How to stop mindless consumption + begin living intentionally
As we head into this new year, there's a double weird no-man's land (a lockdown and that other-world, post-holiday in-between time) that's created a natural touch-point to reflect on our lives and what we hope for in the future. Usually we make goals to live better or improve an aspect of our life, and for me, that means delving further into the way of intentional living.
I feel like I'm continuously mentioning this topic of 'intentional living' as being a big part of what makes up Harlowe Green (hashtags, amirite), but I am not sure I've ever really gotten into it. Simple, intentional, sustainable living - it all sounds so cozy and soothing and wonderful, but it's quite another thing to actually get that infused into our lives, especially with families and obligations and all the things we are supposed to be doing and being all the time.
Basically, intentional living is living on purpose - being fully aware of what we are choosing, fully in control of our decisions and lifestyle, living out our values in the little things. It is not being pulled along day by day by whatever fad pops up to run after that eventually gets tossed by the wayside, which is basically what our culture is continuously asking us to do in order to keep up an optimal consumption rate. It is a big piece of simple living, an essential thing for long-term sustainability. Intentional living is true to our personal values (and knowing what these are) instead of just flying by the seat of our pants because things are simply too overwhelming to take the time to think it through. Intentional living feels very good, but it also feels very elusive and something that might just exist on the pages of a magazine in some faraway Parisienne house that you don't actually see people living in day to day.
So, with the desire to continue further down this path and clarify it a little bit, here's an essay about my journey in this area - something that is always ongoing and evolving and as you'll see, doesn't really paint me in the best light, which I'm definitely okay with. And while I don't really think much changes on January 1st each year, this restful time of winter is setting in and new habit changes feel a little more attainable and the desire to start fresh is there. Let me know where you're at with all this and send me any of your tips, and I'll add them in for the rest of our community!
What Intentional Living is... not
So, here we go. Some real joyful memories of times that I was not very happy, or living very well. While not everyone feels out of sorts when they are out of control and within an environment of chaos and any immediate whims get to dictate whatever you're doing, I'll just say that this does not, and did not, make me feel good. While I may say that things were generally pretty okay, deep down it felt all wrong and left a big gloom of dissatisfaction hanging over everything. And I didn't realize at the time how big a role mindless consumerism played in this whole unhappy lifestyle of mine, until it changed.
So - I thought shopping was leisure. It was a family pastime. It would be a fun day when we got to travel to a new mall and go shopping when I was growing up. Boxing Day, a random Saturday trip to a bigger mall than the one in my little town, Christmas shopping days, Winners hunting-style shopping - I loved it all. The good feel of finding a perfect new outfit, a good deal, a bunch of shopping bags at the end of the day.
Or so I thought. In reality, I hated the fast decision making, the lack of money I had (I basically spent all of the money with my part time jobs in high school and university on mindless purchases), the quick remorse, the repeated returns process, the endless decluttering cycle that entered my life in my early twenties. I was a big gifter, too, beyond what was necessary. I bought a lot of things for me younger siblings just for short moments of happiness. It was a coping mechanism that was learned and very, very ingrained.
I ended up using shopping as a way to feel better that didn't actually work. I'd fight with my mom a lot in my teenage years, and then ask my boyfriend to take me shopping to get out of there and feel better. I didn't even need anything. I'd spend time with some new friends in our university residence (the majority of whom did not have to pay for their own school or bring a random quilt from home to decorate their room with) and want to buy something new to change myself when really I just felt insecure in how inferior they made me feel (unintentionally) because I was just some farm kid. After university, I had a bartending job just so I could have cash to go wander around at Home Sense whenever I missed my long distance relationship. I got stuck on a fantasy dream of living together and then spend my feelings on items I was putting away for when that finally happened (all of which I do not have now, because I didn't really need them and was just buying random stuff). How many times did I read a magazine or scroll on the internet and buy something that would make my life more simple/organized/chaos free (etc!) that obviously never worked out? Instead of realizing I needed an actual creative outlet to be happy, I would shop for home decor to match whatever fad I enjoyed on Pinterest and redo my environment over and over. How many times did I buy a new outfit or makeup item, imagining I would feel better later wearing it than I did right then?
Am I proud of this? Absolutely not. Did it make me feel good? Absolutely not. Did it take me like a decade to stop doing this? Absolutely.
