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a woman stands looking out on a mountain lake with her arms outstretched

Growing up, I frequently watched the television show MacGyver. The 1980s program featured Angus MacGyver, a secret agent who could solve virtually any problem (and save lives) with little more than a pocketknife, duct tape, or the ordinary objects he found lying around. Despite lacking specialized resources, he always found a way to use what was at hand to craft clever solutions to the seemingly unsolvable problems he faced.

Mac focused on expanding the value of what he had, which made him an exemplary “stretcher” — someone who knows that better results come from using one’s available resources in the best possible way.

A “chaser,” by contrast, is someone caught up in the belief that more resources will always deliver better results. This perspective overlooks the possibility of expanding the uses for what one has on hand, partly because it sees resources as having limited uses. When seen through a chasing mindset, duct tape is solely for sealing ducts.

Almost all of us have experienced chasing in parts of our lives — or, at the very least, have been tempted by its pull. I personally know how difficult it can be to break free from its grip, especially when we’re surrounded by people who evangelize the idea that more is always more. I also know firsthand that it is both possible and worthwhile to give up chasing and start stretching.

As a social scientist, I’ve spent more than a decade studying what makes organizations more prosperous and the people who work inside them better off. What I’ve found in my research, and what a growing body of scientific evidence supports, is that how we think about and use resources has a tremendous influence on professional success, personal satisfaction, and organizational performance. This is the focus of my book Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less — and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined.

I’ve learned that one of the biggest reasons we chase is that we don’t think there’s an alternative. Still, most of us have likely already acted resourcefully in some part of our lives. Have you ever opened a package with your keys instead of a pair of scissors? Figured out how to make ­dinner with what’s left in the refrigerator instead of ordering takeout? Then you’ve stretched.

The opportunities are endless, and the suggestions that follow offer a few starting points for increasing the frequency and potency of your stretch experiences. You may find that as you begin to stretch your resources, you also start to expand your life.

Developing a Stretcher’s Mindset

If the cornerstone of chasing is to seek as many resources as possible, the foundation of stretching is to focus on what you already have. A stretching mindset releases you from the anxiety of never having enough and teaches you that you can create all you need with what’s before you. These are the four fundamentals of a stretcher’s mindset.

1. Develop “psychological ownership.”

When we feel a resource is ours to work with, we’re more likely to use it wisely. Keep in mind that ownership is not always material; according to sociologist Amitai Etzioni, PhD, it is just as much an attitude.

People practicing psychological ownership feel empowered to transform the resources they have, a key component of stretching. This is why kids learn so much more from having a limited allowance than they do from being able to use a parent’s credit card.

Similarly, employees who feel a sense of ownership in a company are more likely to be creative in their use of resources (which is good for the bottom line), as well as more satisfied with their jobs overall.

2. Embrace constraints.

The artist Phil Hansen developed a persistent shake in his right hand when he was in high school, the result of his relentless obsession with pointillism, a style that uses small dots to create a larger image. When he learned that the nerve damage was permanent, he was devastated at first. But then he decided to take his doctor’s advice: Embrace the shake.

Hansen went on to become a professional artist who made constraint the bedrock of his practice. He composed images with paper coffee cups, photographed paintings using his chest as a canvas, and deployed his feet to paint.

His work is just one example of how a limitation can drive creativity. If you’re someone who needs a deadline in order to create, you already know how to embrace constraints to your advantage.

3. Don’t fear frugality.

Most people don’t have a positive opinion of frugal people or frugal organizations — they think they’re either stingy or poor. But someone who is truly frugal fears wasting, not spending. Being smart about how resources are allocated can allow for incredible generosity. One study found three common patterns among the frugal:

  • They emphasize long-term objectives over short-term pleasures, such as paying higher salaries over hosting lavish company parties.
  • They reuse what they have instead of buying more, which counteracts the tendency to mark status through wasteful spending.
  • They feel freer from conventions, making them less susceptible to the social comparisons that lead to chasing.

