Change Your Habits with Systems, Not Willpower

I learned through personal experience and from others that lasting change is less about willpower and more about creating systems. Once you figured a way to change your habits you can break out and achieve your goals.

We all have blind spots in our lives. When we’re stressed out we tend to get sloppy in a few areas, like our budget, house, or schedule.

We've discovered the hard way this past year where our weak areas are. Fortunately, once we identified the problems we created systems to hack our habits to make simplifying our finances and lives easier.

Understanding Habits and Triggers

Before we can change a habit, we have to understand how they work.

When Charles Duhigg, NY Times reporter and author of The Power of Habit, was researching the neuroscience and psychological finding of how we form habits, he found there are three basic components to habits – cues, routines, and rewards.

  • Cues – triggers for behavior
  • Routine – behavior that you want to change
  • Reward – why you’re doing this behavior

If you want to change the routine, you can adjust the cue or the reward.

Our increased spending was a relatively new, but powerful habit. To change into something more productive we first needed break down the habit.

Developing (and Changing) Your Habits 

One of our big goals this year was to sell our current place and move into a house that more manageable to our lives now.

We thought with the market conditions, our home's condition, and the popular location, it would be a fairly quick process.

Fast forward six months (and dozens and dozens of showings) later, we were drained.

If you're not familiar with the showing process, imagine having your place looking magazine worthy for strangers to examine. You are given some notice, but not a lot.

On top of that pressure, I work from home while taking care of two kids under the age of five. Something had to suffer and it was our finances.

Since my time was limited, I found myself slipping into purchases because they're convenient.

Eat out during an evening showing? Sure.

House needs to look good to make it more sellable? Buy it.

Making purchases here and there wasn't a problem on an individual level, but it began to develop into the default.

In terms of habit components, we had:

  • cue: stress
  • routine: make a purchase
  • reward: remove stress (for the time being)

The good news is we didn't break our budget, we missed one of our huge goals for the year – paying off the last of our non-mortgage debt.

It was a wake-up call to change.

The solution? Hack our habits with systems.

Creating Systems to Spend More Thoughtfully

While making any kind of lasting change takes discipline, relying on just sheer willpower is a recipe for disaster.

…new psychological research finally acknowledges that willpower is a limited resource. As Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg says, “In the long term, willpower alone won’t work for difficult behaviors. You need to take a different approach, such as changing your environment, removing triggers and taking baby steps.”

One of the best ways to break through is to create systems to make these changes automatic or to make your old habits harder to slip into. Changing habits can be tricky, but there are ways you can do it effectively.

By automating our finances we've cut out a lot of the tedious parts of budgeting. This gives us more time to focus on the kids and this upcoming move.

To remedy the extra spending I made this past year, my husband and I are now going back to chatting with one another before I make a purchase that is over a certain amount.

If I think we need to pick up something, I text, call, or if we're home, talk to him. It takes a few minutes, if that, but having to explain the why behind something has helped me. These check-ins force me to slow down, which relieves some of the pressure.

It's a win-win as our finances are getting back in shape and we're communicating with each other regularly.

Thoughts on How to Change Your Habits

I hope my example helps you conquer your weak points. I'd love to hear from you – when you're stressed, what habits do you slip into?

How have you broken through and changed your habits?

Understand Where You Are Now

The other day I wrote about knowing where you want to go in life and visualizing your dreams. Now we look at the other point on your map -where you are now.

It sounds easy enough, but sometimes can be stress to examine where you are now. It can also liberating and empowering.

You can't create a map to your goals without knowing where you starting from.

Being a personal finance writer, I'm going with what I know and use money to show you how to get a clear snapshot.

Getting a Snapshot of Your Life

Seeing your numbers can be powerful. You get to see exactly what your assets and debts are. The problem for many is that they have all this information scattered about that they only have a vague idea of how well/bad they're doing.

The great news is that you can get a snapshot of your finances pretty quickly. There are some free and powerful tools that can gather all of that data. My two favorites are Personal Capital and Mint. (If you want to sign up for either, do – they're awesome!)

Boom! With about 20 minutes of effort you can get a big picture view of all your accounts and also drill down to the transaction level.

There's no excuse – you can get a financial snapshot without having to do a ton of work.

Dump the Blame, Embrace the Lesson 

This might the most difficult part – seeing the actual balances in your accounts.

When I did this as a part of our year end review, I realized just how much money was wasted. (Did I mention I'm a personal finance writer? Whomp, whomp)

Once I got over the initial disappointment I started brainstorming ideas on how to fix this.

Maybe you're in the same boat. You might've pulled the data and seen how big your debt is. And it looks almost impossible to fix with your current income.

