How to Get Better at Minimalism Using the Diderot Effect

The first crack won’t break the iceberg, but eventually it will bleed water.


Jomar Delos Santos

2 years ago | 3 min read

The Diderot Effect is a phenomenon that describes the compounding effect of “replacement desire” when you first purchase an object. The effect is named after French philosopher Denis Diderot, who, after acquiring a large dowry sum for his daughter’s marriage, thought to treat himself with an expensive scarlet robe.

Diderot had previously lived in poverty. Upon acquiring the new robe, Diderot was arrested with an urge to replace things he owned that didn’t match the level of luxury the robe provided. This desire to replace his regular possessions spiralled until he was surrounded with luxurious replacements.

First introduced to me in James Clear’s groundbreaking book Atomic Habits, the Diderot Effect not only presents a relevant explanation for compulsive spending habits, but also illuminates a core obstacle to minimalism.

The first crack won’t break the iceberg, but eventually it will bleed water.

Simply put, once you upgrade your standard of living, it is very difficult to move back. That’s the same reason we see lottery ticket winners filing for bankruptcy and why we hear surprising anecdotes about depressed rich people on a continual chase for more wealth.

We don’t need more things. Many aspiring minimalists know this but continue to spend needlessly because of an insidious need to maintain consistency in their environment, no matter what the cost.

What we need to remember is that we’re building a habit of comparison. The same can be said of the reverse situation. When trying to do something challenging, like switch career paths, we consciously create positive habits that fit the identity of that “ideal person” we’re trying to become.

If you want to start writing, you build a daily practice, research your career options and learn more about the craft.

In the same way, when we attempt to transform our identities to ones of success, we spend abnormal amounts of money because we believe this is how a successful person lives.

That beautiful new jacket we just bought now seems out of place in a wardrobe full of cheaper options. Thus we must replace the rest of our clothes with alternatives that fit the wardrobe of a successful person.

It no longer makes sense to use your iPhone 6 with a cracked screen when you just bought a brand new MacBook.

The trick here is to not build the habit of spending in the first place. Like the comparison trap of social media, our standard of living will always pale in comparison to anyone living above our bracket. Living within your means is a key tenet of minimalism, and ultimately the fastest way to increase your wealth over time.

But if you truly do need to replace that object with something new, I have 3 tested strategies that will help you foster an attitude of detachment towards material things.

1. Acquire Then Replace.

A good way to minimize the Diderot effect is to create an exchange. When you purchase something that leaves a mental dent in the sea of your belongings, give away something that no longer sparks joy (thank you Kondo).

2. 10 Day Rule

You can shorten this window based on your personal preference but I keep the window long on purpose. The idea here is to wait 10 days after you find something you want, perhaps with a monetary cap of $100? If after the 10 days you still desire this $100 item, go ahead and buy it. In my personal experience, I’d lose interest in the object before the 10 day period ended, saving myself an extra $100 for more essential purchases.

3. The Good Ol’ Visual Block

Is there a specific behaviour pattern exposing you to unwanted desire? Are you following materialistic influencers or shopping accounts on Instagram? I know I do.

These might be exposing you to needless temptation. It might be easy to resist the first three times you see the accounts, but it’ll be much more difficult to say no the ninth or tenth time. Reduce the amount of time you spend online shopping or viewing new products on social media and watch your desire for those objects fall drastically.

Changing Your Habits Won’t Happen Overnight

Whether you’re on a journey towards personal transformation or are facing obstacles on the road to becoming a better minimalist, remember the Diderot Effect whenever you’re tempted to make that extra purchase.

Keeping track of your spending habits will not only cultivate a better awareness of how you consume, but it should also accelerate your savings goals— as long you’re consistent. Your habits won’t change overnight, but with discipline, you’ll be thanking yourself years down the road.


Created by

Jomar Delos Santos

I write articles to clear your head (and mine).







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