Binge and purge: reaching equilibrium with sets of five

Living with less

I am not a minimalist. But I have minimalist aspirations; on a good day, even minimalist tendencies.

I know that I feel happier when my space and my mind aren’t so encumbered by stuff, and I have built up my mental muscles to recognise when I’m hanging on to an object but not getting value from it.

I can declutter ruthlessly when the mood strikes me, and I’ve learned to dodge the old temptations of sentimental attachment, ‘just in case’ hoarding, and sheer laziness. It’s not just my pen tray: my ‘box of wires’ (we’ve all got one, right?) and bookshelves have never been emptier.

But that doesn’t mean I’m sitting smug with my 99 possessions and my capsule wardrobe. Regular readers will know I’m very much prone to an impulse purchase. And you’ll have heard about the constant battle I’m fighting in my brain between the need for acquisition and exploration on the one hand, and refinement and consolidation on the other. 

The obsession cycle

When my mind turns its focus to an aspect of my life, or a hobby — whether it’s jeans or wristwatches, camera lenses or bags, headphones or torches, mechanical keyboards or multitools, or indeed pens — I go through a familiar cycle of obsession, research, acquisition, then purge. Rarely do I identify a need, buy one ‘good enough’ product to fill it, and get on with my day. No, I need to be sure I’ve made the best decision.

Sometimes, as with pens, the binge cycle repeats over and over (and generally, the more interested I am in a hobby or type of product, the more that’s likely to happen). Eventually, if I’m lucky, I’ll reach a stable state where I hit a plateau of improvement, and my obsession will move elsewhere.

“Less, but better” is only half the story

When I go through these acquisition cycles, of course I set out looking for products that are better than I currently have, or ideally perfect — I believe that I’m learning from my experiences, making better choices, and ultimately that I can replace my previous inferior purchases with something just right: either an objectively superior product, or one that aligns more closely to the preferences I’ve developed during my exploration.

But I’m not just looking for better; I’m also looking for different. When I care about a category of product enough to think about it, research it, and explore the available options, I find myself becoming aware of the variety out there in the market, and I start to appreciate that variety, and the choice and flexibility it gives me. I learn that one size does not fit all. In other words, I want more than one.

In my pen tray, it’s being able to open the drawer and choose from different nib grades, ink colours, and pen sizes, as well as aesthetic options. But the same degree of variety is available in almost every product category, from kitchen knives to headphones.

I’m not a “one watch guy”. But I’d like to be.

I know I’m not unique in wanting variety, or feeling uncomfortable about this desire. There’s a Hodinkee article from 2013 titled “fantasies about being a one-watch guy“. Yes, believe it or not, some people have just one wristwatch they use to tell the time. They get up in the morning, strap it on, and go to work. That’s my brother: he has worn the same Omega Aqua Terra every day for a decade. I envy that simplicity, the freedom to just go about your day without having to choose! But I know it doesn’t work for me. I want different dial colours to match my mood, and the ability to choose a chronograph, a GMT, a diver, a dress watch to suit what I’m doing that day. I get bored.

I’ve been down this road often enough, across enough categories of product, and for enough years, that I’ve started noticing some trends emerging.

Most importantly, I’ve noticed that my desire to increase variety balances against the other forces — the need to free up space and money, the inconvenience of maintenance, obvious overlap between options.

In a surprising number of product categories, I find a point of equilibrium at around four or five products. This seems to be the optimum set size for me.

Just as in my pen collection, thinking about the things I own as sets, rather than individual products, lets me better understand their value to me and where I have gaps or opportunities for consolidation and optimisation.

And if you’re currently saying wow, he’s really overthinking this… yes, yes I am.

Let’s just look at a few examples.

Fragrances

I have settled on four fragrances: Old Spice, Laboratory Perfumes Tonka, Bvlgari Wood Essence, Dior Eau Sauvage.

Old Spice may be a naff fragrance, but it was my dad’s daily wear when I was growing up, and I find it a comforting scent; I sometimes put it on just before bed. Eau Sauvage is light and fresh; it hardly lasts but it’s my summer and dress-up scent, and I get to pretend I’m Steve McQueen. Bvlgari is heavier, smokier; it’s for evenings. And Tonka is my distinctive day-wear for the office from an unusual UK-based house.

Watches

Five: Tudor Black Bay GMT, Farer Lander Chrono, Seiko SARB-035, Junghans handwound, G-shock.

I’m not quite settled with my watches yet, and if I had a sudden huge disposable income I would make some investments resulting in a lot of change. But you can see the sketched lines of a planned collection emerging, built around different styles, and functions, and based to some extent on some fuzzy rules: watches should have date windows. They should have water resistance. Steel cases. Automatic movements. Ideally sapphire crystals.

