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Why There’s Too Much On Your Plate

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The great complaint of our time seems to be “I’ve got too much on my plate.”

I wonder how long people have been saying that for. When did plate room, whatever it is, become the thing we can’t get enough of? It’s hard to imagine our hunter-gatherer predecessors keeping multiple-page to-do lists, or perpetually pushing back their actual hunting and gathering because of incessant meetings.

Presumably, we stack so much on our plates because each item returns something necessary for the life we want, something pre-industrial people wouldn’t have had: more security, more luxury, more fun, more fulfillment.

Yet we can’t seem to refrain from stacking things too high, and suffering the resulting stress, overwhelm and sense of falling behind.

Modernity has brought unbelievable benefits to us and we shouldn’t take that for granted. I’m not pining for the days of rickets and involuntary fasting. But it is amazing to me why it’s so chronically difficult for us not to overfill our plates with obligations, diversions, work, and projects, given all the technological advantages we have over our ancestors.

Part of the problem is that abundance isn’t what we think it is. It isn’t just what’s on the good side of the “enough” line. Abundance is a narrow window between scarcity and overabundance, and it’s easy to overshoot, especially in societies that worship wealth, productivity, and economic growth.

It’s not long before the problems of not enough start to give way to the problems of too much. More food is a good thing, for example, up until the point where you have enough food. Then it begins to create problems—far more Westerners struggle with the incredible ease of acquiring and consuming caloric energy than with the age-old problem of securing enough of it.

News and information about the outside world used to be scarce too. It made sense to seek every scrap of it you could find. Now we live in a perpetual torrent of information, much more than we can use productively, and it’s making us lonely, polarized, intolerant, worried, and jaded.

Too much convenience technology is quite clearly making us lazier, and quietly eroding our initiative and problem-solving abilities. Entertainment too—our endless free videos, podcasts, and mobile games are making us less capable of doing so much as going for a walk or waiting for a bus without being simultaneously entertained.

Abundance is good when you’re coming from a place of scarcity. But if we don’t make a point of pruning away the excess, we end up with an overabundance of one thing and a scarcity of something else, often something much more vital: time, self-esteem, physical and mental health.

At some point we must have sailed past the happy medium. When was there just enough on our plates? 1950? 8,000 BC? I suppose it’s different for each category of overabundance.

We need to remember the source of abundance in so-called developed societies: a very hard, single-minded push towards ever-greater economic growth and material wealth. Just by living in such a society, you are being perpetually coaxed to take on more and more material possessions, amenities, information, entertainment, and work obligations, because nothing can drive perpetual growth except a population that never says “enough” to these things.

This push towards excess is the prevailing wind in the Western world. Balance isn’t a target or a even a guiding consideration, even though it’s what we want on an individual level. We do not actually want to live with a constant dearth of time, peace, sanity and health, just so we can drown in too much of some other resource, like entertainment, food, news, or souvenirs.

But we will, if we don’t recognize the direction of this push, and compensate for it with constant culling and pruning on a lifestyle level. Why am I starting all these projects? Why do I replace every single thing that breaks? Do I need meat at every meal? Do I need to say yes to all these requests? Do I need really need five screens of apps? Are all these monthly subscriptions necessary?

In other words, because of the way our society creates abundance, we need to be constantly pruning our intake of information, possessions, entertainment, and voluntary projects, or else we can easily end up with dangerous scarcities in other areas: well-being, health, financial security, self-esteem, mental clarity, and optimism.

How do we know which abundances to cull and prune from our lifestyles? Whatever makes more scarce the things we already don’t have enough of.

For most of us that means tightening up our use of entertainment media, news consumption, discretionary spending, and half-hearted self-improvement projects. Avoiding overabundance in these categories will generate, seemingly magically, more time, money, clarity, peace of mind, and other resources that seem ever-elusive for most people in a consumer society.

These resources aren’t intrinsically rare. But they do become scarce when we let other things take their place. If we’re not careful, that’s what will happen, because—at least in this era, in these parts—that’s the way the wind blows.

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Photo by Camille Orgel

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I don’t do many interviews, but I recently appeared on the Choose FI podcast with my friend Hélène from Free to Pursue. We talked about lifestyle choices, consumerism, comfort zones, and cubic zirconia. [Listen here]

371 Shares
Accidental FIRE March 27, 2018 at 5:01 am

“Now we live in a perpetual torrent of information, much more than we can use productively, and it’s making us lonely, polarized, intolerant, worried, and jaded.”

Awesome post. Information overload (of mostly bad news) is creating the perception that the world is a horrible place and getting worse. In reality, that’s not really true. Humans worldwide have more freedom and rights than ever (in relative terms), and global living standards are higher than they’ve ever been in history. But the purveyors of “news” don’t get clicks on that story.

David Cain March 27, 2018 at 8:47 am

Humans worldwide have more freedom and rights than ever (in relative terms), and global living standards are higher than they’ve ever been in history. But the purveyors of “news” don’t get clicks on that story.

