Scott H Young

Inconvenient Conveniences – Is Easier Always Better?


Is the convenient life always better?

Everywhere in our society, we’re sold things to make life easier.

We’re sold cars so we don’t need to walk. Fast food so we don’t need to cook. Blackberries and iPhones so we never need to be offline.

The standard logic is that if something makes life easier, it automatically makes life better. I wonder if that is really the case.

Yes, we have cars which enable us to be more productive, travel freely and be independent. But we’re also spewing greenhouse gases and giving up one of the forms of exercise our ancestors had in abundance: walking around.

Yes, fast food and ready-made meals allow us to stay fed while leading busy lives. But obesity rates are rising fast and the stuff we eat is becoming further removed from the food it is generated from. An apple comes from an apple tree, but what kind of plant or animal do Twinkies come from?

Yes, the internet, email and mobile devices enable us to stay connected. I’ve lived the last 8 months abroad, and without Facebook or Skype, I would have completely lost touch with many friends and family back home. But those same conveniences allow us to work non-stop, be flooded with interruptions and live vicariously through our digital personalities, instead of living our real lives.

Do Conveniences Always Make Life Better?

I would have been last person to seriously question that assumption. I’m a business-loving, habit-automating internet junkie. I spend way to much time trying to figure out how to squeeze more from everything. I would have been the last person to join a hippie commune and start growing all my vegetables.

I, like many, held fast to the assumption that easier = better.

Flash-forward eight months and my life has changed. No, I’m not wearing hemp clothing and hoeing carrots in an organic farmplot. But I have had a chance to really test the assumption of ease always being better.

When I arrived in France eight months ago, I didn’t have electricity, gas or internet for the first two weeks. The utilities had been disconnected in our apartment and, like all elements of French bureaucracy, nobody was in a rush to turn them back on.

Instead of traveling by car, I rented a bike. I’ve probably been inside a car less than two dozen times in the last eight months.

I’ve washed all my clothes by hand and air-dried them on my balcony. When I arrived the washing machine was broken and the nearest laundromat was far enough that paying was actually more time consuming.

I’ve cooked, typically from scratch, almost every meal I’ve eaten. I used to eat veggie burgers and canned food that could be ready to eat after three minutes in the microwave. Now I’m eating homemade lentil soup and curried pineapple chickpeas.

My experiment wasn’t voluntary. I didn’t decide to give up modern conveniences. Instead for multiple reasons I was pushed to give the slower, inconvenient way a try.

And you know what I discovered? I actually like it better.

The Ideal Life is Slow and Savored, Not Fast and Easy

Often in life we pay for value. If things are more costly to obtain, we assume that those things are more valuable. Largely this is true, I’d rather eat the more expensive organic fruit that tastes sublime than the cheaper, unripe bruised fruit that fell off the truck from the monoculture farm.

Where the pursuit of the ideal life is interesting is when this assumption is reversed. When the least convenient and luxurious option actually leads to the greatest life satisfaction.

If you had never run an experiment, you might just follow the cultural wisdom that easier is better in all cases. And, in doing so, you might have missed the opportunity for a more satisfying life.

One of my favorite experiences in France has been in the evening, looking out from our 3rd story balcony as I hang up laundry. If I had used a dryer, I probably would have used my saved time surfing the internet.

My satisfying inconveniences won’t be yours. I’m not arguing that all menial chores are good or necessary. Conveniences do count in most cases. I’m simply questioning that they count in all cases.

An inconvenience?

The Joyful Pursuit of the Difficult Life

The Stoics of ancient Rome and Greece believed that the difficult life was often better than the easy life. This was because a difficult life forced your true personality and virtue to emerge. Having an easy life, to them, was like being the world’s best doctor in a world with only healthy people–your true talents and grit never being revealed.

It’s important to put this philosophy in context, though. The Stoic philosophers were aristocrats. Marcus Aurelius, one of the most notable Stoics, was emperor of Rome. They had the luxury of pondering whether the ideal life was more strenuous, all while being supported on the backs of thousands of slaves and serfs who often lived wretchedly difficult lives.

