You May Want To Think Twice About Accepting Freebies

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freestuff_slide1Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
One habit that I try hard to cultivate is to stay on top of clutter.

Clutter seems trivial, but I’ve found — and many people have told me that they’re the same way — that clutter weighs me down more than it should. Something like a crowded coat closet or an overflowing inbox is a petty problem, but then when I clear out that area, I feel so much more energetic, creative, and happy. It’s weird. I have a lot of habits that I follow to stay on top of clutter. I follow the one-minute rule (anything I can do in less than a minute, I go ahead and do without delay). I don’t get organized.

Because I’m focused on clutter-busting, I’m now very wary of anything that’s free. Getting something for free makes it feel like a treat — and oddly, it makes me feel greedier. I’m excited when I get something without paying — even if it’s something I’d never choose to buy. For instance, getting free food and drink is a challenge to my healthy eating habits, and research shows that getting a food or drink sample makes shoppers feel hungrier and thirstier, and puts them in reward-seeking state. Also, an important strategy for habit-formation is the strategy of loophole-spotting, and getting something for free can provide loopholes. For example, we can use it to argue that “this doesn’t count,” as in: “These cookies are compliments of the chef, they’re free, they don’t count.” But, everything counts.

Now, instead of unthinkingly accepting a freebie, I ask: Would I choose to buy this thing? If not, I probably don’t really need or want it, even if getting it feels like a treat. When I spoke at a company recently, I mentioned this habit during the question-and-answer period. Afterward, the event organizer said, “I know this is ironic, but here’s a little something for you.” He handed me a company water bottle and a box of fancy chocolates.

“Thanks!” I said. “This looks great, even if it is free.” We both laughed — but in fact, I really didn’t want those freebies. My family already has a lot of water bottles (because these days, they’re so often given out for free), and I don’t eat chocolate. I appreciated the kindness and generosity of the gesture, and I accepted the things, because I didn’t want to be rude, but I had to figure out ways to get rid of them usefully, which was a bit of trouble.

How about you? When you consider the sources of clutter in your life, do you find that freebies make up a percentage of the stuff?

Next: Habits To Help You Avoid Feeling Deprived
Gretchen Rubin, author of two New York Times bestsellers, is our go-to gal for the best get-it-together know-how. Every week, she'll be dishing up her wisdom straight from her popular blog, The Happiness Project, to get you on the road to a more productive, healthier you. Here's to a 2014 resolution that sticks!