The Tudor ticks all those boxes. It’s a GMT, on a bracelet, with sober classic styling. It would be my ‘one watch’, and it’s my homage to my dad’s long-gone Rolex; it is practical, beautiful, and my first choice.

The Farer has style, panache and a gorgeous dial. It also ticks all my boxes. It’s my chrono on a strap and my second choice. But I have several other chronos I fancy…

The SARB has my favourite hands on any watch; really I’d like a Grand Seiko instead, but funds say otherwise. Anyway, the SARB ticks almost all my boxes and I can’t fault it. It’s not quite a dress watch or a field watch, but it’s a good everyday three-hander.

The Junghans has an acrylic crystal, handwound movement and no water resistance, as well as a tiny 34mm size. Although I love its typography and Bauhaus minimalism, I have to admit that my brain says to sell it.

Every collection needs a G-shock, in my opinion, for DIY, sport, garden work. Which brings me to 5.

Pocket flashlights

Four: Muyshondt Aeon Mk3, EagTac D25C, Zebralight H32C, Astrolux S41.

I am never without a pocket torch. You always need light. And I have learned over dozens of purchases what I need in my pocket. With the exception of the tiny Muyshondt, all my EDC lights now use CR123 batteries and they all have high-CRI neutral emitters. They all start in low, resist accidental activation, and have relatively simple interfaces I know well. And I can fit them all in the coin pocket of my jeans.

Headphones

Four: Jabra 65t, Jabra 85h, Nuraphones, Hifiman 400

My set of headphones covers the spectrum between size and sound quality. The 65t earbuds are most portable; the 85h is my noise-cancelling set for work; Nuraphones sound great and have excellent isolation and, while large, are still wireless. The Hifiman are huge, open-back and wired, so they are for pure sound quality at my desk. I’m happy, but may upgrade the 65t to the new 85t.

Day bags

Five: Alpha One-Niner Chio, Rickshaw Bento Bag, Topo Quick Pack, 5.11 Rush 12, Stuart & Lau Cary

I’m pretty settled here. I use the Cary for work. The 5.11 when I need a non-hiking rucksack. The other three are small messenger-style bags that I can rotate if the mood takes me or if I need different size or organisation. Shout out to my long-retired Domke f3x, which sits in my wardrobe as camera equipment storage.

Finding balance

Well, if you’ve got to the end of this post, congratulations and thank you. This turned from a passing observation into an exhaustive list. But I wonder if you too also conceive of the things you own as miniature collections, designed to complement each other, and optimise to a certain number that balances choice against efficiency?

16 thoughts on “Binge and purge: reaching equilibrium with sets of five

  1. I did one thing that stopped my pen buying (almost) cold. I bought a Yard-O-Led Grand Victorian. While I’ve considered other expensive pens like the Onoto Sequoyah and a few others I can’t recall, there’s been nothing to tempt me for spending that kind of money though I can easily afford it.

    That YOL made me stop as it is everything I could want in a pen. It’s heavy, solid, the best nib I’ve ever used, and a joy in the hand and on paper. I don’t believe I could be tempted to rise above it as I’m satisfied.

    Perfection is one of those concepts that is tempered by being aware of the hedonic treadmill. I’ve given up on perfection and now try to live in the land of ‘good enough.’

    I’ve owned three watches in the past 40 years. A Rolex, and two Timex. One Timex, a self-winder bought in 1977, lasted until I fell out of a tree in 2015. The last Timex was bought in 2015 and both have always been my daily wear watches. The Rolex was bought in 1989 as a gift to myself when I stopped smoking. The Rolex stays in a nice wooden box and is strictly a watch I wear on occasions.

    I still will buy an occasional pen as I love ebonites but they are all less than $150.00, most often around $100. Indian ebonites like Ranga and Lotus offer great craftsmanship and value that I find missing in most US produced pens. Unless you go to a real artisan pen maker who does more than simply turn out another acrylic with a fanciful name that looks like nearly every other acrylic pen, then you’ll pay in the hundreds that may or may not be worth it to you.

    But I’d never go into debt to buy a pen, a watch, a knife, or any other non-essential items.

    It’s the same with kitchen knives. I’ve used old Chicago Cutlery for 40 years that at most cost 25 bucks apiece. Now I buy Victorinox. I know how to sharpen knives. I’ve never had someone at a dinner party say, ” You know, that was great lasagna but it would have been so much better if you had used a Damascus-steel $1200 Japanese knife to slice the cheese.”