If you're discouraged by the numbers, remember this – what you see now is temporary. Make a commitment to move closer to your dreams and goals. Let go of the blame, but keep in mind the frustration you feel as it can be fuel to keep you motivated.

You can break free by getting rid of your debts.

Knowing your can move away from your present situation can empower you to start simplifying your budget and using that extra cash to become debt free.

Thoughts on Getting a Snapshot of Your Life

Even though I used money for the example, you can apply the same principles. Don't forget – as awkward and stressful it can be to see where you are now, this is temporary. You can move past this situation.

I'd love to hear from you about your process. Where are you now? Where do you want to be by the end of next year?

Picture Your Future

How many times have you made big goals for the year? How many times have you came up short?

*hand up*

We talked about understanding and defining your why, now it's time to nail down where you want to go.

I've seen two key components to those who were successful:

  • Have a Reminder of What You're Working Towards
  • Keep Track of Your Progress

One of the best ways you can tackle both as a couple is start off with a date.

Have a Dream Date

Sit down this week and set aside some time for a date. Skip talking about the bills and stresses for one night and focus on where you two want to be by the end of next year and beyond.

If you're stumped on where to start, here are some questions to discuss for the year:

  • What things do you want to cross your list finally? (run a 5k, play tennis regularly, give more time to volunteering)
  • Are there any projects you want to tackle around the home?
  • Are there any family trips you want to do?
  • Would you like to explore a new career with a side business?

It's tempting to jump into the how, but stick with your dreams first, you'll get into the process soon enough.

Create SMART Goals

As you to think about your dreams for a few days, make another date to see if you can get a big picture view of how you want to get there.

How you frame you goals makes a big difference with how likely you are to achieve it. Creating SMART goals can be wonderful.

  • Specific: Choose a specific goal. Don’t say ’save more’, but instead choose ‘put aside 5% of my paycheck into a savings account.’
  • Measurable: How do you know when you reached your goal? If you are saving an emergency fund up, consider setting aside 3-6 months of living expenses.
  • Attainable: Work on 1 or 2 goals at a time so you don’t feel overwhelmed.
  • Realistic: Make sure your goal is something you can do and truly believe in.
  • Time Based: By setting a deadline, you can work backwards and break down the steps into mini goals.

Write this down or make a note of your dreams as you visualize your goals.

Visualize Your Goals

Many top performing athletes have found visualization to be a powerful tool in helping them achieve their professional goals.

The typical approach is to write down your goals, but there are other ways you can keep yourself motivated as you move closer to your dreams.

Creating Your Vision Board

If you're more inclined to work with your hands, making a vision board can be useful.

Whether you create it online or with your hands, there are key pieces to creating an effective mood board.

  • Gather your inspiration
  • Organize it around themes
  • Place it where you can see it

If you need more details, Michelle from Shop My Closet Project has some awesome tips on how to create your vision board.

Switching Up Your Screens

A more tech friendly approach is changing up your phone and laptop wallpaper or screen saver with something to remind of your goal.

It doesn't have to be fancy or have an inspirational quote on it (though here are a few if you want). I created one for my January goals.

Working from home with two little ones keeps me with plenty to do. Having my wallpaper up is a way for me to stay focused and feel more comfortable saying ‘no' to more commitments.

Track Your Progress

The second component is keeping track of your progress. I want to give you a few ideas so you can use whichever one fits your personality and circumstances best.

Make a Chart

Being the nerd that I am I love charts. Whether it's a spreadsheet or poster board, updating them regularly gives me a clear idea if I'm getting closer to my goals.

Dave Ramsey has had people credit their charts as a huge motivator as they want through their Total Money Makeover. Your Money or Your Life also encourages charting your progess.

If you're more the pen and paper type, here are a few of my favorites charts to track your progress:

There's an App for That!

There are handy tools and services you can use that also track your progress. For finances, I recommend Personal Capital and Mint.

Looking to improve your health by eating smarter and exercising consistently? Apps like LoseIt and Daily Burn make it simple to keep your progress handy.

Michael Hyatt recently released a list of his favorite apps to help you achieve your goals.

Thoughts on Visualizing and Tracking Your Goals

I hope these tools help you achieve your goals. I'd love to get your thoughts.

What do you want to accomplish in the next year (and beyond)? How are you tracking your progress?

Start with Your Why

When I began writing about couples building up up finances and marriage, I used to suggest that they start with their budget.

I'd give tips on free tools to see where the money was going and give advice on how to make it easy to keep tabs on spending.

There was nothing wrong about what I was saying (I still recommend those tools), but I was missing the heart of it. Change requires both process and mindset change.