There are people out there whose entire job is helping to organize and declutter for others. There are TV shows, documentaries, self help books and how-to posts everywhere about decluttering. But you know what? The decluttering never ends if you keep shopping. And the junk piles up, our dissatisfaction remains, and the earth has to suck it in. There is no magical point that it just stops, because we keep feeding a cycle that solves nothing.
It’s so hard because it requires habit changes. And if it is related to any kind of trauma, it might take reparenting ourselves. It’s addressing a lot of whys and hard memories and hard feelings for many people. It’s challenging massive cultural norms, messages, and values we've been served our whole lives. And all these things are so damn alluring that it is far more soothing to just not ignore them at all. It's hard. It’s a lot. It’s work that no one really wants to do and it takes a really long time. And a lot of failing - I am still learning. I recently panic bought homeschool items on Etsy after a month of feeling like a failure at online teaching my son. But it's alright. I'm getting there.
While I will tell you that it is hard, it is definitely worth it. And the decluttering will (almost) stop, once you stop feeding that beast. The calm home can be yours, and the calm feeling that you get when you're in control of the chaos? It can be yours, too.
Where to start: Audits, Pattern Recognition
So you decluttered your home. It's a pandemic - you've got the time to clean out the garage, the closet, whatever. But then what? You'd like to begin reducing the waste that comes out of your home and never do that whole decluttering thing again. But how do you actually stop all the waste? Where do you start?
Let me tell you, I've been simplifying my life and decluttering and waste reducing for years. It will never be a 'one and done' thing; so start the habit changes with a little grace for yourself and know that it's just a process, it doesn't need to be perfect.
A good idea is to start with an audit if something isn't jumping out for you right away.
This would be the step to take once you've collected everything you are getting rid of - be it to the dump, a donation site, someone that you know could use it, etc.
The most basic way to audit is to survey the items in your trash - what do you see a lot of? Are they all coming from the same place? What place is this all coming from, and how can it be addressed? Ya don't really need to dig through it, just look at it with the goal of figuring out what most of it is and why it's there. Do you throw away a lot of ziplock bags (and want to try cloth baggies)? A lot of plastic razors (and want to try a safety razor)? Candy wrappers (bulk buy)? Paper towel (try out cloths or rags)? Sparkling water cans (save up and then save money with a Soda Stream)? Can you fix this (and save money) with a swap in one or two areas over time?
For example - if you have a lot of food waste, trying to address this could look like altering your approach to groceries, trying the new habit change of meal planning and prepping, possibly eliminating leftovers by cooking less (if you tend to throw these out), or not buying certain items. I know I used to think I'd be healthier if I just ate some damn kale, and to eat the damn kale I had to actually have it, so I bought it all the time. And then I just threw it out all the time, after I froze a bunch of previous week's kale to "use later." But the truth is, I never used it unless I made a conscious effort in a recipe, so I really needed to stop buying it. Could you just start a composting habit and eliminate half of the garbage bag right there? Or bring leftovers when they crop up to someone that may need them?
You can do the same thing with your decluttered items. Do you have a lot of the same category of things you're eliminating? Do you need to just stop trying to buy cardigans, because you never wear them? How did you acquire these in the first place? Why? For this step, you really just need to be cognizant of what's there, you don't have to get into the meat and potatoes of it just yet (because for many, the guilt and bad feelings to keep things we don't really need enter the picture here and make it difficult to make a decision if you do that at the same time).
This is one of Gail Vaz Oxylade's ideas that I really enjoyed. This involves sitting down with your finances and seeing where all of your money is being spent. Categorizing expenses into different categories and adding them up for a set period of time (say, a month), can really give you a sense of where you're spending most of your money, and then you can begin the questions of why this is happening, whether you're okay with it, and what you'd like to change.
While this is not going to exactly give you a real strong handle on the waste side of the equation, it can help you to identify patterns, find any triggers to your spending behaviour, and decide if what you're doing is really reflecting the life you'd like to live.
For me, I needed to stop going to Costco, Home Sense and Winners. Sure, I would always have a need at one of these shops before going in - to get groceries at Costco, or to go in for sheets or a present, because I would be “saving” money there. But then I’d leave with a ton of extra food, or Easter decorations, and actually be spending much more. Those places are blackholes for me of creating wants that didn't exist prior to me entering the store. I absolutely always left those stores with extra items and way too much money spent. And, not only did I notice these patterns on my bank account audit, I saw them in the things that I decluttered the most too. None of those stores uphold the values that I'm working on instilling in my life (big American corporations that hurt our little shops), and even though it definitely was a hard thing to walk away from, I am not even missing all of those things I would have bought that I never knew I didn't need.