4. Turn trash into treasure.

We’ve all heard the expression “one man’s trash is another’s treasure.” It reminds us that value is often created in the eye of the beholder.

Jenny Dawson is a London entrepreneur who turns unwanted produce into gourmet chutney, which she sells under the brand name Rubies in the Rubble. Her transformation of what many of us mistakenly see as waste goes beyond food: She hires women struggling with addiction and homelessness as employees. “We judge a person by their looks in the same way we reject a wonky carrot,” she says; this is the real waste.

10 Stretching Exercises

The practices can help you get the hang of stretching and resist the temptation of the chase.

1. Go explore.

Resourcefulness requires creativity, and creativity is often bolstered by novel and unfamiliar experiences. Dedicate a few hours each week to reading something new to you (a magazine, book, or website); attend a workshop or conference outside of your profession; or have lunch with someone in a similar job but a different industry. 

2. Just say no.

Once we shift our mindset to using resources more effectively, we can see that what we do with what we’ve got matters more than what we have. Whether it’s working with a limited project budget or planning a kid’s birthday party for $25, we can reject the idea that something can’t be done without more resources. By saying no in this way, we’re saying yes to a new outlook on working and living.

3. Take a break (and pay less attention).

Too much focus can sometimes undermine creativity. People with ADHD tend to score higher on creativity assessments than other people. Why? They let their minds wander, often making connections that others overlook. The mind needs a break from total focus. You can give it one in several ways: Do some mindless tasks. Clean your office. Try an adult coloring book. Take a walk, which frees the mind to wander.

4. Pick new neighbors.

Who we choose to spend time with shapes a lot of our behavior — and that’s true when it comes to chasing or stretching, too. If most of the people around you are preoccupied with the chase, identify one stretcher you admire and already know. Commit to spending at least one hour a month with that person. Pay attention to how effortless it can be to do more with less; this may start to influence your own choices whether you know it or not. Strengthening relationships with the stretchers in your life is a powerful way to help yourself break free from the chase.

5. Shop your closet.

When Courtney Carver was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, she gave up her chasing lifestyle and started Project 333, which challenges people to whittle down their wardrobes to 33 items for three months. Doing so freed Carver to focus on the more important experiential aspects of her life.

She also stretched herself by coming up with new possibilities for what was already in her closet, finding unique uses and combinations for her 33 items. You can apply this approach to other parts of your life, too.

Take note of stuff that could be put to better use — a newspaper to wrap a present, an old sweater that could be turned into a cat bed. When you start putting your “scraps” to good use, you’ll start seeing them in a very different light.

6. Appreciate.

Psychology research finds that when people are grateful, they expand how they think about resources, often in ways that are helpful to others. What’s more, appreciation can make it easier to say no to tempting things we don’t really want or need.

One study found that participants who did a gratitude writing exercise were more likely to resist the temptation of an immediate cash payout and wait three months for a higher reward. Their gratitude in the present helped them prioritize the future.

To increase your own gratitude, write down five things about your life that you feel thankful for, at least once a week. This habit conditions us to appreciate what we have, big and small.

7. Plan backward.

Jazz music replaces planning with improvisation, teaching us to act and respond more spontaneously. To play jazz metaphorically, reverse the typical relationship between planning and acting. Start a project, work toward a goal, take a trip, or leave the house for the day without a plan.

Keep a journal of what you did, but make notes only after doing it. Repeat as you make progress toward your goal. At its completion, your journal will contain a list of actions you took — what I like to call a backward-looking plan. What new things did you learn? Did you act more quickly? How much did you miss because of your lack of a plan? What did you gain from not planning?

8. Scramble the back row.

If we find ourselves too regularly on autopilot, it might be time to follow the lead of chess champion Bobby Fischer and “scramble the back row.” His technique randomly mixed one row of pieces on the chess board (importantly, not all of them) to create just enough change to require players to rely more on skill and adaptation than planning.

