Why Being a Creature of Habit Makes Sense

I have in the past been accused of being a creature of habit, a person governed by routines: I tend to frequent the same restaurants, visit the same neighborhoods and locations, usually eat from a number of favorite dishes, watch similar movies in the same theaters, etc. I like certain types of vacations in certain types of places. Once I’ve found certain products I like, I keep buying them and shop for them in the same places.

While I might be a more extreme example, I am sure that to some extent most people tend to stick to their patterns as well (maybe except for the most spontaneous of people). (Apparently there is even evidence that there are roots in human evolution that prevent children older than 2-3 years from trying new food.)

But what is so bad about trying something new, driving a different route to work, ordering untried menu items in new restaurants? What’s the harm in changing your patterns and doing something different than you’ve always used to do? While there is most of the time an obvious, actual cost associated with the choices we make, that monetary cost may not be overly significant or prohibitive. However, there are other, less obvious reasons, hidden costs, that make us stick with “the same”. So here’s my attempt to argue for “sticking with the known”… (Read More)

Time To Assimilate

The Borg – masters of assimilation

Have you ever thought about how much time you spend purchasing and assimilating things you acquired into your life? It goes about something like this (and I’m not even talking cars or houses here): You need to buy / replace an item. This could be anything from a book, a shirt, a kitchen utensil etc. In some cases you might do research prior to starting the hunt, so you might browse the web, read up on it in Consumer Reports, etc. Then you get in the car, drive to one or even multiple store(s), browse the selection, figure out what you want, buy it, haul it home. Then you unpack it, you might need to read the manual/instructions, dispose of the packaging materials and find a new permanent place for it at home. Basically I’m talking about anything from the initial identification of a need to assimilating an item into your life.

On any given weekend, I may just buy 2 or so items that fit this bill, but I’m spending about 2 hrs doing so from leaving the house to coming back. Let’s say I spend another 20 mins or so unpacking and assimilating the items, so in total we’re looking at 1:10 hrs on average per item. That’s a LOT of time!

Now, follow me on this one: How many items do you own? Let’s break it down to an average of items per room, to make it easier. I’m not sure, but let’s say the average room contains 50-100 distinct items. In a 3 bedroom house with living room, family room, kitchen, garage, 2 baths, that makes 450-900 items, which equals approx. 525-1050 hrs (22-44 days!). So if you had to replace every article you own, you’d have to spend 1 month, 24 hrs a day selecting, buying and assimilating products!

I don’t know about you, but that’s quite a number. Don’t like my assumptions? Feel free to tweak the numbers and run through this exercise again and I bet you’ll still end up with quite an impressive amount of time.

Considering the sum of all the things we surround ourselves with is like a living organism which needs to replace all of its cells every so often, we are spending a lot of time maintaining and replacing our collective possessions on a permanent basis.

I guess, I wish I was Borg…

Irreversible Improvements

Everyone seeks to improve their life on a constant basis. Examples: We buy a bigger car, we move to a bigger house, we get more memory for our laptop, we get a faster printer, we accept a job with more pay and a shorter commute, and we go for the big screen TV (a completely random example). All these things add up to a significant improvement of our quality of life over time. But do you realize that this is pretty much a one-way street? Will you be okay with a smaller TV, less RAM, a longer commute, or less pay in future? Hell no! Once you’ve made the change and gotten used to it, you won’t want to go back to “how it used to be”. This makes all these improvements irreversible. You’ve set the bar higher, now get used to jumping higher too. Not that this is a terrible thing, as long as you realize that there is no going back, or at least not a painless way. This is the one-way street of progress…

Don’t believe me? You’re different? Well, my friend, why don’t you go back to dial-up and I’ll check back in with you in a few days…!?

Weekend Entropy

I’ve finally figured out where all my energy goes on the weekends: creating order from the chaos of the week. Come to think of it, this reminds me of what I recall from the theory about entropy. Any system’s natural tendency is chaos, i.e. disorder. The only way to create order in a system, is to expend energy, which increases the order in a system. Without energy applied, an equilibrium with higher entropy (read “chaos”) results. 

The more I think about it, the more I see the same thing happening in my house. During the week, I’m tired and expend less energy keeping things nice and neat around. Dirty laundry piles up, used dishes gather, things get dusty, the carpet starts needing vacuuming, unread mail lies around the kitchen table, etc. Once the weekend starts, I redirect my energy from the office towards my house: doing laundry, cleaning up, running the dishwasher, filing mail, etc. With this energy applied, the order increases and I feel better about the house. Then Monday comes around and the same cycle repeats.

The unfortunate thing is, if I were to go away for the weekend on a little getaway, the disorder would not decrease because I wouldn’t spend any energy on the house. The weekend afterwards would then be twice as tiring as I’d have to clean up twice as big a mess. That’s one reason why weekend getaways, apart from the cost, sometimes seem less attractive.

So I guess next time someone asks me what I’ve been up to during the weekend, the answer is: reducing entropy!

A Buck a Minute

A few years ago, I found myself going to various stores to find out where a specific item, say a DVD, cost the least. I was driving around from the first to the second store, from the second to the third store and then back to the first store to buy it there after all. And all this to save $3. Or I’d go to one store that I knew had the item I needed (e.g. after shave), but I wouldn’t buy it there. Instead I would drive to a second store for this item only to buy it there $2 cheaper. Been there, done that?

Then it hit me: This was my weekend! And I was spending it driving around, trying to save a few bucks here and there. Then I asked myself: “If someone wanted to hire me on the weekend to do some contract work, how much would I want him to pay me?” I figured that I would at least think about it at $50 an hour. With a little rounding, that comes out to a buck a minute, which is how much my precious weekend time is worth to me. 

This little rule-of-thumb has made a significant difference in my life. Whenever I consider starting another bargain hunt, I ask myself: “How much time will this take and how much will it actually save me?”. In many cases I reach the conclusion that the savings are not worth the time I would spend. So I don’t do it any more. This – over time – has helped me regain quite a bit of “me time”.  I’d rather use my weekend for something more enjoyable than to hunt down little bargains or I invest my time into making a real financial difference, e.g. by looking into refinancing my home or by reallocating my 401k. 

How much is a minute worth to you?