Diving down the Rabbit Hole
Next, you need to get into the why. This is always the longest, very vague, piece of the puzzle. It's not always that easy to get into the why, but once you can figure out your pattern of spending and take the emotion out of it, you gain a huge amount of control back.
To begin with, figure out your triggers. I know now that if I sit down with a magazine, I will be triggered to look something up. If I scroll through some of the Insta accounts I really admire, I will eventually get clicking around and checking things out. I love following parenting idea accounts and then all of a sudden I think I need a perfectly curated playroom (as if that is going to bring control into my life, ha!). All of this is okay. But at least I am not mindlessly looking anymore, because I know exactly what's going on.
Then, figure out some ways to combat the real heavy stuff. To really change these habits, especially if consumerism is tied to any sort of coping mechanism for you (especially if you've experienced trauma), this is not simply "get yourself a gratitude journal and you're good" type of situation. I know this well. You need to figure out some concrete *new* coping mechanisms before you're in your situation so that you don't have to think through what you should try to do instead. When it happens, you just then have to recognize what is happening, and then make yourself do the thing you decided you'd do instead.
I know these are tired "self care" lists that we save all the time and never return to, but figure out what works for you: go on a walk, take a bath, put on lotion, make a tea, grab a book, put on a show, grab an old recipe, take a nap - do the thing. I find the things where you have to sit with yourself (and possibly get very upset) are the best things to move you forward, but that isn't always a possibility. Going outside is my favourite option, and taking a long walk makes me sit and process these feelings outward. I needed to put dance back in my life so that I had a creative project to work (choreography) and think about rather than redesigning and spending and seeking creative exploration with “stuff.” Sitting with the crud helps you to move past this section a lot faster than ignoring it (which is what the consuming helps a lot of us do).
Next, make a plan for something you can't do at home as well. If you're used to shopping to take up time when you're out and about or on your lunch break, try saving articles to read, download a podcast and bring your headphones, download a book on tape, or find some documentary to watch at your desk instead.
Tidbits to help Curb Consuming
Here are a few bitties that really are psychological ways/trains of thought that helped me work myself out of thinking I needed something in the moment. Because, after all, we still are going to consume some things, so it’s not like you can just stop altogether.
All of these came to me from somewhere else in this journey, but some of my favourites are Leo Babauta, Joshua Becker, and the @thelaminimalist.
1. The One In-One Out Rule
The idea of the "one in, one out" rule is that if you buy something to replace something else, you need to get rid of that something else once you purchase the new thing. So, if you want to buy that pretty new coffee travel mug you happen upon when you're at a shop, think of getting rid of your current coffee mug when you get home with this new one. You can ask yourself if you need two, and if you don't, figure out which road to choose - keep your lovely one at home, or pay money to buy another thing just have to get rid of it? Do you like that new one enough to do that?
A lot of people have a hard time decluttering things because they are still perfectly good, but they continued to still buy the same things anyway, not considering what they already have. This has prevented me from buying many items that seemed so delightful upon first glance. By no means do you have to actually follow through with this, but it helps to remind you of what you already have when you're wanting more and tap into that same feeling of "well, it's still perfectly good."
Which leads me to...
2. Do not replace things that do not need replacing.
Don't throw out a perfectly good thing to replace it with something that is more ____. Don't throw out your plastic ice cube tray because you want to be more sustainable with a metal one; that is not helping you achieve being eco at all. Don't throw out all of your wrapping paper because you recently learned it is not a great sustainable option. Use it all up first, don't jump at buying something until honestly, you really actually require it.
3. Remember that you can appreciate the beauty of something without owning it.
4. The 48 Wait
This guy is my favourite. This requires waiting 48 hours (honestly, sometimes I need more, like a week or a month even) to buy something that you plan to spend money on. Walk away from it and give it time. The shine of many things wears away, to be honest.
