I “decommodified” my life for 1 month.

Here’s what I learned about the nature of transactions and their impact on our well-being.

House photo by Dmitri Popov

For all of March, I’ve been focused on living out the principle of “Decommodification” in my daily life.

Why? Great question! 👇

(10 Second Backstory)

  1. I’m taking all of 2017 to live out a different principle each month
  2. The principles follow Burning Man’s 10 Principles
  3. To learn more, read my January post: Radical Living Experiment

With me? Okay, great.

What is decommodification anyway?

As my spellcheck likes to remind me, “decommodification” isn’t a real word. But reality is what we make it to be, and Burning Man has made this a word, and this is how they define it:

In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.

In simpler terms, this means:

No buying, no selling, no branding — and no bartering.

(I call out “bartering” specifically because there’s a common misconception about Burning Man that you barter for goods. That’s not true, because even if money isn’t exchanged, trading is still a transaction.)

This is a pretty unusual way of operating in the world.

Actually, you can buy 2 things at Burning Man: ice + coffee. (All that is needed to survive in life?) Here is my partner Bridge with a purchased coffee in 2013. Apparently the dude behind him is about to attempt a cartwheel.

“WAIT. But how do you get stuff?” you might ask.

Well, you plan ahead. You bring everything you need to survive in a hostile desert environment for a week.

(Spoiler: that’s why “Radical Self-Reliance” is also a principle, and in fact my upcoming focus for April 🙌)

The Problem with Transactions

You may be wondering what’s the big deal. That’s cool, I didn’t get it at first either.

Turns out that transactions can be pretty distracting.

  1. They fuel your “wants”
  2. They cause you to treat people transactionally

On wanting

Living in a world where everything is for sale make you kind of want everything. Conversely, living in a world where you can’t buy anything, frees you to accept that either you brought [essential item you forgot] or you didn’t. And if you *really* need it, well then you go out, meet some nice some people, and ask for a favor.

When you have to put some effort into acquiring items, you realize you need a lot less.

On treating people as transactions

Transactions eat up energy. To execute — or avoid — a transaction takes focus. Which means that sometimes, we get mixed up and start treating people transactionally.

How you ever focused more on your coffee order than you have the human behind the counter? That’s treating someone transactionally. ( 👩> ☕)

Or let’s take another example: Imagine a guy walks up to you in the street and says, “Hey, can I ask you a question?”

Not real data but you get the point

As a New Yorker, my default assumption is that someone is trying to sell me something I don’t want, and I need to be on guard. The result: I shut down and treat that stranger as I would his transaction: not interested.

The Beauty of Fewer Transactions

Living for a week in Burning Man world where transactions don’t exist is pretty nice. You’re more welcoming to strangers, people genuinely gift you things with no expectation of anything in return, and you naturally find yourself more cheerful and more present.

But of course, we live in a highly commoditized world. My challenge was how weave in elements of decommodification into my everyday life.

My approach:

  • Avoid all unnecessary transactions. Eliminate discretionary purchases. Take the cheapest form of transportation available. Avoid meals out, and brown bag it instead. Swap coffee date meetings for walking meetings. Make coffee at home. Keep essential items like health insurance, rent, gym memberships, utilities, as is. Continue to tip and gift as inspired.
  • Don’t treat people transactionally. Take extra care to connect with strangers, especially clerks, waitstaff, and salespeople.
  • Track all transactions and record on a scale of 1–10 how much joy they sparked in your life. This idea was inspired by Marie Kondo’s the “Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” You are welcome to check out my spreadsheet where I rated all of my transactions this month.
This book is great. I applied the principle of things sparking joy to all transactions in my life.

My Insights

Decommodification March ended up being far easier and far more fun than I had expected. Here are my take-aways:

#1 We make a lot of transactions. Even in my slimmed down transactional life, I only eked out 6 days where I didn’t purchase anything. I had expected it to be a lot higher. Turns out I go to the grocery store often.

#2 Reduced transactions doesn’t mean sacrifice. I found that when I did splurge on an Uber in a blizzard, or a coconut water when I was super dehydrated, (both rated 10’s on my 10 point scale) it was glorious.

#3 Just because it’s cheap doesn’t mean it’s worth buying. My lowest rated purchase the entire month (a 2 on my 10 point scale) was a diet coke I impulse bought from a vending machine with a friend. I didn’t really want it, and suspected it would make me feel gross. It did.

My Dad wanted to know if I saved money. Turns out the answer was YES! mainly on meals out and random avoided purchases (new shoes, sunglasses, etc.). Also, I made this chart for you, Dad.

#4 Bringing your lunch to work is actually great. I used to spend $10-$15 and who knows how much time getting my lunch every day at work. This was a bad habit, carried over from days of eating out on an expense account. I didn’t set out to break this habit, but I’m so glad I did. I truly enjoy eating real food, from my house.

#5 Our default answer should not be to purchase. During the month, I reset my default response to delay purchase, or to borrow from a friend. It made me much happier. My biggest small win was learning that I could borrow e-books on my Kindle through the New York Public Library. Other small wins included friends asking me if they could borrow stuff (woo hoo!) and being able to completely ignore all promotional emails and catalogs.

In general, I found that I lived a lot happier with a lot less.

All in all, decommodification month was awesome. It felt good to be a little more conscientious about transactions and their role in our fulfillment. I found that less is more with things, and that focusing on people is most important :)

Links and stuff!

Alright! I am super pleased I got this post out (on time!) because I kind of botched February which is still due for a recap!

If you’re into what I’m doing, here’s how to stay in touch:

👉 Sign up for my Radical Living Newsletter, where I write kind of like this but shorter. Comes out most weekends (2–4x a month).

👉 I’m getting prepped for April’s “Radical Self-Reliance” month. If you’ve got thoughts on what that could mean, add them to my google doc.

👉 Seriously go get your library card!

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