There’s no doubt in my mind that today’s world, with its modern conveniences, is one of the best times to be alive. Most of us experience luxuries that Roman emperors could never imagine.

I definitely do not believe that the route to an ideal life is to forsake all modern advantages and live in a hut in the wilderness.

The real advantage of modern times and conveniences is that they offer us the freedom to choose which difficulties we want to savor. Instead of cooking purely out of necessity, I can enjoy learning the skill and exercising it. Knowing I have the option to microwave something easily means real cooking is a joyful practice, not work.

I’m sure of the select subset of the population that reads this blog, many of you will be able to exercise enormous power in designing your life. If not now, then in the near future.

The real question of this post is how will you design that life, once you have the power to? Will you craft it in a way so that you can enjoy the cool, moonlit breeze when hanging laundry, or will you relentlessly increase the speed and ease of life rendering such moments obsolete and unnecessary?

Images by MacKay Savage and Skenmy, respectively.


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24 Responses to “Inconvenient Conveniences – Is Easier Always Better?”

  1. You had me right up until your last paragraph. “The real question of this post is how you will design that life, once you have the power to.”

    We have the power right now. I think people sit around waiting for their life to begin – to be free of their current situation and then they can create the life they want. This is simply an excuse for laziness. We have the power to create that life NOW, there is no reason why we cannot.

    Personally, i like a mix of the two – sometimes fast paced, sometimes slow. Sometimes connected 24/7, sometimes unplugged. I think we simply need to find that balance which works for us. For me, the evening commute is my time to relax and unwind. For 45 minutes there is nothing i can do but let the wind blow through my car and sing loudly to my favourite music, or catch up on the days political affairs on the radio. It has become my favourite part of the day :) And then there are those times when I am rushed off my feet at work – and I absolutely love these times as well. On Monday I worked a 15 hour day (from 6am to 9pm), in and out of client meetings and hearings. I felt alive the entire time – i guess it helps that I love my job.

    There are very few absolutes in this world: some conveniences can be bad, some can be good; some speed can be good, at other times it can be harmful. What is absolute, at least for us in the Western world, is that we all have the choice as to how we spend each day.

    Joshua

  2. Maxim says:

    I would modestly suggest that there is simply no correlation betw. easy/hard and not-worthy/worthy.

  3. AnnaTrouble says:

    I’ve spent too many years of my life in 3rd world countries to romanticize the lack of every day conveniences. If anything, I’ve grown to appreciate the convenient ease of modern life more than ever and learned to never take it for granted. Conveniences are convenient and I love them.

  4. Scott Young says:

    AnnaTrouble,

    I agree–that was exactly why I put the context of the Stoics. It’s easy to romanticize the difficult life when your life is relatively easy. And, I definitely do not want to glorify an impoverished lifestyle.

    My point is rather that there seems to be a pressure to move towards an easier, more passive lifestyle, even when it might not be as satisfying in all cases. Luxuries, such as fast-food, cars and cell phones can be great, but they have hidden costs we sometimes don’t realize we’re paying.

    -Scott

  5. Jason says:

    I’ve had a similar experience to you Scott. I’ve moved to Denmark (I’m from Australia) and, for one reason or another, I’ve been forced to give up certain things often touted by society as “essential” and I feel happier for it.

    They are, in no particular order:

    1. Gym (I exercise outside now)
    2. Car (I ride my bike in this crazy Danish system and/or walk)
    3. Meat & Dairy
    4. Wireless Internet (Plug in net means I can physically disconnect)
    5. Dishwasher (I will never own a dishwasher again!)
    6. TV

    Coincidentally, I actually just wrote a post about it the other day.

  6. Dave says:

    I wholeheartedly agree that easier is not necessarily better. I can only speak for myself, but I believe my level of appreciation for almost everything is calibrated more with how hard I worked for it than how inherently satisfying that thing may be. For example, at my student union you can see kids watching downloaded movies; if they were to meditate on how this amazing technology works or how difficult/impossible it would have been to watch this movie before the technology, then I’m sure they would lose the sullen faces they still wear.
    At the same time, I lament, because I would imagine these students would most likely be socializing had it not been for readily available entertainment.