    Here’s where I stand. If I lost all my pens tomorrow, the first pen I’d buy would be a Delike Brass Pocket Pen from Amazon for about $22. I own four and they live in my car, by my nightstand, in the kitchen, and one always in my pocket because they have always been flawless, never dry out, and are damn near impossible to break or ruin.

    That’s value to me.

    Always enjoy your thoughtful posts, and anticipate more in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is, at heart, an interesting blog about the compulsions that propel and sustain capitalism, especially the mid to high tier where you’re no longer buying things for utility. Insightful even if i respectfully disagree with some of the sentiments. I look forward to more articles.

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    • I do, and I wrote a section about it, as well as my collection of larger flashlights, and possibly a couple of other product categories too — but I edited it out due to length!

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      • I have several. Some nice traditional french and italian ones for eating – when friends come over for dinner everyone gets a laguiole, le thiers, maserin gourmet, perceval etc.
        For general utility, while I have more, my faves are a small sebenza, Spyderco Stretch, Spyderco Military (fun at. Bbqs though it scares people!), Spyderco Spydiechef, and a Klotzli .
        In my suitcase for business and personal trips (such a far memory there is always a Victorinox one-hand trekker, which comes in handy from time to time.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Anthony,
    Hope all is safe and well.
    Another very interesting article touching on “fascinations” close to my heart, watches, pens, cameras and outdoor gear cold climate and high altitude, backpacking, cross country skiing and formerly alpine skiing all particular fascinations at different points in my life and still with me though not all pursued as actively as they used to be.
    Thanks for the reference to “fantasies about being a one-watch guy“ really interesting and a bit too close to the truth!
    I would love to live a one watch, pen, backpack, camera, set of skis life but as you have said much better than I that would not satisfy a need or curiosity in me that, I suppose, makes me who I am for better or worse.
    Take watches for instance following a fascination with them I have gathered a few one of the best thanks to friends and family when a big “0” loomed several years ago was a Rolex GMT master which I really do like but now has reached the point where it has attained value even the watchmaker I took it to to have it serviced, cleaned, lume refreshed said that he was not prepared to undertake the work as despite the very good job Rolex would make of it it would no longer be original. That sowed a seed that has been very difficult, impossible to step away from. The Strela from the Moscow watch factory that according to serial number comes from the same production run as Yuri Gagarin’s and his went into space with him!!
    The upshot is that I like you and many others have gathered several collections they can cause occasional guilty hoarding pangs but ultimately give great satisfaction but do need to be thinned out though I have yet to reach your ability to ruthlessly dispose of the surplus and I have to admit to still adding the occasional pen but not disposing of any thus far.
    I am who I am and am left wondering though I may hanker after the simplicity of the the “one” watch life would it satisfy me, I fear not.

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  4. When I started collecting fountain pens about five years ago, I made the mistake of buying too many before I really knew what I liked. So now I’ve got LOTS of pens I want to get rid off. Not high value, just lots of more inexpensive pens I don’t really use. I’ll give them away someday, when my pen club can actually meet in person again.

    Lately I started collecting aqua/blue/green Mason jars. Only antiques around 100 years old, only in that color range, and only jars that are different from the jars I already have. I learned from my pen collecting not to go nuts too early. Now I have about 25 jars, really a fairly small collection. I only add to it when I find something I really like that will add variety to my group. Sometimes I pay too much for them, but I really like all the jars I have now, and love to display them, so I don’t consider them wasted money. They bring me joy! And isn’t that what collecting anything is all about?

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    • Yes absolutely. And everyone has to find what’s comfortable for them. I have to say, I don’t consciously own or collect anything that’s purely ornamental, so I have no idea what my comfort zone would be for that!

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  5. this rings true – especially the obsession cycle. while by and large, i still believe it’s a benefit to properly read up before buying, it also really opens the door for things to get out of hand: now we know and appreciate the spectrum of things in the field, we gotta catch them all. now we know what the uppermost percentile of things looks like, it’s hard to realise it’s probably going to be overkill for everything we’ll ever subject it to.

    things that worked for me:

    some things, i found i actually can ‘less, but better’ quite well. especially when it lets itself tie to the dieter rams endorphine tingles, the patagonia ethics tingles, or similar. i’m not entirely sure why this works better on some things than others – it works for having pretty much one jacket, one pair of approach shoes, one pair of everyday shoes (that i really need to replace. please, people, behave less irresponsibly so i can go out to buy shoes), a freeingly minimal-but-high-quality assortment of kitchen knives, etc.
    it works for planned future knife buying (i really want a knife by brian goode. and that’s pretty much it, despite really liking knives), but doesn’t work nearly as well for pens.