Yup. We could even graph this phenomenon probably: the more news we absorb, the worse people think the world is, even as poverty and violence decline.

Tonya March 27, 2018 at 8:20 am

Pruning is such a good way to put it. It’s just like doing a random check in to check the PH balance of your own life. I was recently feeling low-grade irritation and crankiness. I realized how involved I was getting in certain people or blog posts. My friend reminded me to stop the noise and it’s true. I can choose NOT to get involved. To engage. Do I really for people to hear my voice in that situation? And is feeling edge better than feeling peaceful and calm? Nope! lol! LOVE your posts!

David Cain March 27, 2018 at 8:48 am

PH is a good analogy… I think I need to de-acidify my twitter feed until it’s just humor accounts.

Ashley Kung March 27, 2018 at 3:49 pm

This reminds me of Danielle LaPorte’s idea of writing a “Stop Doing List.” Every once in a while I write a Stop Doing List.

The concept of “enough” definitely seems to be missing in society today. FOMO, however, seems abundant. Maybe FOMO also contributes to people engaging in excess, at least in some ways.

David Cain March 28, 2018 at 9:08 am

I am overdue for a Stop Doing list!

FOMO is definitely becoming a bigger force in society, as people spend more time online and see everything they don’t have :)

Abhijeet Kumar March 27, 2018 at 4:33 pm

Brilliant post this. This is what makes me feel lost in my interactions with family and old friends at times. There is a muscle memory which is always about acquiring more of the material (outside) stuff — greater income, more vacations, happy relationship(s). Same with the people I work with. More efficiency, more features, more revenue.

I wake up feeling existentially lost — and yet it is not the fear of death or fear of anything real. It is the fear of not acquiring more of the external, and feeling happy and blissful at times with the moment. I feel alarmed at not feeling alarmed about the scarcity of external resources I am running into.

David Cain March 28, 2018 at 9:12 am

That impulse to acquire is partly in-built in us, as a survival instinct. We will never run out of desires. But that really gets exploited in consumer societies.

Abhijeet Kumar March 29, 2018 at 12:46 pm

We do have an in-built survival instinct, and desires, such as desire for human connection, food, sex, safety. But desire for a constantly growing income, or a relationship that fits conventional standards, growing profits or revenue steadily, are not from our core survival instinct. A 2 year old child does not have these. A person living in an aboriginal society may not have these.

As this post very beautifully highlights, abundance is a narrow window between scarcity and over-abundance. What is a life lived trying to acquire beyond what was really needed. Where is the juice of life, felt in such a living. But I get the point this is not easy to grasp, with all the muscle memory built into the fabric of our societies.

Jacob Zoller March 28, 2018 at 12:03 pm

Yours is my favorite blog. Thanks for writing!

David Cain March 28, 2018 at 4:52 pm

:D

Andy March 28, 2018 at 12:45 pm

Great insights, David, as usual.

I think the overabundance of information and entertainment in particular are especially insidious, at least in my life. I had a recent day where I realized that I spent almost all of the waking hours jumping from one source of information or entertainment to another, just constantly trying to take on more. Paradoxically, I felt deeply unfulfilled by those hours.

I think that pruning is a good strategy, but ultimately, for me, the act of creation is the best counter. Spending my time to actually create or accomplish activities in service of my goals is the best counter to the desire/temptation to consume more and more.

David Cain March 28, 2018 at 5:05 pm

That’s a great point… when I think about it, I have no need at all for entertainment/diversion when I’m engaged in some sort of creative or goal-oriented activity. And there’s always something in that vein that needs doing :)

Drew @ FIIntrovert March 28, 2018 at 2:32 pm

Being busy allows avoidance of the fact that we are all slated to die. It allows people to never have to examine whether what their life amounts to has any meaning. If you were not busy and constantly overwhelmed, you might have some time to reflect on yourself and your relationships and mortality.

That is entirely too scary so we drown ourselves in debt to be always digging out of and stick our faces into binge watching stories about other people. Eventually the clock will run out without ever have to face that the clock is going to run out.

Being busy is the cocaine of the masses.

David Cain March 28, 2018 at 5:11 pm

There is definitely an existential element here, for sure. And we have more ways than ever to deflect any inward-pointing attention at a moment’s notice.

Carla March 28, 2018 at 5:42 pm

Priceless. I absolutely LOVE your wondering…especially…”At some point we must have sailed past the happy medium. When was there just enough on our plates? 1950? 8,000 BC?” This has been the theme of my personal meditation and coaching practice for 3 years. I can be that specific because that’s when I made the choice to live in “enough”. Creative activity, movement and sitting still seem to be wonderful antidotes. Not to mention being quite choosy with my input and outputs to the world. I’m so glad this musing caught my attention, David. Keep writing. Please.

Mike March 28, 2018 at 9:51 pm

Oh, man..You just reminded me of the late, great George Carlin and his “Stuff” monologue–a wonderful riff on how putting more and more junk in your life creates nothing but hassles and time-consuming problems.

