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Reduce, Rent, Refine

Eight years ago, I started an experiment dubbed Office 2.0. The idea was to remove all pieces of software from all my computers, and use online alternatives instead. This experiment was documented on the now-defunct IT|Redux blog, and lead to the Office 2.0 Conference, which hosted the launch of Google Docs & Spreadsheets. It worked, and what was ground-breaking then is now commonplace.

Today, I am starting a brand new personal experiment: it is called Reduce, Rent, Refine, or #r3redux. It is a variation on the solid Reduce, Reuse, Recycle moto, and it is my modest attempt at discovering a better way of life, less driven by the consumption of material goods, and more focused on the enjoyment of daily experiences. The idea is pretty simple, and can be summarized in three basic rules:

  1. Reduce your number of material possessions
  2. Rent your commodities whenever possible
  3. Refine the few objects that you must own

In other words, we are talking about an incremental process of elimination whereby you remove something from your life whenever you do not absolutely need it, you rent it instead of buying it if you cannot live without, and you buy it only when you cannot rent it. It is that simple!

Why would you want to do any of this? Because science showed us times and times again that very little pleasure is actually derived from the ownership of material things. Instead, you and me usually derive our enjoyment from social interactions and personal experiences. Reduce, Rent, Refine is a simple way to get more of that goodness. Through this process, less is not just more, it is better.

Reduce

It all starts with reducing the number of things that you own. To do so, I am following an exponential reduction process, which starts with an exhaustive inventory of all the things that I own, and follows with a yearly reduction, whereby I cut in half the number of things that I own. Today, I own 1,024 things. Next year, I should own only 512. The year after, 256, and so on, until I reach some equilibrium between my desire to own less, and my ability to live a happy life while owning less.

This equilibrium will be different for different people. In my case, I believe it could be as few as 128. For most people, it will be more. But for Diogenes of Sinope, it was just 3: a clay wine jar, a robe, and a stick. The absolute number does not really matter though. What does matter is the process leading to the reduction of material possessions, and the by-products of going through the entire process (less things to worry about, better things to take care of).

Getting rid of things can be difficult, and for most people, it is downright excruciating. To facilitate the process, you should ask yourself what to keep, instead of asking yourself what to get rid of. By doing so, your emotions will be focused on the things that are kept, and you will not have to go through some grieving process for every material possession that will be abandoned. Therefore, the next question becomes: “what should you keep?”

Again, different people will have different answers, but some patterns are likely to emerge: following Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it should be pretty safe to assume that you will need to keep some clothes (even Diogenes did), some tools (Diogenes did as well), and some memorabilia items (he actually managed to get rid of those). All other items should be good candidates for reduction.

Once you have made the list of all the things that you really need to keep, you can start getting rid of the others. But to make the process less difficult, and possibly quite enjoyable, you can try to get the most out of them: sell the ones for which you can find a buyer, donate the others, and recycle everything else. You have now reduced your material footprint to your current minimum.

Finally, you will want to continue down that path, and the best way to go about it is to turn it into a game. To do so, you will need to keep scores, which is why you will want to start with an inventory. By putting it all on a list (like David Allen would have you do it for Getting Things Done), you will have a complete picture of your material estate. From there, you can start eliminating the things that you actually do not need anymore. And before you know it, you will get addicted to this reduction process, and removing new things will get easier and easier… until it does not anymore. When things start to get harder to remove, you will know that you are getting pretty close to your long-term equilibrium.

Rent

When trying to get rid of something, you have two options: either you decide that you do not need this thing anymore — and I am willing to bet that you do not actually need most of the things that you own today — or you realize that you could borrow or rent it whenever you need it, instead of owning it outright.

Thanks to services like Airbnb, Uber, or Zipcar, renting has never been easier, and things will only get better over time. If you plan to live in the same place for years to come, owning a house or an apartment might make sense (if you can afford it). But if you are planning to move around, or if you are living in some overpriced metropolitan area, renting might be a better option, even from a purely financial standpoint.

Earlier this year, my wife and I sold our house in Palo Alto, CA and moved to Singapore for a year or two. This relocation gave us the opportunity to improve our financial situation, while getting rid of most of the things that we had accumulated over 10 years of living together. The two of us and our three children packed a few things in a couple of large suitcases, and off we went across the ocean. Once there, we rented an apartment and spent a week-end at IKEA to get it furnished with the absolute minimum amount of furniture that we would need for our intended length of stay. And before moving, we made sure to sell our two cars, replacing one by a leased SUV loaned to my in-laws who live in Los Angeles, and the other by a bicycle that I leave at my office in Palo Alto. We use the SUV whenever we come back to visit our friends and family, and I use the bike whenever I visit my team (about once a month).

Today, the question is not so much what you can rent, but rather what you cannot. And the answer is surprisingly difficult to come by. Houses, cars, boats, or planes can be rented easily, pretty much anywhere. The same goes for books (Kindle), music (Spotify), or movies (Netflix). At the end of the day, the only things that I cannot rent are my clothes and shoes, my work tools (laptop, phone), and my memorabilia items. For many, the latter might be difficult to get rid of. But in my case, once all my photos had been moved online, it all came down to a single item: my wedding ring. Everything else is gone, or is being rented.

