Taking a break from shopping, whether it’s a week, a month or longer can be an extremely effective way of getting on top of a shopping problem that has spiralled out of control.
I know firsthand how effective a shopping hiatus can be, as my own path to healing from an unhealthy shopping habit started with an extreme personal challenge: a year without clothes shopping.
Setting the Scene…
Now before I jump into the whys and wherefores of a shopping hiatus, let me share a few scene setters first.
- No single smart shopping strategy will work for every single person who is looking to improve their relationship with shopping. Many of us might wish there were a magic wand to wave over our shopping problems and voila! they’re gone. Alas, that isn’t the case. So taking a break from shopping will work for some, but it may not be the preferred choice for others wishing to develop healthier shopping habits.
- You don’t really know what will work for you until you try it. We humans have an astoundingly poor ability to accurately gauge how we’re going to react to certain situations, as Dr Daniel Gilbert has studied at Harvard University in his intriguing work on impact bias. So the only way to know if really something works for you is to give it a try.
- There’s trying, and then there’s trying. There are certain factors that, if present, will vastly improve your chances of success with taking a break from shopping, no matter how long or short it is. We’ll talk more about that very soon.
- Shopping, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad, it just is. It’s our relationship to shopping that determines how healthy or otherwise it is. Shopping meets many needs and there’s many factors in play to keep us shopping more often and fro more stuff. I believe we know, deep down or even further toward the surface, how healthy our shopping is for us right now. I knew my shopping had gotten out of control in late 2009 – I could feel it, and that feeling wouldn’t go away, it persistently knocked on the side of my brain until I looked at it, and did something about it.
Why I Went a Year Without Clothes Shopping
I started my own year without clothes shopping on December 15, 2009, and finished it 12 months later. With one notable exception, a falling off the wagon event 3 months into my challenge, I didn’t buy any clothes, shoes, accessories or any other adornment for the body or appearance-related items that year.
I started my year without clothes shopping because I knew, I just knew, that my shopping was starting to spin out of control. My shopping wasn’t healthy, it wasn’t even conscious – I was buying and buying and buying, for stuff I didn’t need and some of it I couldn’t even wear (I bought many multiples) – and I didn’t understand why.
I knew I had to make a change. That as much as I wished I could just snap my fingers and have my shopping be in its rightful place in my life, that wasn’t going to happen. I had to do something different, and radical, to journey back to a healthy relationship to shopping.
Hence the extreme personal challenge to have a year without clothes shopping. I was quite frightened of starting this shopping hiatus, but that made me even more determined to do it – if I had so much fear around it, there must be something important to explore, right? After all, a year without coffee, or chocolate, or television, or almost anything else wouldn’t make me fearful. So why was a year without shopping such a big deal to contemplate?
I wanted to know the answer to that question. Scratch that – I needed to find out the answer to that question. I couldn’t continue the way I was going.
A Life-Changing Experience
So off I started on my Year, blogging twice a week as a way to keep me publically accountable (and giving me a place to vent when I needed it!).
That year was a life changing experience for me. That year changed how I think about shopping, how I feel about shopping, and it changed my shopping habits.
I now help other women who shop too much to stop, or at least cut down. I created and facilitate the world’s first online program focused on helping women develop healthier relationships to shopping, their style, their wardrobes, their wallets and themselves.
And I’d like to offer you some of my learnings from my own shopping hiatus, and what other women whose journeys I have had the honour and pleasure of sharing have shared with me about theirs.
Success is No Accident
I’m a big believer in setting yourself up to succeed, in any venture in life. Whether it’s learning to play better golf, becoming a better parent, or getting rid of an unhealthy habit, how you set yourself up for that experience makes all the difference in the world to how well, or otherwise, that experience turns out for you.
Success is no accident. It doesn’t “just happen”. It happens because a certain set of factors are in place, and are reinforced.
And fortunately, there are lots of interesting studies and writings we can draw on to help us understand why some challenges and ventures succeed, and why others fail.