In addition to the media frightening you with tales of violence and woe, well-meaning family and friends can also inadvertently prompt you into putting more on your plate. For example, you’ll hear the horror story of how Aunt Martha broke her back when the ladder rung snapped and it WASN’T COVERED BY HER INSURANCE so, boy, you better buy a plethora of specialized insurance just in case!

I think one of the worst things is how Apple / Samsung / Whoever hype-up the release of their latest phones (with New and Improved apps! Whoah!!) and you get people chucking away perfectly good phones just to buy a new one. There’s no reason for it except to increase the share prices.

Johan March 28, 2018 at 11:23 pm

This reminds of a song…
“And every song that I’ve ever heard
Is playing at the same time, it’s absurd
And it reminds me, we’ve got everything now”

Minimalism and the way of KonMari have now become tools for me to prune as you mentioned. It’s also important to prevent since that helps avoid pruning later on hehe.
It seems we try to solve our problems with more technology. I recently found about a distraction-free phone called light phone 2. It’s a well-intention project but I then wonder, isn’t this just more technology that got us to this mess in the first place? But perhaps it’s this type of well intention technology that can create balance. Thanks for the good read as always.

Tony March 29, 2018 at 3:09 am

Great post!
It brings to mind the quote by sports coach, Henk Kraaijenhof which I repeat each morning when I get up: “Do as little as needed, not as much as possible.”

Sudhir March 30, 2018 at 9:17 am

Thank you David. The article is very thought provoking and very relevant. When I am making the decision to listen to one more news article or, take one more sandwich – the thought of ‘is this more than enough?’ is quite difficult to answer. Many times I just don’t know or, I feel one more sandwich is okay. How does one make a wise decision at the point of contact?

Chris March 31, 2018 at 2:04 pm

Excellent article. I think there is also some sick pleasure we get in our victimlike abundance. Having too much on our plate often manifests in the humble brag, the cry for attention of being “too busy.” I wrote about that, as others have, in a post on my own blog. It’s also like eating a big meal, or too much meat as you stated, where we soon become “so full” and then complain about our abundance. Somehow it seems that no matter where we are between scarcity and abundance there is always a desire for attention, pity, or admiration. If we can learn to be content and exist quietly in our scarcity then I think we would could be truly grateful for our abundance. In doing so we would also realize that our abundance might be unnecessary. If you’re interested:
http://www.itsmechris.com/2016/11/27/stop-saying-the-word-busy

Elisa Winter April 4, 2018 at 2:26 am

Good post, Chris. Especially the Lily Tomlin quote that I remember from long ago.

Mary Green March 31, 2018 at 2:58 pm

Hi David, I struggle with “too much” too. So many of us are chasing more, better, etc. Keeping up with the Gateses as I read it in one book.

I think we hit a decent time back in the 70’s? I’d estimate that is about when we had enough. Parenting was about giving your kids what they needed, then every generation since has wanted to give them more than they had, leading to very selfish generations following, with each of them wanting to get more out of life. And here we are.

I think boundaries are one way to help, mindfulness to what your actual priorities are, and paying attention to how much time and money we actually have is a way to stop and focus on what is important.

That said, I haven’t perfected any of these things. But I am working on it. Good luck.

Allan April 2, 2018 at 10:42 am

Great post. Retired and fortunately well beyond the consumerism drive that America seems to drive us to. However, your article put my focus on my son. He’s been in Africa on engineering assignments for last 10-12 years and is due back this year. I get a deep sense of his fear of return to the incredible hustle and bustle of American life (he has two preschool children). I wouldn’t call his life idyllic, but in a lot of ways it is. Food availability is sketchy, utilities are often interrupted, and a lot of products are extraordinarily cheap quality (think Chinese but a tier or so below what we get). He’ll find his family returned to a life of abundant choices but also demands and a pace of life he’s not used to. He’ll get a bigger plate but there’s a price in many ways.

Elisa Winter April 4, 2018 at 2:18 am

“Pruning” is a gentle concept and it fits, sort of, especially if it’s constant, but when we’re dealing with “torrents” of xyz, perhaps “stacking our plates” isn’t what’s happening. I think of the sailors strapped to the masts so as not to be overcome by the sirens’ songs. I think of using a ladle when you should be using a bucket, or shouldn’t be sailing in a storm at all. Constant pruning keeps me engaged with the torrent too much, doesn’t it? I don’t know, David, it seems like Plato’s Cave. Again. You can’t get just enough of the shadows on the wall because you’re in the damn cave. We are mesmerized by the nearly real. We’ve got to get outside for a real life. I want to stop having to prune constantly. You know?

KG April 6, 2018 at 6:33 pm

So true. Pruning is good, unplugging is better!

Shane McLean April 7, 2018 at 8:16 pm

I agree with you David on the premise of this article. Pruning is a good thing. Right now in my life with a wife, two kids, mortgage and all the trimmings we’re barely keeping our heads above water. Not taking anything on is a matter of necessity and energy more than anything else.

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