Defeating the Monster of Convenience

Photo by Yaopey Yong on Unsplash

We live in a society now that’s filled with convenience: kitchen gadgets that prepare coffee for you on a timer, uber eats delivers your food right to your door within minutes, and Amazon Now delivers within two hours after your order. Moreover, you can now have:

  • vets that come to your house to do annual exams for your dog,
  • a personal trainer that would drive work-out equipment to your house for you to work out,
  • the KitchenAid that does all of your kneadings, 
  • your smart-thermostat turns on and heats the house to the proper temperature before you get home.

Wikipedia defines convenience as a labor-saving device, service, or substance which makes a task easier or more efficient than a traditional method

Sometimes, I don’t even see the convenience anymore because it is so ingrained in our daily lives. 

I remember when I was growing up in China, we hanged our clothes to dry outside on the balcony on a bamboo rod (my parents still do this). When I was 9, we had our first landline phones installed and I called my grandma a LOT back then because it was so new and fun. The excitement of talking to my grandma through a plastic device seemed endless to a 9-year-old. Then the internet came around when I was in middle school, and I can still remember the very distinct dial tone when the modem connects through the phone lines. Our modem was so shitty that it leaked electricity on the bottom.  If you put your hand underneath it, it makes your palm tingle a little. 

Convenience is just like anything else, once you have it, you want more. Three years ago, I bought my very first house and paid contractors to renovate it. Then I excitedly put in an entire set of new appliances: fridge, stove, dishwasher, washer, and dryer all in matching colors. I love the freshly laundered and dried clothes with these new machines, and it finally doesn’t smell like that slight mildew from a rental apartment washer & dryer. It wasn’t soon that I became unsatisfied even with that. I wanted my clothes done in 5 minutes instead of an hour and a half.  I found myself start thinking similar thoughts with driving to work and making meals. I want to get to work faster. It annoyed me that it takes 5 minutes to get to work, so I’d rather work from home. I find that I am always rushing. Rushing for the laundry to be done, rushing to go to work, rushing to come home, rushing to cook quickly (or Uber Eats before I head home).  

Convenience seems to make our decisions for us, trumping what we like to imagine are our true preferences.

The Tyranny of Convenience, Tim Wu

Too much convenience takes away our ability to appreciate what we have and live in the present. I couldn’t tell you exactly what I was rushing for back then, or why I needed all those efficiencies. I didn’t have a very demanding job and my boss was beyond reasonable when it comes to clocking in and out. What I did find was that I had less and less patience for other things as well. I would get easily annoyed if someone cuts in front of me in traffic, upset about waiting in line at the grocery checkout. Even waiting for the shower to warm up seems to be too long and too inconvenient. The monster of convenience seems to be looming in the shadows around every corner.

The way to defeat the monster is to purposefully add inconvenience to your life.

One day, I thought instead of optimizing my life, maybe I’d do the opposite and see what happens. So I biked to work that week. It took a little preparation because it was in the winter. I scouted out the route the weekend before, laid all my biking clothes out, and packed my work clothes in a bag to change into. It was a liberating feeling because I had to pay very close attention to the road, the same road I drive on but now I bike. Everything passes by slower. I see the stores on the side of the streets I never noticed before. I realize there was a slight incline of the road (bike harder, legs!). I was red in the face and breathing heavily as I got into work but my head felt clearer and my mood is lifted. 

It is a lot more hassle to bike to work instead of driving, but I started to enjoy it after a month or two. The inconvenience of biking to work forced me to make it another event, one that I have to devote almost my full attention to be present. Surprisingly, adding this inconvenience makes me happier. Along the way, I picked up biking as a hobby.

Embracing inconvenience may sound odd, but we already do it without thinking of it as such. As if to mask the issue, we give other names to our inconvenient choices: We call them hobbies, avocations, callings, passions. These are the non-instrumental activities that help to define us. They reward us with character because they involve an encounter with meaningful resistance — with nature’s laws, with the limits of our own bodies — as in carving wood, melding raw ingredients, fixing a broken appliance, writing code, timing waves or facing the point when the runner’s legs and lungs begin to rebel against him.

The Tyranny of Convenience, Tim Wu

Nowadays, we often find ourselves overwhelmed by too many things we commit, going from one place to another. Yet, we don’t reflect enough on the present and live in the present.

Consciously embracing inconvenience, or better, create inconvenience is a way for us to slow down and catch ourselves from being haunted by the ghost of the past or strangled by the worries of tomorrow.