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.
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?