30 July 2014

Fast Month #1: On Mindset

Source: Flickr

As I officially started my Levelled Up Shopping Fast about a month ago (on June 19th), here are the impressions and learnings from month one. The beginning has been harder than I thought, as I underestimated the importance of mindset and unconscious behaviours (damn brain biases). Here are some learnings from my missed start, as well as the rest of the month, as I went back on track.

Here is my major learning of the month: A shopping fast project is like any other habit implementation: you can't just decide to do it and it magically happens, if you don't mentally (and materially) prepare for it, you're gonna have a bad time.

Here are 2 major things I have learned this month about the shopping fast mindset: about temptation and brain biases, and about the real, inner motivation to start such an experiment. In the next five months to come, I am hoping that this preparation will help avoid future "fails", but also stay with me after the fast has ended, to diminish my material item consumption on the long term.

Weaknesses, Temptation and Biases

We are less capable to resist temptation than we think before entering the shop, and our willpower is a finite resource so we should avoid situtations that require willpower to resist. Today, I have a couple more learnings on the subject of weaknesses and temptation.

  • Weaknesses and self awareness

First: knowing about a personal weakness doesn't make us immune to it. A lesson I have learned the hard way, with my second early fail (chronologically the first one actually): I entered a GAP store with le fiancé to find summer clothes for him, and ended up buying a couple of tops for myself.

I know that my main shopping weakness is shopping with friends. In the case of clothes, le fiancé's opinion is particularly strong, for obvious reasons.  So why did I even enter the store? Because I naïvely thought that, since I had identified my weakness, I somehow was now protected by this knowledge and could resist temptation. But the problem with brain biases, it that we still fall for them, even when we are self aware. Have you noticed how most of the time, even when you are told about an optical illusion, your eyes still see it?

  • On Environmental Temptation

Second observation on temptation: we are submitted to daily temptations in our society, much more often than I thought. And that's coming from a marketing professional who doesn't watch TV and unsubscribed from newsletter and consumption inducing magazines and blogs. Between ads and billboards, store fronts, women with great outfits on the street, I am faced with daily  new purchase ideas.

Paradoxally, I find myself weaker to these daily "ideas" since I know marketing techniques, but also myself, my needs and preferences better. Why? Because I can identify a perfectly adequate item instantly. And it's much harder to resist the temptation to buy an item when you know it is going to be a good and long lasting purchase.

As I'm going through my stock and finances, I realize that before the fast, I actually bought these "temptation" items most of the time - not on the spot, but it ended up in my list of the possible, and I eventually purchased most of them. But now that I basically have all the adequate items I need around me already, being "just right" isn't enough of a reason for purchase anymore.

Setting a Mindset for Success

Another huge learning for this month's shopping fast is to start by identifying a profound, meaningful reason and motivation to do this experiment. Something deeper than "let's see what happens" or "maybe I can save some money". I think this applies for any habit implementation: if you don't have a profound motivation to get back to when you're tempted, you will give in to temptation much more quickly.

For example, when I started practising sports regularly in summer 2012, and actually managed to keep it up until now, I shifted my inner motivation compared to previous failed attempts. My motivation went from the basic "I want to be beautiful, I want to lose weight" to a deeper "I want to prove to myself that I can be athletic despite what sport teachers told me when I was a child. I want to nurture a good physical condition to age healthily". The people I know succeeding to stop smoking, as another example, was because of their children's health.

In other words, in order for my shopping fast to succeed, I needed to identify a strong, inner motivation for it, beyond a simple taste for experiments. When I gave in to the Ecocentric purchase, I remember thinking "Why am I inflicting this fast to myself anyway? I'm a working adult with a healthy bank account, I have no reason to deprive myself from this good purchase." If I had a deeper motivation at that point, I may have resisted the purchase.

Month One Learnings - Wrap Up

Here are the main things I learned during this first month of shopping fast:

Knowing about a brain bias or personal weakness is not enough, we must stay away from temptation altogether :
  • Learning about either the human brain biases we all face, or your own personal weaknesses, is a good start - but the logical consequence is to avoid any situation that may expose you to that bias or weakness
  • There are already a lot of "natural", unavoidable temptations out there, so let's avoid what we can: unsubscribe from newsletter and commercial magazines, stop browsing online stores and stop going to the shopping street if possible.
  • Being more confident about your needs and preferences can increase the power of temptation as you are more certain this will be a good purchase. The best attitude is to try and avoid finding good purchases in the first place. What you don't see, you don't want.
  • Finding an adequate item doesn't mean you *have to* buy it. Once your collection of items is correctly furnished, an item being perfectly within your taste shouldn't be enough of a reason to buy it.