5. Make a Thrift List
A big part of my enjoyment of shopping was spending the time with someone, and of course, the hunt to find something unique. While I haven't gone shopping in a mall in years, I love to hit a bunch of our fave thrift shops. Not finding the perfect thing makes finding it all the more amazing when you do, and it is usually made better than the 'new age' version of it, and it's almost always cheaper. The guilt of buying is decreased from a sustainable standpoint, as the thing already exists and you’re not adding something new to the waste cycle. Quick decisions are okay, because usually, you’re not out a ton of money if you need to re donate back.
So, keep a running list of things that you'd love to own, if it's a good price and can be found used. I am always on the hunt for wood kitchen pieces (old gorgeous salad bowls and trays), woven textiles and vintage Christmas ornaments. Having a list of things you don't need to urgently buy, but what to find one of a kind options for, can still provide you with some shopping, without the guilt or the cost to anyone else.
5. Find it somewhere better
The less you buy over time, the easier it is to make better and better choices when shopping, because less of it is happening. So, as you go, try researching other places to buy before you make your decision. Almost anything is available at a small shop. If you find out that there is a price discrepancy, you can make your decision from there. You can choose to price match. You can choose to walk away. If you know what the actual cost of something is (meaning that everyone is getting paid properly in the item's lifecycle, and that it is made in a quality manner) instead of the "Walmart" or "Amazon" cost, you might realize that you probably didn't need to own it in the first place or maybe you could just borrow it from someone else.
Or, buying it from the small shop renders it a completely different perceived psychological value once it is purchased, and this little perception change completely alters how you will use, own, value, appreciate, and take care of that thing. It's real - look it up! Having good values associated with a purchase pays you back over and over again.
7. Be extra wary of Sales
I used to brag about how much I got for such little money. The truth is, someone was paying for my savings somewhere in the equation. I saw a gal showing off her sherpa sweater from Target the other day, on sale for $3 from $30. Old me would have been right there with her singing "yeah!" like Usher. But honestly, now all I can see is how cheaply they pulled those resources together (so definitely didn't take care in protecting anyting), how toxic that plastic material must be, and how poorly they paid the person that sewed it together overseas, and how sad the Target employees must be to not have any benefits because this consumer got to save. How fast is that thing going to fall apart, and how quickly are all those fibres going to fly down the drain in the washer to create hundreds of years of micro plastics? I would not give that thing a projected full year's worth of use. The same goes for extremely cheap meat, or the plastic goods in the Dollar Store. How can they actually produce that stuff, for so cheap, and move it around (usually overseas for the dollar shops) for that price? Someone or something (ahem, nature and third world people) is biting it hard there.
Plus, I always bought far more things than I ever needed simply because they are 'on sale.' So, did I really save any money, spending it? Really? No.
So, now I have to ask myself if I would pay full price for the thing. If the answer is no, I don't need it. It doesn't mean I don't take advantage of a sale, but now I have the control over what I am buying and my own money, not the seller.
8. Figure out your Values
If you want to live intentionally, you need to figure out your values so that you can feel like you're living by them. This doesn't need to be a huge exercise. But deciding to consume with your values in mind actually helps you make decisions that you can only feel good about after, over and over. A few good ideas might include sustainability (used, or made of sustainable materials with a full lifecycle consideration), ethical treatment of workers, quality of goods, Canadian made, and small shop sourced; versus our cultural norm value of cheapest price. I know that holding those things above price will also save me money because I won't be buying junk that won't last.
A little example:
Before: I had no idea what my values were when it pertained to consumerism. I bought a three pack of plastic scissors at Costco because I needed a pair of scissors, and hey - three pairs for a good price! They looked pretty okay and nevermind that I didn’t need three.
Two of these have already broken in the last five years; one is still in my toolbox.
Now: It took extra time, but I wanted something that was made out of quality materials, from a small Canadian shop. I found the perfect forged steel scissors at June Home Supply for less than $25. I did not buy extras, because I still have one pair in the toolbox and I really don't need two pairs of scissors in my home. I swear to you that this scissors are going to bring me joy because this fits what I want my life to be. Intentional. They will likely be the last pair of scissors I buy, like the ones in my grandmother’s drawer from when she was downsizing to move into a retirement home.
It has taken years, but I promise that with every step, every habit change, you are moving somewhere good, and it will make a difference to both your mental health and the world that we live in. The work is worth it, for more than just avoiding the cycle of consumption and the monetary cost that we pay for it.