    some things, i even found i can ‘good enough.’ some outdoor equipment, for example. my climbing harness definitely (i’m mainly a boulderer so i rarely get to wear one anyway. hence i opted for something that fits well & is comfy, but has practically no bells and whistles. i did catch myself thinking about which harness has how much gear space and clip spots for ice screws, though, before realising i will need none of those, ever.)
    it’s a good feeling when you get to say the equivalent of alex honnold’s very excited ‘that’s *so* adequate!’ but again, it doesn’t work on all things and it eludes me what’s the determining factor.

    the biggest thing has been the joy of being able to say ‘this is not for me’ and just appreciate things from afar. i’m a reasonably techy guy, but i dislike touch interfaces and the ethics of the android/ios choice enough to just not do smartphones. i love everything about quality denim and could really get into this, but since it doesn’t come in black, it’s not for me. (or rather, what comes in black is not what i can see myself getting into. it’s not right on a fundamental level.) i can get reasonably excited about techwear, some aspects of male fashion, its history, etc., but i’m too in love with having a capsule go-to that’s free of most temporal fashion aspects and colour mismatch issues.
    for some reason, it’s much easier for me to not get into something at all, for reasons ranging from principled & serious to completely arbitrary and harebrained, than to keep toeing the line between minimalism and indulgence.

    but then, there are passion things that are just really hard to resist. part of it is appreciating things beyond their function, as *good things*. but that can’t be all, or else i’d be knee deep in fancy denim.
    pens are in that category (thank god the ones i’m really liking right now are in price brackets i can’t easily justify spending on a pen), mechanical keyboards (here, i’m really craving for more, but ever since the gamers got into them, most ready-made ones look like they’ve been made for 14-year-olds, and the custom market is interested in limited this and that, acoustics, and gleefully ignoring everything that isn’t US-ANSI), and books. books just keep accumulating and there’s no way to stop it. i’ve given up.

    tl;dr: i feel that being trapped between minimalism and collecting. it’s hard. and equal measures frustrating and joyful. it was good reading about your collections and the thoughts and feelings that go into them.

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  6. Nice read Anthony, thank you.

    I am however shocked… Shocked I tell you! That you have not tried to compartmentalize your pens into groups of five. You could go by nation, material, nib size, pen size or even type of manufacture (mass produced, limited run, handmade by an expert and garden shed crafted).

    If you went this route, you could really stick a flag in the number 20. After all you would need 5 English pens, 5 Japanese, 5 German and 5 Italian. I’m not sure if you’d want to add 5 American or not, that’s your prerogative.

    Or maybe you could have 5 acrylic, 5 Ebonite, 5 metal and 5 resin. Or 5 extra fine, 5 fine, 5 medium and 5 bold. If you went this route I think it’s clear that the 20 pen mark is perfect for you.

    Though I guess overall what I’m getting at is, please continue to write this blog, and to do that you will need plenty of pens, be them on loan or in perpetual transaction. I’ve only been reading your blog for about a month, though now I click on your page around once a day to see if you’ve posted a new review or some other musings.

    I don’t know if I’m the first to tell you, but you have a knack for this blog writing lark, and your reviews on pens are honest to the point of being my first reference when I see a new potential ink stick for my collection. Honestly Anthony, keep it up!

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  7. This is very recognizable! I can really lose myself in the rabbit hole of a hobby. For me personally it’s currently pens and (vintage) watches. Pens are a relatively new hobby for me so I’m still learning (which is also the fun part actually).

    I can get really obsessed over reading everything about them (to the point I’m spending hours and hours on internet). My optimum is around three pens/watches. what I see is that if I have more I always tend to use my three favorites in rotation.

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  8. Anthony, I just had to read your post out to my husband! He enjoyed it too. He is on a constant search for the ‘best’ pen, knife, camera, camera bag, watch … I say to him, like you I think, that you need several as they serve a different purpose (often). He has a lovely chrono – Bremont watch. I bought an electric car recently – since then he is convinced that it has affected his watch – losing time – something to do with the magnetic field! At £700 to repair – he is going to save it for ‘nights out’! He went and bought an Apple Watch instead. Not nearly as attractive, in my opinion. I have a Longines I have had for over 30 years – never gone wrong, just a new battery every couple of years.
    Anyway, back to pens – having worked in the NHS and a university for all my working life – we used any old pen we found lying around and, I hate to say, I had a tendency to lose even the nice ones I had at home. But now – I have set my husband the task of researching for a pen for me – he loves doing the research. I will then make a choice – who knows, I may even buy more than one. Forgive the length of my response – I am relatively new to this blogging lark!! Great post by the way. Pat

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