    Also, when we don’t recognize what is luxury and what is a true necessity. Luxuries become treated like necessities and then become necessities. I realize the amazing luxury I have with my car, and it’s an amazing vehicle; but since I must commute at least an hour everyday, I rarely enjoy it because I need a car.

    I’m glad you were able to find joy in your involuntary circumstance. I’m currently reading Voluntary Simplicity; the author actually speaks of the enjoyment someone my get who chooses to cycle to work instead of driving opposed to a lesser enjoyment from someone who simply cannot afford a car. As for my involuntary luxury, my commute has led me to enjoy my car (which I used to love) less and less.

    I personally am taking steps to living a simpler life by choosing another job which is a much shorter commute, starting a garden, and paring down my possessions (if you have to dust it, you better love it attitude).

  7. paurullan says:

    Thanks for the post Scott; I will use it as mind-meat for a while.

  8. Wendy Irene says:

    I love how living abroad has changed you and opened your mind further to many new ways of doing things. You help others to evaluate their own lives from your life lessons. Sharing is a powerful thing!

    This post reminds me of something I have been debating a lot lately, and I would love to hear your take. I have debated using facebook and twitter as a tool for my blog, but I really want to maintain ‘balance’ in my life, especially with having a family. Right now it is simple, I only communicate directly through comments or email. Do you think social media is a very beneficial tool for your blog, in that it you find it worth sacrificing more of your time? Just curious. I’m far from figuring that one out. Thanks for any advice!

  9. Scott Young says:

    Wendy,

    I–as most of my fellow peers–use Facebook exclusively for my private social life. I don’t accept requests from people I’ve never met and I don’t maintain an official fan page (although Iair has set up one for me, which I appreciate).

    I’ve taken some flak from this from other bloggers/readers, who would like to connect, but frankly as someone who writes to tens of thousands of people about my deepest goals and dreams, my life is already very public. I like to keep some privacy.

    I do use Twitter, but I’m mixed about how important it is.

    Frankly, I don’t see social media as being a necessity for blogging success. It can certainly help, especially if you really like the tools themselves, but I think there is benefits to staying somewhat disconnected.

    As an example, Cal Newport doesn’t have Facebook or Twitter accounts, yet he has one of the most trafficked blogs on student advice on the internet.

    -Scott

  10. Wendy Irene says:

    Scott,

    I really REALLY appreciate you sharing your thoughts with me on it! THANK YOU!

  11. […] Inconvenient Conveniences – Is Easier Always Better? Sometimes less is better. (@Scott H Young) […]

  12. If easier was better then there would be no challenge and zest to life.

  13. John Sherry says:

    I think there is an irony in this Scott. We have all the modern devices and gadgets to help us make the most out of our life but we are so busy using them, playing with them, updating them, connecting to them and chasing them they we have so little time to actually do anything constructive. They should aid but they have been used to hinder. We truly have been left to our own devices. Yes, we connect to the world, but we don’t experience the one around us enough as we’re online instead of off out having fun. Hey ho, that’s 21st century life I guess.

  14. This post was really great to read, Scott. I often imagine what life would be like in a different time, different place, and at a different speed. We can agree that life is better savored slowly, but the question is how do you get to that point? I suppose it is by taking the time you save with all of these conveniences and thinking about what you really want your life to be like. The first step is probably acknowledging that the conveniences we have today don’t actually eliminate any stress from our lives. The opposite is more likely.

  15. Eugene says:

    I like the fact you factored the value of time into your equation, Scott.

    These factors hold the key to choosing convenience over contrivance:

    * Cultivate principled values in the wise use of time saving technologies and methodologies.

    * Strategically eliminate tasks that consume inordinate time better enjoyed in meaningful pursuits.