We need to identify an inner motivation, a deep reason for engaging in a long term habit or experiement such as a six month shopping fast :
  • No matter how well prepared we are, we will face temptation at some point. Without a bigger motivation to cling on to, chances are you will think "why am I inflicting this to myself?" and give in to temptation
  • Therefore, before starting such an experiment, it is important that you identify this inner motivation, something that is really important to you, that you can get back to next time you face temptation.
  • Examples of inner motivations can be: what are you saving the money for? Holidays with your loved ones? Saving for your children's education? Buying your own home? It can also be linked to a will to grow and change your habits on the long term - not see it as a six month transition, but the start of a longer commitment to simplicity.

All in all, I'm quite happy with the learnings of this first month. Even if I failed not once, but twice. I still have a lot to discover, but I'm quite astonished at all I can learn about myself as a consumer, despite being already critically considering my purchase habits for several years. It's just incredible how many of our behaviours are unconscious.

So what's next? After the missed start, I decided to prepare myself better and move on with my shopping fast, starting July 11. I'll keep sharing learnings, at least each month, and through dedicated posts in-between if I find interesting topics to develop separately. What about you? What temptations are you weakest to? Do you have an inner motivation when you start a new habit?


  1. First of all, congratulations on your blog. Your posts are inspiring and very insightful. Between you and The Minimalists, I have been learning a lot about recasting (to borrow Mireille G. words) my wardrobe, my home and my life.
    I didn't know I already had a ntural tendency for minimalis in my environment, but a childhood/adolescence of wearing the clothes my sister out grew and a corporate job, made it easy for me to become a clothes maniac. Thanks to your insights into quality over quantity, I have significantly reduced the number of items (I can still trim/curate it further, and will do so with every seasonal change).
    I'm also doing a shopping fast (inspired by you :) ), excluding only 2 items I actually need to replace (trench coat and cognac colored bag). So far so good, but I now feel guilty over grocery shopping - we can be so messed up...
    Good luck to you and thanks for sharing your thoughts with the www. Au revoir.

    1. Thank you so much for this kind word. One of my motivations for writing this blog is to inspire people to simplify their lives so I'm always so happy when I read that it actually helps a reader :)

      I hope you succeed at your shopping fast, I can already imagine a mastic trench coat with a cognac bag going very well together ;) I can see what you mean about feeling guilty with grocery shopping. Ever since I moved to Paris I tend to go for the easier option, which is a quite posh supermarket, and I realized I spent a lot of money on fancy groceries (maybe as a way to balance out the fact that I don't buy anything else these days, who knows). But I have decided to change that too. After a month of shopping fast, I realized that I'm already being more critical about how I spend my money, and paying 8€ for cut vegetables when I can buy them raw for 3€ and cut them myself just feels silly now.

  2. Sartorially I'm weak to sentimental purchases. I bought a coat as a "souvenir" (mind you it was H&M, and hardly specific to the place I visited) and hardly ever wore it--I think my mom owns it now (though I might take back that coat cause I probably fit it now, haha.) I also know that if I feel beautiful/pretty/sexy in something I tried on, that item is more likely to rise in consideration (and ultimately get bought) because I had made an emotional connection with it.

    As for starting habits, I'm terrible at being positively motivated. I started running/working out because I was unhappy about a lot of things, especially my body image. As the changes began in my body I reaped the benefits of fitting my clothes better and being healthier, but if anything now my motivation to keep going has shifted to the mental health benefits of exercise--I feel calmer and more settled after a run and I feel powerful/capable after I climb. These feelings carry over to my every day routine and I become inspired to do more things, so for that alone working out is worth the trouble and pain.

