May 05, 2018

Shopping and Procrastination

“You already have everything you need,” is a statement I have heard so often it has become a cliché. What it really means, I’ve decided, is, “Go ahead. Do something. Try something. Don’t be afraid to get started. Take action. Use what you have. Use what you know. You can make it happen.”

Looking at it this way, this idea can seem to be the opposite of procrastination. You don’t need to wait for something more to show up. The best thing you can do is to take action now.

Hear the same words in a slightly more literal sense, though, and you could just as easily take them as the opposite of shopping. Shopping, after all, is premised on the idea, “There is something more you need.” When you can’t find a reason to go shopping, that implies that you already have everything you need. When you decide you need something more, that is when you go shopping.

So maybe, in a funny way, shopping is the equivalent of procrastination.

It is strange to see myself make that assertion, strange for a couple of reasons. The first is that, as I have mentioned before, I am not entirely convinced of the existence of procrastination. It is, at best, a vague term that seems to defy all attempts to define it exactly. When I try to pin down just what procrastination is, I hear a voice in my head that sounds like Wayne Dyer speaking into a hand-held microphone, saying, “If you’re being affected by procrastination, show me what that looks like. Show me what you’re doing when you’re procrastinating.” Each line is followed by that little chuckle that says, “You can’t do it, can you?” Procrastination not only defies precise definition, it is also something you cannot recognize when you see it. It is hard to be certain that such a thing exists.

Then, if I accept that procrastination is an amorphous but nevertheless real thing that has something to do with “later,” it seems slightly off to connect it to a specific action that, in the right moment and situation, everyone will agree is necessary, such as shopping.

Shopping is itself an action that might be postponed in the manner of procrastination. I write this after having just completed a no-shopping month during April. When I set out to avoid shopping for the month of April, I imagined that there would be a rush of urgent shopping I would want to do on the morning of May 1 — but that never materialized. I did, as you would expect, buy groceries and fuel for my car in the first few days of May. I went into a few other stores, but the no-shopping month had changed my view of them. As I looked at the racks of clothing, there was nothing there that was really better than the clothing I had at home, and I knew it. This morning, I got out of bed and looked at the garage sale listings, and decided not to go to any of them.

I still have about ten items on my shopping list at this point, but when I look at the list, I am not eager to go out and get these items. Surely, I tell myself, all these errands can be postponed for a week or two. It could be said, then, that I am procrastinating on my shopping. On closer inspection, though, my delayed shopping does not fit the pattern of procrastination. I don’t want to spend the time on shopping because, after my no-shopping month, I am more keenly aware of how much time shopping takes. If I went shopping, that would take me away from the work, study, and housekeeping that I urgently need to do. If I have chosen a high-priority task over a low-priority task, that is not what procrastination normally means.

Look at the commercial culture that surrounds shopping, and you can see shopping in a different light. Advertising messages are constantly trying to persuade you that you are not enough the way you are — that you need something more. Advertisements need to convince you of this if they are to get you to go shopping and buy the product they are promoting. If there is a spiritual voice that tells you, “You already have everything you need,” the commercial voice must persuade you that the spiritual voice is mistaken in this one instance.

I understand the commercial messages better than most people because for many years, working as a marketing data analyst, I helped Wall Street banks and other businesses fine-tune these messages by identifying which messages best persuaded which audiences. Yet even I, it seems, have been taken in by the pro-shopping message that says, “There is something more you need,” to the point where I ignored the voice that said, “You need to stop delaying and take action now.”

Shopping, then, can be part of a pattern of delaying your most important work of the day. I occasionally see this dynamic in its most basic form among my writer friends. When there is something to write, the thought might be, “Maybe I should start with a fresh pad of paper.” Then, “I might need a cup of coffee.” An hour can go by before they write their first word, and in the meantime, they have spent a few dollars on things they probably didn’t need.

We have all done this in one form or another. But it is a mistake, I think, to see this as a character flaw. We are being manipulated by our commercial environment, as it tells us again and again, “You are not enough the way you are. You need something more.”

Especially in America, we are taken in by bargains, sale prices, limited-time offers. The American shopper wants to feel that she is getting ahead by getting a better deal than everyone else. I am especially vulnerable to the super-low prices of discontinued merchandise. A year ago, when a store was offering a premium brand of lemonade at a small fraction of its regular retail price, I couldn’t believe my good luck. I think I bought seven cases.

I should have bought just six. The last case is still sitting on the floor in my dining room. No matter how good the lemonade is, and this might have been the best bottled lemonade ever, it takes longer than I had imagined to drink seven cases of it.

The same error of proportion explains much of the food I have in the house. Organic chocolate chip cookie mix for 99¢? I see this and I forget how much work it is to mix and bake the cookies. I forget that I don’t eat cookies the way I used to. It is not so different with clothing. I have Oxford shirts in 27 different colors, not so much because I have any plausible need for that many variations on the same clothing item, but more because I couldn’t believe how little they cost.

It may be a different angle that gets other shoppers. Maybe it is the limited-edition item that will sell out before your friends hear about it. Maybe it is the prestigious brand at a liquidation price. Regardless of the details, I hope you see the psychological nature of the pattern. If you are shopping to “win” at the shopping game, that implies that you don’t feel very much like a winner to begin with. And of course, the commercial messaging is always there to make sure you feel perpetually like someone who is not quite a winner.

It all ties together. If you want to feel like a winner, I would argue the best strategy is to take action day after day on the work that carries the greatest sense of purpose in your life. Commercial culture seeks to undercut your feeling of purpose at the same time that shopping eats away at the time you have to do work that reinforces your sense of purpose. It’s a vicious cycle: you don’t have much time to accomplish the things that will make you feel good about yourself, so you try to buy things that will cover that gap, but the shopping takes away the time you need for yourself and your true work.

It is only after my no-shopping month is over that I can see I might have broken this pattern for myself with the no-shopping month. It was not just that I spent hardly any time shopping during the month of April, but also that I mostly skipped over shopping-related advertising messages and patterns of thought.

I mentioned in my last post that I think the time I saved by not shopping allowed me to spend more time running, and that may have made it possible for me to run a faster-than-average marathon at the end of the month. That’s a small example, but it shows that spending less time shopping and more time living your life could give you an accomplishment to feel good about within a short time.

In a meaningful way, then, shopping is procrastination. Spend less time thinking about what you can buy and put more energy into living your life, and the result, I would now argue, is that you will be living a better life, and not in the remote future, but almost right away.

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