to leave financial gifts to your loved ones or charitable causes? Great, he says, do it now. 

Have a trip or bucket list item you’ve always wanted to do? Great, he says again, do it now. Savor the experiences while you have the time, health, and loved ones around you. All the saving might add interest percentages, but delays deduct opportunity. 

“The sad truth is that too many people delay gratification for too long, or indefinitely,” says Perkins. “They put off what they want to do until it’s too late, saving money for experiences they will never enjoy.”

He urges us to lean more into experiences versus possessions. While there are certainly thrills of owning something you want, the ‘things’ can quickly depreciate while experiences gain value over time. This is what Perkins calls a memory dividend. 

Smelling the roses today can bring a lifetime of dividends when remembered. I was an English major so I’ll insert a little poetry here to further make this point. In 1648, English poet Robert Herrick wrote about the savoring in the opening stanza to one of his most famous carpe-diem poems. It goes like this:

Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,

Old Time is still a-flying;

And this same flower that smiles today

Tomorrow will be dying.

So there we are: Science, psychology, physiology, research, and a dash of poetry. By learning to enjoy what we have and value what we experience, we can sort the trinkets from the treasures. And as we do, we get a little more room to take care to take good care.  

Your brain is hungry. Give it some intellectual snacks in the
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I'm Kristin

I left my corporate work and dove further into how to navigate this noisy, digital, exhausted world. The result is a methodology centered on communications, productivity, and culture that blends theory with practice and helps people better enjoy the life they worked so hard to get.