  16. owen says:

    Interestingly enough I was contemplating something similar earlier today. I got dropped of at the RTA which is where we Aussies have to go to update our licenses. I had let my car license expire and expected it to take quite a while to sort out so I organised with my ride to be picked up after she had done some errands. It actually only took a few minutes thanks to a very helpful lady. So with no possibility of a ride for 45 minutes or so I decided to start walking the 4km’s to where she was. If I was going to have to wait anyway I might as well use that time constructively.
    This is something that I often used to do when I was at university because if I missed a bus it was often faster to walk to uni, rather than wait for the next one. Often people would say I was ‘funny’ or comment on how they wouldn’t do that. As I was walking along I got to thinking about how many people would have just waited and essentially just wasted the time and possibly got impatient and/or angry (buses weren’t running and I would’ve had to walk 15 minutes in the other direction to find shops worth looking in). In the end I got some really quality thinking time in as well as a bit of exercise. Yet because so many of us think of cars or transport as essential, plenty of people would never of thought to walk.

  17. […] Inconvenient Conveniences – Is Easier Always Better? I’m a huge gadget and technology nerd, so this post hit home for me. I think the best way to handle conviences is that just because you can use something to save time, doesn’t mean you should. […]

  18. Maria Zaidi says:

    Scott,

    This post is really great to read, I completely agreed that if there were no difficulty in life,there will no chance to “really test the assumption of ease always being better.”

    Maria Zaidi

  19. Jun Liang says:

    Scott,

    Once again, great post.
    Just a thought: I’m currently studying for my final exam on philosophy, Rousseau in particular. I think you would be interested to know that he said the following:

    Man “furnished himself with many conveniences unknown to his fathers: and this was the first yoke he inadvertently imposed on himself, and the first source of the evils he prepared for his descendants…. these conveniences lost with use almost all their powers to please, and even degenerated into real needs, till the want of them became far more disagreeable than the possession of them had been pleasant.”

    Though Rousseau was making a different point than you are, it’s nice to know that even those in the past, who had no where near the conveniences that we have now, investigated the true value of convenience.

    Keep it up!!

  20. […] H Young – Inconvenient Conveniences – Is Easier Always Better?28 April […]

  21. Paul says:

    I did not know that until I went on a journey from Poland to Greece alone, taking the simplest methods of transport available – mostly trains, state-run or private coaches. I even backpacked some of this route. Many people seemed to wonder why I did not go by plane but I would not trade any of the experience I got from it for a plane ticket. The same goes for food. Since I started to make my own flatbread, started eating lentil in different forms (I’m diving into ancient cuisine recently) I am healthier and I have lost much excess weight. I presume that to apperciate all this you have to like the DIY thing.

  22. Kelly says:

    Thank you Mr Young for your very timely thoughts. I am transitioning into a new job and have spent many hours reflecting on whether or not I am making the right decision. I have had some trouble with the thought of the looming one hour commute…although I realize that my new job will offer me a more rewarding life (transplant surg vs hospitalist) I was discouraged by the two hours lost to driving. I have asked myself “is easier better”? Several times….who said our lives are for the pursuit of “easier”?….

  23. […] Shave- how you can save money on that daily task of shaving. (@consumerismcommentary) Inconvenient Conveniences- Is Easier Always Better?- a great post on whether or not quick and fast is always the best approach. (@scotthyoung) […]

  24. Jen says:

    Thank you for posting this blog. Modern day conveniences such as smartphones have definitely negatively impacted my life, as I tend to bring work home with me, resulting in zero personal life. You do bring attention to something that is so incredibly important…. attitude. As I reflect on my everyday, mundane “chores”, I have the power to choose whether I drink life in, or resist it. I also can take satisfaction and pride in learning to hem my pants, instead of relying on a tailor, or cook a meal for myself, rather than buying convenience food.

    Also, after reading your piece, I am more mindful and grateful for what I do have. I realized a few years ago, when I was laid off, that it was time to become a minimalist. I got rid of so much “stuff” that I didn’t need, and that wasn’t bringing any more happiness into my life. In fact, having less “stuff” simplified my life.

    Personally, I choose not to camp because I don’t like being deprived of modern day conveniences. But when the electric is out, it brings my attention to things I take for granted, and how fortunate most of us are to have electricity and gas, as well as appliances we rely on.

    Perspective is something also to be taken into consideration. Here is a cute example: http://www.joke-archives.com/inspire/howricharewe.html

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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