On Decision Fatigue
I’d like to share an excerpt from an interesting article on decision fatigue by John Tierney from the New York Times (the full piece can be accessed here). Mr. Tierney quotes from the work of Roy F. Baumeister, an expert and author on willpower:
“[Baumeister’s] studies show that people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. They don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets, and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend.
“Even the wisest people won’t make good choices when they’re not rested and their glucose is low,” Baumeister points out. That’s why the truly wise don’t restructure the company at 4 p.m. They don’t make major commitments during the cocktail hour. And if a decision must be made late in the day, they know not to do it on an empty stomach.”
Let’s use that wonderful wisdom as a jumping off point to discuss why and how a shopping hiatus can work, and then reasons why they don’t.
5 Factors that Help Make a Shopping Hiatus Work
I have quite a few factors that will help you make a shopping hiatus work, but let’s focus on my top 5 factors:
Success Factor #1 – Understanding It’s Not About Willpower
Willpower is indeed an exhaustible resource, and if you rely exclusively on it, or believe that your challenge is contingent on you having lots of it, you are bound to be disappointed and are highly likely to fail. Willpower will run out, there’s no question about that. So if you believe it’s all about willpower, you’re already on the wrong track.
The good news is there is another way, a way that will set you up to succeed, and a way that relies very little, if at all, on willpower. This way involves what I can “success structures” – these structures are the handrail that guide you, that support you, that keep you going when things get tough (which they inevitably will). Let’s talk some more about those success structures now.
Success Factor #2 – Putting Success Structures in Place Upfront
These success structures will help you stick to your challenge and they are my #1 tip for making a shopping hiatus work. These are the handrails I was talking about in the first bullet point.
Whatever you do, please don’t “just start” a personal challenge of any kind, especially a long one, with a “wishing and hoping” attitude. Before you start, give some thought to the structures you need to help you stick to your goal. For a shopping hiatus, consider:
Putting barriers to shopping in place
Many of us shop, and shop a lot, because we’ve made it far too easy to do so. We’ve put shopping in a central place in our lives by either subscribing to online and hard copy catalogues that literally bring the shopping to our door or Inbox, or by setting up our lives so that going into shopping environments is part of our everyday lives.
When you take a break from shopping, whether it’s a week or a year, you need to put helpful barriers to shopping in place, things that make it difficult for you to shop or that make it an effort or even a hassle to place yourself in a shopping environment. These barriers include unsubscribing from online and hard copy catalogues, making the shopping you do much more conscious (here’s an excellent way to start doing that right now), and changing your routine so that going into shopping environments isn’t part of your everyday routine.
Putting the right kind of support in place
Many women I’ve met who have started a shopping hiatus have first failed because they didn’t set up enough of the right kind of support for themselves before they have started. One common example is they may have mentioned their challenge to family and/or friends who don’t fully understand the issue, why it’s so important (even that it is important) and dismiss or minimize it. This makes it particularly difficult for the woman doing the challenge – she just isn’t getting enough of the right kind of support when she needs it.
The sad truth is that not everyone will understand, and not everyone will be equipped or willing to help you with your shopping hiatus. You need to put the right kind of support in place, from the right people (including yourself: self-care is a crucial element), before you start so that you can get the help you need, when you need it.
Preparing other activities to do – instead of shopping
If shopping has been your favourite, go-to, #1 hobby, then taking it out of your life, if for a week, a month, or longer, will leave a gap. There’ll be a space in your life that previously shopping filled. So think about this in advance, and consider what other things you want to put in your life, where shopping used to be.
I urge women doing our program to create a “love to do – instead of shopping” list in their very first month (of their Year), and to use that list when they find themselves feeling at a loose end and not knowing what to do with themselves. When the urge to splurge strikes you, get out your list and do something on it! Don’t let “I feel like shopping – what else can I do?” feelings creep up on you – prepare for those moments in advance.
You might also consider what you won’t be doing during your shopping hiatus, as well as what you will be doing – instead of shopping. Consider the things you want to remove from your life, the hurdles getting in your way. The things you take out can be as important as the things you put back in.