Instead of begining with the how, I found that's it's more important to start with the why.

Understand Why You Want to Simplify

Before making any transitions, it can be helpful to write down or talk about why you're doing this.

Carl Richards, Certified Financial Planner and NY Times Columnist, says one of the best ways to get to what you really want with financial plan is to ask, Why is money important to us?

If you can clearly answer why you want to do something, you can:

  • gain a better idea of what changes you need to make
  • stay motivated when it gets tough

Don't believe me? Let me give you an example with finances since so many want to improve theirs (get out of debt, save more), but keep failing.

When you ask, most people will say they want to get out of debt. Ask them why and you might hear, ‘I want financial freedom' or ‘We need some security if we lose our jobs'.

Those are good reasons, but why do they want to be financially free?

Getting out of debt is a milestone for sure, but it isn't a destination.

What do you want to do once you're out of debt?

For some it can mean having some breathing room in their budget so they can switch to a more satifying job. Others may want to stay at home with the kids, either full time or part-time.

Your reasons reflect your values, so don't be suprised if what you come up with is different from your friends.

Clarity with Decisions

Let's say you're determined to paying down debt so you've been cutting back on expenses so you can knock it out faster. You have some vacation time coming up and you're making plans on where you want to go and what you want to do.

Reviewing your why, you can decide on what is a better fit for your long term goals.

Another scenario – you are deciding on whether on or to keep your date nights going as you're working on the credit cards.

Why are you getting out of debt annd improving your finances?

If you're doing it so can you have more time for another, then you'll keep the date night. You might however, try to find more frugal ways to do it. Again, your why will be different than others so your choices will be different.

Motivation to Move Forward

Set backs and hurdles are part of life. Even with the best plans and intentions, we can struggle with our goals.

Let's say you've been building up an emergency fund. It's been hard, but you have $1,500 in the bank. Then just as you were about to work on paying down your credit cards, your car breaks down. And the repairs pretty much wipe out your savings.

Understandably you're frustrated, but if you've defined your why you can get back to business (once you've vented).

Another instance when we need motivation is when there is a temptation to veer off your path. I'm not talking about adjustmnets, which I think is a necessity, I'm refering to discouragment.

Things are going pretty well, but brown bagging lunch is a bit tired or you're frustrated with how your current car is running. Your friend calls, excited that they got a new car. Or maybe your co-worker has been inviting you to go out with them for lunch.

What do you do?

Since you understand the bigger picture of why you're trimming your spending, it's easier (not easy mind you) to come up with a solution that works for the situation. You put off getting a car, but you might agree to a once a month meetup with a co-worker.

Again, your why will be yours and your solutions will be your own.

Creating a Map

I hope you're fired up and have articluated the why behind your change.Once you've nailed down your why ,though, where do you go from here? What's your next step?

Simplify & Enjoy Your Money, Home, and Life

Today is a new beginning and I'm looking forward to the next 12 months for several reasons. Besides being our anniversary, I chose today to start documenting a new chapter in our lives.

I also want to help you have a less stressful and more enjoyable life. The key? Simplifying.

How Simplifying is a Key to Success

Simplifying is about removing distraction and noise from your life. One huge reason I've started this site is I've seen firsthand how easy it is to

Learning from My Mistakes

I announced last year that we were going to pay off the student loan, the last of our non-mortgage debt.

Long story short, we didn't make it.

We paid it down (which is still a win in my book), but not off. Looking at 2015 we had so many things going on, some big ones inlcuded:

  • putting our townhouse for sale (and six months of showings)
  • taking care of two kids under the age of five
  • adjusting and finding a new work routine as I work from home with the little ones around
  • fixing and upgrading stuff around the townhouse to make it more appealing to buyers
  • weddings (congrats to my cousins!)
  • medical issues for several loved ones

Looking back I realized that a huge part of the problem was not addressing the root of the problem.

I've been writing about money and marriage for some time, so I was naturally looking it as a numbers issue.

After some self examination and discussion with one another, I realized that the failure was due in large part to a lack of focus. We were trying to do too much and while we were not drowning financially, it was adding a ton of stress and causing plenty of (needless) frustration in our lives.

To fix that we're spending the next year simplifying our finances, house, and lives. And since I write, I'll be keeping myself accountable here.

If you're in the same boat, I hope you join me!

Avoid Burnout

First – I'm not looking at swinging from one extreme to another.

Trading exhaustion from an overflowing plate for burnout due to trying to minimalize (is that even a word?) everything is not my goal.

Relatively few people are able to make drastic changes to their lives, but in most cases extremes don't work. I'd rather work on something sustainable.