You can apply this idea in your own life by changing up your routines. At work, call someone on the phone rather than sending an email. Drive to work or school following a different route. Start your day a few hours earlier or later. Notice whether these changes spark a little more energy or attention.

9. Make midyear resolutions.

Why wait until the beginning of the year to make a pledge? Health journalist Linda Andrews prefers making Fourth of July resolutions. She reasons that the stress of preparing for the holidays, spending time with extended family, or being hung-over from a nice bottle of champagne might sour our mood to make resolutions on January 1. Midyear resolutions allow us to take stock and set goals from a presumably clearer headspace. (See how our fitness editor embraces this approach on page 35 of the June issue of Experience Life.)

10. Break it down.

Pose two questions about any resource: 1) Can it be broken down further? and 2) Does the description of the isolated part imply a use? The trick is to break down a resource into its smallest components; this will reveal its hidden uses.

Stay Flexible

Don’t get too hung up on how to start your stretching journey. Some of these exercises will immediately sound more enticing than others. That’s OK — we always need a place to start. Treat each exercise as a resource you can build on and adapt to your own circumstances. Just get moving. Like a muscle, our stretch gets stronger each time we use it.

Increase Your Stretch

These two techniques can help you adjust your expectations in ways that help support even greater stretch capacity.

Don’t overplan.

Whether we’re organizing a family vacation or devising a new business strategy, we tend to believe that the best results come from careful planning. Yet too much planning can create a kind of mental paralysis and prevent us from acting.

We learn from doing. When we plan, we’re not acting but delaying our actions — and what’s more, we’re speculating about a future that may or may not exist. When the rules are constantly changing (as they certainly have been in recent times), it becomes more important to be able to act and learn in the present. Even if you tend to favor planning, it’s not hard to adopt an action-oriented perspective.

Try this exercise: Think back to a time when you acted like a “doer”; to a time when you finished a project and did not wait long before starting another one; to a time when you decided to do something and could not wait to get started. Activating these memories can help trigger a more action-oriented mode of thinking.

Expect better.

What’s become known as the Pygmalion effect holds that establishing high expectations for others enhances their performance. One study found that children in a San Francisco classroom who were randomly assigned “gifted” status increased their IQ score by 27.4 points in eight months. Simply having been told they were above average changed their performances.

Likewise, a manager’s expectations shape performance because they alter the expectations of her employees. When employees detect that their manager sets high expectations, they raise their own.

We also set life-changing expectations at home: Beliefs about how satisfying our marriages will be or how our kids will do in school predict stronger marriages and higher test scores in children. Our relationships are ripe with opportunities to signal what we want from others — and people usually live up (or down) to those expectations.

The same is true for the expectations we have of ourselves. When we seed positive expectations, we’re more likely to reach our goals.

Avoid Stretching Injuries

As with any exercise, it’s possible to take stretching too far and hurt ourselves. Here are some common injuries from overstretching, and how to avoid them:

Turning into a cheapskate. Frugal people take pleasure in saving, and cheap people feel pained by spending. Make sure you’re enjoying saving and making the most of your resources rather than getting stuck in penny pinching.

Leaping without learning is a potential pitfall for those who routinely act without any planning. Too much change too quickly without considering outcomes can be like leaping into a pool without first seeing if there’s water in it. Remember that it’s still important to anticipate challenges and listen to feedback.

Being cursed by high expectations. When imposed without safeguards, high expectations can trip up even the most promising performances. We need to make sure our expectations are credible and delivered in ways that avoid unnecessary performance pressure.

This article originally appeared as “Less Chasing, More Living” in the June 2021 issue of Experience Life.

Scott
Scott Sonenshein, PhD

Scott Sonenshein, PhD, is a professor of management at Rice University. This piece is adapted from his book STRETCH: Unlock the Power of Less — and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined. Copyright © 2017 by Scott Sonenshein. Reprinted by permission of Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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