Success Factor #3 – Having a Commitment to Your Goal and the Challenge
Like any successful relationship, you need to be committed to this challenge, this shopping hiatus, for it to have a good chance of succeeding. You need to know why you’re doing it and what you hope to get out of it. To help you get clear on your commitment and reasons, ask yourself some key questions:
- What is your “big why”? What is your purpose in doing this?
- At the end of your challenge, however long you set it for, what do you want to be different?
- How can you keep that goal, that vision, “front and centre” throughout your challenge?
- What are the issues you would like to explore during your shopping hiatus? Consider issues to do with your relationship to shopping and to yourself – what do you want to learn about that? Perhaps it’s issues to do with your personal style, self-expression and identity that you wish to explore. Or maybe you want to discover more about your relationship to money. And of course, there may be fascinating emotional issues to explore. Whatever it is for you, identify the most important issues to you, and be open during your shopping hiatus to any other areas for exploration that may come up.
- How can you keep yourself accountable during your shopping hiatus?
- What do you need to put in place up-front to keep you motivated throughout your shopping hiatus?
- How will you know if you’ve succeeded?
By asking and answering these questions, and keeping your responses close by so you can refer back to them when you need to, you make a visible promise to yourself. We all know the power of a commitment written down, so give yourself every chance of succeeding by putting your commitment on paper.
Success Factor #4 – Expecting it to be Tough at Times
One of the main reasons I have seen people fail at personal challenges is they don’t have their eyes wide open to the fact that it will get difficult. There is no ‘maybe’ about it – it’s an absolute certainty that, at times, there will be tough times and tough things to deal with, and you’ll wish you had never started this stupid challenge! But if you expect those tough times, when they arrive they are easier to handle. Like a difficult dinner guest, you are ready for them, have some ideas in place for how to handle them, and are grateful for when they go (which they inevitably will).
One of my all-time movie quotes is made by Tom Hanks who plays disgraced baseball champion Jimmy Dugan in the film “A League of their Own”. He states to Dottie Hinson, played by Geena Davis, when talking about baseball at the elite level,
“It’s the hard that makes it great.”
If you rethink of the inevitable tough times as making your journey, your shopping hiatus, great, then you not only expect those tough times, but you welcome them. Imagine how much stronger and healthier you’ll be once you’ve gotten through them!
Success Factor #5 – Staying Out of the Stores
This is very simple idea but amazingly, it’s one that many people don’t think of. This strategy could be categorized as Simple Avoidance. I have found that there is nothing wrong with avoidance, and lots right with it. Why? Because avoidance works.
You can’t fall in love with a gorgeous plum colored jacket that’s 50% off if you never see it, can you? You can’t agonize over a pair of fabulous shoes, or earrings, or pants, if you don’t even know they exist. We don’t buy things we don’t see, so instead of relying on willpower when you are standing in front of something gorgeous that you just love – avoid that scenario altogether. Walk on by. Don’t go in. Yes, you read that right: stop shopping.
The simplest solutions are often the best and you can’t get any simpler, or more effective, than this. If you want to make it stop, then there’s nothing as important as taking that first step. And remember that staying out of the stores extends to those virtual stores as well. Unbookmark your favorite online stores, and unsubscribe from those online catalogues.
Factors that hinder a shopping hiatus
And on the flipside, these are things that will trip you up if you are considering or have already started on a shopping hiatus.
Hindering Factor #1 – Seeing it as a Punishment
We know from umpteen studies done on success that humans move toward pleasure and away from pain. So if you are seeing your shopping hiatus as some form of punishment AKA pain, then you’re making it nigh on impossible to succeed. It will be a constant source of aggravation, tension and frustration for you. This is no way to set yourself up to succeed.
Instead, find your own unique way of setting up this challenge as something positive for yourself. A focus on your “big why”, your vision, is one way to do this. Imagining how much healthier and happier you’ll be when you have put shopping in its rightful place in your life is another. Let your imagination guide you to finding a way of making a shopping hiatus a positive experience for you.
