Every day I see evidence that we are still in the midst of New Year’s resolutions season. My gym is much busier than it was in the preceding months and social media is plastered with people tracking or sharing their newfound focus on goals. My guess though based on years of observation (and my own life lessons learned) is that these upsurges of enthusiasm will fade as we get into the next month or so.
Why is that?
Nearly everyone wants to make some kind of life change: eat better, lose weight, exercise regularly, sleep or relax more, better quality time with friends and family, pay off debt, or save more. We often set out on goals with the best of intentions only to fall short somewhere along the way.
Are you frustrated at the painful gap between the changes that you want and what you actually do?
People tend to blame themselves for not being willing to “work hard enough” to adopt these new habits. Thus, we get the boom and bust cycle of resolutions.
To really be effective though, change shouldn’t be hard at all. In fact, tiny adjustments that come easily and make us happy are the ones that work best.
Don’t believe me? Dr. BJ Fogg is the founder and director of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University and his research has some interesting findings.
There is actually a formula that applies to almost every successful shift in behavior. It will almost seem elementary at first.
1) The first thing you need is motivation. Choose something you actually want to do rather than one that you feel obligated to do.
2) Secondly, it must be achievable by starting with something simple and small.
3) Third, you need a personal prompt that will reliably remind you to trigger the behavior.
4) Lastly, you just need to celebrate when you follow through to reward your brain with a positive effect.
Sounds too simple doesn’t it? Let me give an example.
I once worked with a young Airman when I was a volunteer financial counselor on active duty in the Air Force. Let’s call her Taylor. She wanted to get out of a few thousand in credit card debt, spend within her budget, and start saving once her debt was paid off. Overall, her main challenge was impulse purchases on wants as she was pretty good at staying on track for needs.
I recommended to Taylor that in addition to more closely tracking her spending, that she pause for 5 seconds before she bought anything to ask herself if that expense was a want or a need. She could then prioritize that spending based on how much she had planned to spend on wants vs. needs.
That 5 second pause was enough to break the cycle of impulse purchases. She would then celebrate her self-control with an inner “good job!” Within 4 months, she had spent under her budget and paid off all her credit card debt!
She likewise celebrated each dollar paid towards her debt further increasing her internal motivation. The last time I saw her, she was saving diligently and most importantly aligning her money with her values!
Taylor followed the method for success:
1) She had motivation to do something important to her: pay off debt, spend on things important to her values, and save for the future.
2) She started with the very small and achievable step of just using a 5 second pause before purchasing anything.
3) Her prompt automatically happened whenever she went to buy anything. It took a few days at the beginning to fully get into it, but after that it was automatic.
4) She celebrated each milestone no matter how small along the way.
Every time you celebrate your own small successes along the way you deliberately reinforce the habit by tapping into the reward circuitry of your brain, causing it to recognize and deepen the sequence of behaviors you just performed. With more intense positive emotions, you can even speed up this cycle and become even more automatic in the future.
This is the secret: habits aren’t primarily formed by repetition over a long time; instead, it’s the emotion that you attach to the changes from the start.
Perhaps, not surprisingly when people work together in a family, business, or community to reinforce positive changes and celebrate together these effects can be magnified. Applied to your family finances, the family that works and celebrates the small but steady financial progress together wins together!
It’s easy to underestimate the power that tiny changes can make. I encourage each of you to try it out for yourself. Start small and you can discover for yourself the changes that will change everything.