Why There’s Too Much On Your Plate
Avoiding overabundance in a seemingly magical consumer society.
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.
"Too much convenience technology is quite clearly making us lazier, and quietly eroding our initiative and problem-solving abilities."
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.
This article originally appeared on Raptitude.com, David Cain's street level look at the human experience.