    1. I can totally see what you mean about sentimental purchases! In my case, it is not so much clothing that I huy as souvenirs, but rather home decorations, such as ceramics, rugs and other linen, or pieces of art (as you have witnessed in LA). I think that's because I've always been impressed by the interior of travellers, brining back exotic stuff from their journeys - namely, my great uncle who worked at French embassies and was overseas all the time, there were pieces of wooden furniture, ornamented elephants, silk paintings in his home and this always made me dream, bringing back a bit of the spice of travels into my ordinary everyday life.

      I have the same motivation for exercising as you these days - I like how I feel after a running session, it's a sort of meditation exercise for me really, feeling my body accelerating as I practice sports. Besides, when you see how much healthier one can be when practicing even a moderate amount of sports, that's quite motivating, I find. And it's a self esteem boost indeed ;)

  3. Great post! I want to save money to travel. :) I'm from Buenos Aires so it needs a lot of effort.
    I'm in the middle of a massive decluttering at my home. Already went through my wardrobe and bookshelves, and I want to go further. Also I'm buying less clothes. I'm feeling great. :)

    1. I want to save money for travel too! Actually the idea of the shopping fast came from the realization that I could have paid a great travel with all the money I spent on clothing this year. I hope your home decluttering works out, and that you manage to keep it minimal afterward :) Good luck on planning future travels then!

  4. As always, a thoughtful and well-composed post. Your comments about inner motivation particularly struck a chord with me. Instead of choosing against who we want to be, we can choose for. Much more powerful. A TED talk really brought this home to me--in fact, you may have been the one to reference it. It's http://www.ted.com/talks/ruth_chang_how_to_make_hard_choices.

    1. Thank you for this kind word! I have watched this TED talk indeed, I might have put the link on twitter or something. I like this idea that our choices shape who we become. It is indeed a much bigger motivation, to work toward growing as a person and becoming who we want to be :)

  5. So true.I have always been very motivated whenever I had a clear goal. E.g. studying for an exam (the nearer the date, the better!). Or when I got engaged: I had to save every penny for a year, because otherwise I would not be able to a) pay for the wedding, for which the guest list and location were already fixed and b) pay for food and other living expenses on my honeymoon :). It was all so tightly budgeted back then that it was hard to slip. To make it easier on myself, I combined this motivation with keeping strict records of my spending and ... a near absolute avoidance of temptation. Back then I hadn't really discovered online shopping yet, thank god, and I just stayed away from clothing stores. It backfired a bit after the wedding, which again proves the point about having a clear motivation.
    I'm currently reaching for some of those old tricks again even though they're not absolutely necessary for my life right now: setting clear goals, keeping track (of spending, but also of habits I'm trying to install) ... It does increase satisfaction with my life.

    1. My wedding is also one of my motivations for this shopping fast. While we don't actually have a date just yet, it is going to happen within the next 2 years or so, probably, and so far we don't have a dime to pay for it. Since we don't want to go into debt for only one day, saving to get teh wedding we want is a huge motivation. My friend asked for money for her honeymoon as wedding present, and, since we already have all we need in terms of material items, I'll probably ask for the same :)
      I agree though, that having such a clear objective may make things harder to keep on after that objective is reached. That's why I'm trying to find long-term inner motivations on top of getting a travel in 2015 and paying for my wedding. Something like feeling more relaxed about my global financial situation, knowing there is money left on my account until the end of the month, or save for more meaningful things than items that become clutter in the following years...

    2. We didn't have a dime either when we got engaged, so I tell you it is doable :). We also asked for money for our honeymoon, but I found it a bit scary to rely too much on an estimation of the gifts we would receive in our budget. If you want, here's some more tips:
      - get concrete as soon as possible; it's easier to skip stuff knowing EXACTLY what you're saving up for (e.g. the photographer's fee, the dj ...)
      - tell everyone you know that you're saving up: it helps tremendously if you're surrounded by people that are also on a tight budget and if that's not possible, at least they should know not to constantly suggest expensive outings like restaurants or weekend trips
      I also think AFTER saving for a special event, you would definitely need to re-investigate your priorities and find a new balance in spending, no matter how prepared you were beforehand.

