PRE-S: This is the introduction chapter of my new ebook, Break the Twitch: A practical guide to minimalism, intentional living & doing more of what matters, which is now available for purchase. Learn more here.
People don’t buy products—they buy better versions of themselves.
Are you taking the False First Step?
I still remember getting the package.
It was a nondescript brown box, just like one that might show up on any other day. After I slid my fingers through the opening in the side, the packing tape popped apart, and the box opened to reveal my new sport watch and heart rate monitor band. My heart rate sped up a bit just from the excitement of the new purchase.
As a part of my recent fitness aspirations, I had decided to start running. To be honest, I hated running—always had—but those extra 20 pounds definitely needed to come off. And this time, I was serious. I knew that I just needed the right gear to get me started, and then it would be off to the races.
That’s why I was particularly excited about this delivery. The watch and monitor were all I needed to be accountable to myself and finally reach my health goals. I felt like I was already a runner now that I had the gear.
From 2010 until late 2013, I spent $12,000 on Amazon.com, buying more than 350 items. That’s about one item every four days for four years straight. It started after Amazon Prime was introduced and suddenly Earth’s Largest Selection was just one click away. A single click of the “Buy” button was all it took to get something magically delivered to my front porch in just 48 hours.
You would think $12,000 would buy some really high-quality, expensive stuff and experiences, right? I could’ve spent three or four months traveling the world, bought an old RV and toured the U.S. National Parks, or even provided funding to build part of a new home for orphans. In this case, the exact opposite was true.
With the exception of my MacBook Air for $950, and the $2,500 I spent for a camera, lenses, and accessories, most of my purchases were under $50.
That heart rate monitor? $50
A book on photography to go with my fancy new camera? $28
A calligraphy pen? $19
It was all just one click and two days away.
For four years, I impulsively chased the books, gadgets, and products that I thought would help me reach my goals. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was trying to become a better version of myself without really putting in the work to get there. I thought I was taking action when all I was really doing was taking out my credit card.
At some point along the line, I had been subconsciously convinced that a purchase was a valid action step. If I want to be a runner, buying a heart rate monitor is a step in the correct direction, right? Buying that monitor felt good. It was exciting, because I truly believed that I had taken a step toward a better, healthier me.
Then, two days later, the excitement would return as I opened the box to find my brand-new self staring up at me. Owning a heart rate monitor would definitely help me be a superb runner. Another rush of dopamine and a feeling of accomplishment would come over me as I examined my purchase, tried it on, and flipped through the manual. The new me was going to be so fit.
What’s Actually Happening When We Buy
This is what I call the False First Step: believing we’ve made a meaningful step toward a goal, when all we’ve actually done is spent money.
Over the next few days, I went on a couple runs with my new gear. I recorded my distance, kept my heart at a healthy 160 beats per minute, and tracked my pace per mile. I would deliberately check my heart rate at red lights so that the passing cars would notice me being a real, serious runner. After all, only serious athletes had this kind of equipment.
A few days later, I was sore. It was raining. I didn’t want to get my new gear wet (even though it was waterproof), so I took a day off. I took another day off. Then, I never wore that heart rate monitor again.
You might think that was bad enough but after that, I did something even worse. If only I had a new pair of running shoes, maybe running would be more fun and I’d get out there again and hit the pavement. So I ordered a pair of shoes—on sale! These shoes would definitely be the thing that got me out there running again. I decided to take a couple more days off running while I waited for them to arrive, which sounded logical because I was basically risking injury by running in my old pair now. Forty-eight hours later, when my new shoes arrived, however, I didn’t really feel like running then, either.
I’m still not a runner, years after those purchases. But while browsing Amazon shortly after, I found another book on photography that I got really excited about.
You can see where this is going.
The False First Step And The Twitch
The False First Step is just one of the many ways we can respond to something I’ve come to call the “Twitch.” At the core of it, a Twitch is a learned habit caused by a repeated cycle of a Trigger, Twitch, and Relief.
The trigger is the discomfort we feel when we desire something, feel guilty, lonely, insecure, or anxious, or a myriad of other reasons.
The Twitch is the unproductive, impulsive response to that discomfort—it is a False First Step, like hitting the one-click purchase button, checking social media to see how many likes your latest photo has, getting a notification, scrolling through the news feed, or eating a sugary snack. The relief is temporary resolve from the discomfort, usually accompanied by a good feeling from the reward center of the brain.
What all twitches have in common is that they are high-reward, low-effort actions—the Twitch feels really comfortable in the moment and takes almost no actual work to do. Over time, our brains develop an automatic response as we learn that we can get a quick dopamine release that takes us out of discomfort, if only temporarily.
Eventually, the Twitch becomes more of a physical response than a chosen action. I’d be willing to bet that if you have Facebook on your phone, you could open it without even opening your eyes. You know exactly what you need to do with the “Buy Now with 1-Click” button while checking out the new shoes you want.
Think about the last time you bought something that felt good to purchase. You might have used it a few times, then left it behind to collect dust or sit on a shelf. It might have been a new yoga mat with top-of-the-line moisture-wicking technology, a new grill for the backyard, or even a new book on an exciting topic you recently found out about.
We tend to buy these things because of the experiences we expect to have around them and who we expect ourselves to be with them, but the things themselves rarely cause those experiences to happen on their own. The purchase is actually driven by the discomfort we feel that we hope spending money will solve. It may be the discomfort of disconnection that drives us to want to spend more time with our family in the backyard. This pain or discomfort is resolved quickly by purchasing a new grill, thinking it will create that experience. For a while, the discomfort goes away until it bubbles up again for the same (or another) reason.
It may be the discomfort of being unhealthy, wanting to make a change in our lives, so we go online and buy something that makes us feel better. Really, we would actually feel better having just stepped outside and gone for a nice walk, or eaten a big bowl of mixed greens. But, those things take time and effort and they’re simply not as easy as hitting the purchase button or pulling out a smartphone for a quick fix—and that’s where the problem begins. Not all Twitches become False First Steps; the Twitch is simply one of the ways we respond to it.
Even if you think you’re completely clear of this phenomenon, it is likely that you’ve experienced it in everyday life. Each day you make hundreds of small decisions about what and what not to do and you’d be surprised to find the small actions that might feel good but don’t actually help you move forward.
What Was Your False First Step?
- Buying yoga pants instead of doing yoga
- Buying a laptop instead of writing that book you’ve been talking about
- Buying new running shoes instead of walking around the block
- Buying a new camera when you don’t use the one you already have
Perhaps you haven’t spent as much time and money as I have, or maybe you’ve spent more, but I bet you’re nodding your head right about now. And if you’ve ever been curious about how it happened, why, and whether it is possible to do better, keep reading. In this book, we’re going to look at the different ways the False First Step shows up in our lives, what we can do when it does, and how to “Break The Twitch” so we can consistently live in a way reflects our core values. It might feel like an uphill battle at first, but the payoff is greater than the effort required.