Why you need to let go to get what you want

Updated to Habits, Productivity on December 27, 2022.

“Some of us think holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go.” Hermann Hesse.

It’s a funny twist of thinking that we often value what we have more than what we could have. The shirt we stopped wearing long ago still hangs in our closet – as if one day we’ll change our mind and it will become our favourite again.

The worn out shoes that carried us to work day after day still have their place on the shoe rack. And even though most books you own will never get opened again, they’re still there – crammed into an already full bookshelf.

But, don’t worry – we’re all like this.

The Endowment Effect

At a convention, experimental economist John List wanted to test the strength of our attachment to what we already have.

He posted a sign asking delegates to complete a small survey about their experience at the convention, for which they would be rewarded with a small gift of either a chocolate bar or coffee mug, of equal value. The rewards were assigned at random.

But, as the volunteers were about to leave, List said to each one “We gave you a mug (or chocolate bar), but you can trade for a chocolate bar (or mug) instead if you wish.”

Given that the gift was given at random, you might think people would have little attachment to their gift. But, in fact, only 18% were willing to exchange their gift for the other.

This bias in the human psyche is known as the Endowment Effect—we endow more value on something because it’s already in our possession – even if it has very little real value.

And this isn’t something that we do only in weak moments—it’s hard-wired into our design.

Brain imaging confirms that selling something you would normally use (like a coffee mug, or an old pair of shoes) activates regions in the brain associated with pain and disgust. Whereas, buying something at a discounted price activates pleasure regions of the brain.

Hanging on to baggage

The frustration comes when we talk about amazing changes we want to make in our life, while desperately hanging onto baggage that holds us back.

Earlier this year I reduced my office space by half. I no longer needed room for a full-time staff person and so now I have one office space, instead of two. This change meant I had to clear out a storage room, including one very full filing cabinet I no longer had room for.

But, the last thing I wanted to spend a Saturday doing was going through old files. So I put it off.

For two months.

Finally, the day came – I had a morning set aside to do the dirty work. I was determined to get it done, cleaned up and to be out of there in three hours. I knew that examining old files, one by one, would be horribly tedious.

So I went with feelings.

When it came to accounting and client records, it was pretty straightforward: keep the last 7 years. But when it came to program notes and one-off projects (which I had over 10 years of) I would hold the file in my hand – if it felt warm I’d keep it. If not, it went to recycling.

One hour later I had 2 banker boxes of files saved, 5 large boxes going to recycling and a very empty filing cabinet.

More importantly, I felt great.

As I tossed each file into recycling it was like a stake being pulling out of the ground. This job that I’d been putting off for months was, in the end, no big deal. The effort I had to put in was nothing compared to how free it made me feel.

In just one hour I had lifted a big burden off my back.

In my life, clutter makes me feel burdened and distracted, as do long lists of tiny commitments that overshadow really important work.

Moving on

I’m not going to pretend I know what you need to let go of. What I do know is letting go is always a part of moving on.

It could just be letting go of some old clothes, or books, or clutter. But it could also be letting go of a relationship, or commitment, or goal that’s holding you back.

When I coach speakers, they often need to let go of some grandiose plan of travelling first class to sold-out auditoriums and instead get comfortable with smaller steps to success.

When I facilitate planning sessions, people usually need to let go of all the things they could do and focus instead on what they must do. Once they let go of low-value goals they can harness more attention for what really counts.

In my life, clutter makes me feel burdened and distracted, as do long lists of tiny commitments that overshadow really important work.

It’s all about letting go and letting life in.

Letting go and letting life in

There is an old story of two zen monks traveling along a road. The older of the two stops to help a woman cross a river, only to be insulted by the woman.

Hours later the other monk expressed anger about the abuse his colleague endured. “I can’t believe how rude that woman was!” said the monk, “When all you were trying to do was trying to help!”

To which the older monk replied, “I set the woman down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?”

What do you need to let go of?