I'll be happy and more satisfied by getting into a routine/rhythm I can keep even after I make my goals.

Before I get into them, I'll tell you how I'm planning on getting there.

How to Simplify Your Life

Since ‘simplifying our lives' such a broad goal, I created a few guidelines to help me focus.

  • Begin With Why? We tend to jump to the how, but we can increase our chances of succeeding if we began by asking ourselves why? Why do you want we want to simplify?
  • Picture Your Future. Where do you want to go?
  • Understand Where You Are Now. The other important part to creating a map is knowing what your starting point is.
  • Identify Your Weak Points. We all have areas in our finances, homes, and lives where we could do much better than what we're doing now.
  • Start Small. I've seen firsthand from others that going to financial extremes can be detrimental.
  • Build Around What You Value. How we spend our time and money is to a degree a reflection in what we value. If you want to simplify so you can enjoy life more, create your budget and time around what's important to you.
  • Adjust as Needed. As life goes on, you'll also change on your goals, so expect to simplify different areas of your life.

If you want more details, go ahead and grab my free guide to Simplifying Your Life in 7 Days.

Simplifying Our Lives in 2016

To hold ourselves accountable, we've come up with these goals for 2016:

Money

We want to get our necessary expenses down to $2,500/month.

To do this we are going to pay off ALL our non-mortgage debt.

Home

We want to sell our current townhouse and get another place that is a better fit for our current life.

To put into something measurable, we need a place that allows us to live and work from home while costing us less than our current place.

Life

We have too much on our plates. We both work and while I have some freedom and flexibility with my business, I've been swamped with too much to do professionally and professional.

My husband feels the same way. We love what we do, but we love our family more.

For this next year, we want to strip away non-essentials so we can have time for what matters to us.

Thoughts on Simplifying Your Life

Every month I'll share our progress. I welcome any constructive feedback you can offer. More importantly, I also hope you feel comfortable enough to share your breakthroughs and setbacks as well.

I'd love for you to join me on this journey (the more the merrier after all!). What do you want to simplify with your money, home, or life? Why?

Why Simplify and Enjoy? :A Quick Intro

Hello; thanks for visiting me here on Simplify and Enjoy!

I'm Elle 🙂

Since 2009, I've been writing about marriage and money over at Couple Money.

I originally started Couple Money because we needed it. Back when we engaged we quickly found out we had different approaches to money.

Trying to find solutions, I hopped online and found some great personal finance blog, but there wasn't much that specifically addressed how married couples can work together to tackle their financial goals.

Marriage and money is so layered because you have two people with different backgrounds coming together. Pretty much all I saw at the time was focused on individuals.

So started documenting our debt free journey as well as wins and disagreements.

It's something I love, but today I'm starting a side project that I'm thrilled about sharing – Simplify and Enjoy.

I guess the best way to start is to explain the why behind the site.

Why ‘Simplify and Enjoy'?

I do believe the goal financial independence is not about the money, but about the freedom.

To save enough to ‘retire' or where work is optional takes a big chunk of money.

(Not as much as some of those retirement calculators like to recommend, but even if you want to live off of $30,000/year, you'd need around $750,000)

That means making choices about where and how you're spending your money now.

We've found the process of simplifying to be the best, most sustainable way for us to reach our goals.

Reviewing regularly what matters most to us and minimizing what doesn't helps us move forward and closer to what matters.

It also means that we enjoy the journey of becoming financially free and eventually independent while raising our kids.

Are You Hard Core FIer?

Not really.

Which may seem weird, but we're really focused less on the numbers now.

When we were paying off $35,000 of debt, we tracked our progress fairly regularly. That made a huge difference.

But now that we have built that financial muscle (and also automated our money), we have more time to focus on the kids plus our projects.

Now that's not to say we're not savers. Last time I checked, our average savings rate was around 45% range.

If you'd compare to the average American family, then we'd most likely be considered hardcore savers.

What Are You Going to Cover on Simplify and Enjoy?

Basically, we'll share a bit of how we're raising our kids while trying to simplify our finances, home, and lives.

I'd love to share some of our discussions about balancing saving more versus enjoying the season of life we're in.

So while we'll get into the path we're taking towards financial independence, the real focus will be on the journey.

I'll share projects around the home we're working on. Some of them we'll do ourselves and gain some new skills. Other projects we're going to outsource.

You'll get to see how we design our yard to make it better suited for us.

I'm learning about using permaculture principles to grow more of our own food and work with what we have.

We're looking to creating spaces for the kids to play, us to relax, friends to visit and , and grow our own food.

Minimalism & Financial Independence for Families

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