I’m going to say something here that is not popular and may be controversial: convenience has no inherent virtue.
The value of convenience is the time/effort/attention it saves us that we can devote to something else more meaningful.
Yet sometimes it seems we’ve fetishised convenience so that it has become an unquestionable end in its own right.
There are three main problems with this that impact on happiness.
Problem #1: Convenience comes at a cost.
The first is a practical issue, and that is one of cost. Unfortunately, the cost of convenience very often sits with someone other than ourselves. (That’s part of what makes it convenient…to us.)
My local park and sports centre is expanding its car park to accommodate the majority of locals who choose to drive. And I can see why. Driving is more convenient than walking or taking the bus.
But the cost of this convenience is increased household bills for those with cars (car payments, insurance, petrol). We pay for it by having more roads and paving over front gardens to accommodate our cars. We pay for it in the impact all of our cars have on the planet. We pay for it by sacrificing pieces of land previously left as grassland and meadow to make space for the expanded car park. And we pay for it in the cost of this work.
Convenience often means needing to earn more money, which adds to stress and takes time away from other things – which begs the question: if we’re working more to pay for these conveniences, what’s the net time savings we’re actually creating in our lives? And how are we spending the time we save?
If I work more in order to pay a cleaner to clean my house, and to buy prepared meals or processed foods that are quicker to make, and to buy goods that make life easier, would I have less stress if I actually spent less money on goods and services?
Convenience can also mean you miss out on some of the unintended benefits of a less convenient option. Not driving or having a car is inconvenient in a lot of ways, but it also forces me to walk a lot more than I would do if I had a car. I find I get a lot more exercise and can maintain a healthier weight. My sons and I end up enjoying the time on our walk to school and nursery every morning. We notice things in our neighbourhood, too, that I doubt we’d notice driving past. People see us and we see them, resulting in a friendly sense of community that can’t be replicated with everyone in their separate vehicles. And I frequently get to walk through the park to catch the train, getting some additional time in nature. I would miss out on a lot of these benefits, so that would be another cost of the convenience of driving everywhere.
For each of us, it’s a different balancing act. But I think we can benefit from acknowledging the cost of convenience so we decide in an informed, intentional way whether convenience is actually creating space in our lives, or taking up space in our lives.
Problem #2: Convenience doesn’t create meaning or substance.
There’s also the fact that some of the most meaningful things in life are often highly inconvenient: being in a committed relationship. Having kids. Creating art. Building something with your own hands.
It makes sense to cut corners and make some things quicker and more convenient so we have more energy and time to invest in things that matter. For instance, having a dishwasher might mean cleaning up from dinner is quick and easy and I can use the time I would have spent handwashing our dishes instead helping my son with his homework. That makes sense.
But I think there’s also a possibility that we start looking at everything in life with the objective of making it easier. So if I use a dishwasher to make dinner dishes easier, and hire a tutor to work with my son on his homework, how am I spending the time and energy I’ve saved from both of those activities? It’s possible I have so-called quality time with my family, but more likely that I use that time looking at social media on my phone.
Becoming so accustomed to convenience can make it seem wrong when things are hard. But I believe the best things in life are sometimes the hardest things. That’s the stuff of life.
Problem #3: Convenience begets mindlessness.
Beyond substance, there’s actually something to be said for the mindfulness of certain tedious activities when approached with intention and curiosity.
Convenience makes mindless automated ‘doing’ easy – I don’t need to think about microwaving rice for 2 minutes, which spares my mental energy for other things. I can load the dishwasher while talking to my husband and kind of go on autopilot.
But there’s sometimes space for being in the moment during these kinds of tasks. One of my favourite mindful activities is washing dishes by hand. I notice the feel of the dishes, the appearance of the water falling across the different textures of porcelain, glass, and metal, the sensation of the soap bubbles and warm water on my hands. It’s easy to neglect the value I can take from ten minutes of doing dishes, when done mindfully. And as above, easy to overstate the value I can take from being able to do the more convenient version of the task mindlessly.
Here are some possible questions to ponder or journal prompts to answer with pen and paper – whatever gets your juices flowing best – to examine convenience in our lives and make sure it’s working for us, and not the other way around.
What areas of life do I want to make more convenient, to create space for other things? What parts of my life don’t need space, but just need to get done?
Example, I want to make certain daily cleaning habits more convenient, like wiping down tables and counters after meals, or keeping the floors clean. I want to pay bills easily. Some aspects of my work life could be more convenient, like some of the admin I have to do at work, and some of the day-to-day stuff.
What areas of life do I want to invest my energy and don’t want convenience? What parts of my life need more space?
Example: I want to be present with my family. I want to be fulfilled at work, so that means focusing on strategic work where I feel I can make a big impact. I want to have time for my writing and coaching. I want to learn how to take care of my home, learn to fix things myself, take pride in my home, so I don’t want someone else to clean it for me or do all of the decorating or maintenance work. I’d rather do a lot of this myself.
What is the cost of some of the convenience I have in my life currently?
Example: I pay too much for take away coffees. I used to use far too much disposable packaging, so have reduced the cost to the earth by taking my own cups and making a rule not to buy takeaway coffee if I left my KeepCup at home. I pay more for books by buying them on my Kindle, even books I would never re-read, instead of the hassle of going to the library. But this means a) cost of puchasing books and b) the planetary cost of using electricity to charge an electronic that will eventually most likely end up in a landfill (even if I try to recycle it).
Where do I feel the biggest benefits from convenience? What can I learn from these to apply to other areas of my life?
Example: Having a handy vacuum cleaner and homemade cloth cleaning wipes make cleaning easy and don’t cost a lot of money, time, or negatively impact the planet. Being able to renew library books over the phone. Automatic bill pay. Using my camera hone to take photos of the kids. From this I realise that I can often find a way of doing things conveniently with lower cost. I can also see how some technology can help me when I know what I want to get from it.