Hindering Factor #2 – Making the Challenge “Too Big”
And when I say too big what I mean is that you’ve made the challenge too long. You can’t imagine eating it all, there’s just too much on your plate. I advise that you don’t bite off too huge a piece and attempt to chew it all at once.
Instead, chunk down your challenges into a more manageable tasks and timeframes. This may be a one-month challenge, or even a 7-day challenge. You can almost anything for 7 days, even things you imagine are just too hard to do. Our brains are amazingly receptive to these chunked-down suggestions – our unconscious mind (which is often the engine driving the train) are a bit like 5 year olds: they’ll believe anything we tell them.
So, if you tell your brain that “it’s just for 7 days”, it’ll go with it. Then when you get to the end of those 7-days, you recommit to that same, chunked-down, bite-size challenge. And when you are ready, you can extend the size/length of the challenge you set yourself. With each ‘stretch’ you get stronger. And by chunking it down, you make it so much easier to stick to the challenge.
Hindering Factor #3 – Not Having Rewards in Place
As humans it’s natural for us to move toward pleasure (and away from pain), and having rewards in place is essential to succeed at any challenge, especially a deeply personal and long one. Now for those of us who have used shopping as a reward, this is where it gets interesting!
What do you put in place instead of shopping as a reward?
Well there are oodles of things – you are limited only by your imagination! If you have created and are using your “love to do – apart from shopping” list, then you’ll have a ready made list of activities you can turn to. These might only be small things, or even simple pleasures, but they can make a big difference. As you progress with your challenge, you will start to enjoy those non-shopping activities more and more, until eventually you prefer them to shopping.
Hindering Factor #4 – Giving Up Too Soon and Giving Yourself an Easy Out
Even if your shopping hiatus is just for one day, if you want to succeed at it, there’s no other way of doing it than to stick at it. This is why your success strategies are so important – they help you to stick at it, to never give up, especially when you feel like giving up. This is why your commitment to the challenge, however long or short it is, is so important – you are making a promise to yourself – not to anyone else.
One of the most important things you need to succeed, at anything, is an attitude of resilience and resourcefulness, of finding a way, of believing in yourself and that you can do it – no matter what happens. Don’t give yourself an easy out – imagine you can do it, and you can.
Hindering Factor #5 – Expecting Perfection
Perfection is neither expected nor possible, and often we are hardest on ourselves. We aren’t perfect, we’re people. If you are slaying your own shopping dragon, then don’t set yourself up to fail by expecting perfection. There’s no such thing as the perfect journey anyway, so stop looking for it.
If you have a setback, such as buying something when you promised yourself you wouldn’t, then try this approach: Take a moment to pause, learn what you can from the experience, recommit to your goals and vision, draw a line under it (close the file), and move on. There’s no sense sifting through the ashes once you’ve taken the learning’s out. The goal is progress, not perfection.
A Foundation for Success
If you use the above ten strategies, you’ll give yourself a structure that acts as a foundation for success. Put the foundation in place first, and then rely on that foundation as you journey on. A strong foundation will hold up a lot better under pressure than willpower which will run out faster than you can say “shoe sale”.
I’ve recognised and reconciled myself to the fact that nothing may ever feel like shopping for me, and that’s okay. I also know that awareness precedes choice and once you have looked your shopping demons in the eye, there’s no turning back. There’s no going back to sleep, or pretending it isn’t really all that bad. You deserve better.
You deserve full and happy life, richly lived. One that puts shopping in its rightful place, which is quite possibly a smaller space than it occupies right now. And that’s how a shopping hiatus can help. It gives you the time, the space, the place, the room, the playground… to discover what shopping means to you, how and where it fits into your life, and to develop a relationship to shopping that makes you feel good.
Whatever you decide to do, let me leave you with these words of wisdom, quarried from the mines of my own hard-won experience: Please don’t “just start” a shopping hiatus with a “wishing and hoping” attitude. Before you start, give some thought to the structures you need to help you stick to your goal. Put those structures in place first, rely on them throughout your shopping hiatus, and your odds of succeeding will vastly increase.