Refine

Once you’ve elimintated all the things that you do not need and rented most of the others, you are left with the few things that you cannot live without, yet cannot really borrow or rent from anyone. This is when you deserve a reward: instead of just keeping whatever is left, ask yourself whether you could make it better. And in so doing, try to figure out a way to get better things by having less of them. Let me give you a couple of examples of what I mean by that.

First, my wife and I used to own a lot of photographic equipment: two professional Canon DSLR cameras and half a dozen lenses. Over time, we realized that we were using only one camera, always with the same lens. After some discussions, we decided to get rid of it all, and we bought a couple of mirrorless snappers. One was an affordable model made by Sony (my wife’s), but the other was a top-of-the-line Leica M-P 240 (mine). The price of our new equipment was about the same as the old one, but the enjoyment we’re getting out of this simpler, smaller, and lighter setup is far greater. In this case, less is not just more, it’s also better.

Second, like any married couple, we got a lot of dishes and silverware at our wedding, most of which we rarely used. After we sold or donated the bulk of it, we went looking for replacement items that could make us feel at home wherever we might find ourselves at any point in time. For me, it boiled down to a couple of items: a pair of chopsticks and a mug. Both are made out of titanium, hence are light enough to carry around. I use the chopsticks whenever I eat at a Chinese or Japanese restaurant, and I use the mug for my coffee and tea, and I cannot tell you how happy these two little items make me whenever I use them…

Some utilitarian mind might think that such a refinement process is unnecessary, and amounts to nothing more than luxury. While the latter might be true, the former is not. In fact, I believe that most people will need this third step in order to go through the first two successfully. There are a few reasons for it: first, the desire to own something and the feeling of security that one can derive from this ownership are deeply ingrained within oneself, therefore are not something that one would want to get rid off entirely; second, the gratification that one gets through the process of buying something should not be under-estimated, as short-lived as it might be.

Consequently, I am not advocating for an ascetic life, and I am not against any kind of consumption or even consumerism. Instead, I am proposing a model whereby we consume better experiences (through rental) rather than possessions, and whereby we focus on owning less but better things. By so doing, not only can we reduce our ecological footprint (always a good thing), but we can also improve our relationship with the few material things that we own. The latter point deserves some explanations.

The more things you own, the more they own you: the minute you buy a house or a car, you are in charge of its maintenance if you do not want it to lose its value (too fast); and the minute you buy something just for the impulse pleasure of buying it, you are left with the desire of buying something else, which in turn leaves you in a perpetual state of unsatisfaction. To get rid of the former, you should rent instead of buying. To get rid of the latter, you should buy better things, less often.

Coming back to the example of my new camera (the Leica M-P), it is worth describing the buying process that I went through. I thought of switching camera more than two years ago. During that time, I did a ton of reasearch online, talked to a few friends who had made a similar switch, and went to a few stores to get some professional advice and try different cameras and lenses. Eventually, I made up my mind and decided to splurge on this highly-priced piece of luxury photographic equipment.

As a result, I replaced an impulse buy with a two-year-long research project, and I enjoyed every bit of it. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that when my decision was made, I refrained myself from ordering my new camera online or driving to a nearby store. Instead, I decided to wait for my next trip overseas (Australia), so that I could buy my camera tax-free on my first day there, while enjoying it through the rest of the trip. I did just that, and I am proud to report that I did not experience any kind of buyer’s remorse. And today, this wonderful camera goes wherever I go.

Following this successful experience, I decided to take a critical look at every single item that was left in my possession, and to find ways to replace multiple mediocre items by a single one that would be as good as I could afford it to be. By good, I do not mean luxurious for luxury sake. For example, owning a gold-plated iPhone won’t make me any happier than owning a stock aluminum one. But getting the new iPhone 6 will bring some benefits over the 5S model that I own already. Even better: replacing an iPad Wi-Fi attached to a portable GPS with an iPad 3G means carrying one thing instead of three (iPad, GPS, cable) in my pilot’s bag. And before I knew it, this reduction process became a really fun game.

Now, instead of constantly buying new things that I do not really need and that I will rarely use, I satisfy my buying impulses by being on the lookout for better things. For example, I will spend hours looking for a better messenger bag, or a better electric toothbrush. And instead of buying standardized products that all look the same and will be out of fashion by the time I unwrap them, I go out of my way to find artisan products that have a story to tell and will create life-long connections (like this bicycle).

Reflect

Today, I am just getting started with this experiment. I do not know where it will take me, but much like I did with Office 2.0 and IT|Redux, I intend to document my journey on this blog. Here, I will share the products found, the tricks perfected, and the lessons learned. As with my other blog, it is a mostly personal experience, with very little concern given to potential readers. But if you can derive any value from reading my poor prose, good for you!

Update: check less.best for implementing this approach.

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2 thoughts on “Reduce, Rent, Refine

    • Of course! All our decisions are made together. But my wife and our kids do not follow my reduction process. This is something that I am doing on my own and would not want to impose upon anyone.

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