  6. It seems we have been thinking along the same lines this month - I typed up a post on my shopping fast yesterday, right before I read this post. It is due for publishing next week :)

    1. Ah nice! I'm eager to read that post of yours, it's obviously a topic I'm interested in reading more about these days :)

  7. My temptation is yarn, and your posts give me the incentive to get serious about a six montth yarn fast. I have so much stashed away, and enough to knit at least six sweaters, a blanket, a couple of pillows and countless pair of socks. I clearly do not need more right now. But I keep falling into the path of temptation by means of yarn stores specials. Reading about your fast is a great motivator for me. I think I also should declare it on my blog to have another incentive.

    1. I'm happy to hear my shopping fast inspired you as well! I'd love to hear more about how it goes for you as time passes :)

  8. I think I need to give some serious thought about those inner motivations to curb shopping. Right now it's easy to see why I shouldn't buy too much: I live on student benefits and the occasional paycheck from the occasional short part-time job. Obviously I shouldn't be spending much money, because I don't have much money. I've also thought that I should learn to control my shopping habits before I enter the work force, because I don't want to spend lots and lots of money on things just because I can due to having more money.

    But why shouldn't I spend money when I get a full time job that pays well? I guess one reason is that I don't want a very large apartment. Me and my fiancé can quite happily live in an apartment that some couples would find too small (especially since we are not planning to have children, which would require more space). In a smaller apartment one obviously does not have the ability to have as much stuff as in a larger apartment. Also, I like to have most surfaces clear of things and I hate clutter and random bits and bobs taking up space and collecting dust. I guess those are some of the reasons why I feel like I don't have to buy everything that I like. But I'm sure there is something more. Because surely I could buy lots of nice things and get rid of the older things and that way the actualy amount of things would stay about the same.

    As I get older I've started to think about things such as buying our own apartment and obviously that would make an excellent reason to spend more wisely and to save money.

    1. Ah that's quite a pitfall indeed, to spend more money once you work because you can, and because you work for it so why shouldn't you? I think most of us go through this phase, when we start earning more money, to gift ourselves with things we couldn't afford before. And I agree with you that it isn't necessarily a bad thing in itself, to indulge sometimes.

      My own vision of this, now that I've been working for a few years, is that the important part is to make sure to save enough for the bills we don't always think about (insurance, taxes...), have a savings plan for the future (may it be for vacation, or buying a car, an appartment, or saving for the children's education, or for retirement, depending on the life stage), spend little enough money to not be stressed about the state of the bank account. And if all of those things above are met (that's what I call a "healthy bank account"), indulging once in a while isn't that bad (a good restaurant, a massage, or an item from a brand you like...). For example, each season, when sales start, I indulge in a piece from Comptoir des Cotonniers, which is a brand I still like the style of, even if it's way too expensive for the quality and manufacturing conditions. Another example is the fact that we go to the restaurant once every week-end with my fiancé.

      The motivations here are: not go into debt, be at peace (instead of stressed) about the state of the bank account, and reach that future objective you are saving for. I hope it helps :)

  9. I've done a lot of reading lately about changing habits and behaviors. If it's available to you, I strongly recommend "The 4-day win" by Martha Beck. Although that book is about dieting, the principles are completely applicable to other overindulgences. The common theme through the books I've read is to start with very, very small steps. Master one step/habit, then add another one, but do it so slowly that the new habits don't cause you stress. This tends to be less attractive to people because the results come much slower, but I'm convinced it's the only way to enact lasting change. If you find the fast is only leading you to be more consumed with objects, you could try this approach. I could see one step being "I'm going to master walking into a store and not buying anything," another "I'm not going to curtail my buying, I'm just going to log everything I buy, with the price and how I feel about it a month later." I am using this approach to lose 10-15 lbs, and am implementing one new habit a week, like walking to a more distant bus stop, not eating after dinner, etc.

    1. Thank you for the recommendation! I totally agree with the step by step approach, changing too many things in our lives too quickly hardly works out on the long term, as it feels like a constraint and doesn't become part of daily habits. This book's method sounds quite similar to Mireille Guiliano's "French Women Don't Get Fat" and her recasting period, starting with journaling food habits before making gradual changes to them.

      For now I don't feel consumed with objects - it's quite the contrary actually, being on a shopping fast makes me spend much less time browsing, making wishlists or planning budgets. It actually becomes easier as times passes, I think I just started off ill prepared. But I'll check out the book nonetheless, as it sounds like a good preparation indeed :)