The Comprehensive Guide To Breaking Bad Habits And Making Good Habits Last For Good

The Comprehensive Guide To Breaking Bad Habits And Making Good Habits Last For Good.  We all have bad habits. Sometimes we call them weaknesses. And the best long-term solution is usually not to avoid them but to get to the root cause and deal with that instead.
Unfortunately, it's going to be another one of those rambling, self-absorbed posts. But if you stick with it, I promise it's actually helpful.

So I've had a spending problem for a few months.

Nothing big. I was still saving for retirement, the emergency fund, college education, yada yada yada. The problem was my personal savings.

After all those other savings, I've got a little left for myself. It's usually for direct stock investment, mini-mergencies, and the like. Ultimately, it's going to be my seed money for a potential business.

The problem started at Christmas. I normally, and on purpose, spend a lot on gifts plus occassional treats - both for myself and others.

I was able to still save half my 13th-month pay, but noticed I was spending what was supposed to be my personal savings. It didn't bother me during the holidays, but then it spilled over into January... then February... and even up to mid-March.

For some reason, my saving habit was backsliding. Anything I didn't pay myself first was getting spent. After years of not having that problem, I was very curious - and more than a little anxious - as to why that was the case.

So I did some research and found some interesting things.

First, my problem probably started way before Christmas time. According to a life coach in Singapore (I just read the blog; didn't get her service), my going over-budget may be just a symptom.

She had some nice pointers on how to deal with it. Specifically by asking three questions:
  • What were you feeling when the recurrence happened?
  • What happened in the time leading up to that? What were you feeling?
  • And most importantly Why?

So I did some "soul-searching" and realized my problem - I was adrift.

Since I've gotten married:
  • I've had less control over finances (I'm a bit of a control-freak, I guess),
  • expenses have ballooned (nothing irresponsible; that's just how it is when you start your own family), 
  • and my personal investable funds are now a fraction of what they used to be (rightfully so, as the money went to more urgent and deserving uses).

There was nothing wrong with those things. But now I felt that my personal savings had very little impact. In a manner of speaking, the reward (gains; and whatever those gains could ultimately achieve) was severely diminished. In a way, I've mostly lost the reward for my saving habit.

That sounds like a dumb excuse; after all I should know better or just stop this blog.

The Comprehensive Guide To Breaking Bad Habits And Making Good Habits Last For Good.  We all have bad habits. Sometimes we call them weaknesses. And the best long-term solution is usually not to avoid them but to get to the root cause and deal with that instead.
But it's actually a legitimate reason. As it turns out, all habits are a three-step process (according to Charles Duhigg's book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business):
  • Cue (what starts it)
  • Routine (the habit itself)
  • Reward (The reason you keep doing it)
(I didn't actually buy a book, I read a sort of summary here.)

If you want to break a bad habit, you have to alter one of those steps; preferably by keeping the reward and changing the routine.

My problem was a little in reverse; I had a good habit going until I somehow broke it. But then again, I now have a bad habit I needed to break.

I could attack the Cue. It would be easy to remove; I could just pay myself first and totally remove any chance of getting a cue to spend it.

However, I'm thinking that's more like a stop-gap solution. Why?

I would likely have a problem with restraint bias. Basically, I think I would have conquered the problem. But the next time I get a large amount of "disposable" money, I might just end up spending a lot of it again.

A better solution is to find a way to replace my bad habit (spending) with a good one (saving), and somehow keep the same reward (near-term satisfaction/gratification) and somehow make it stick.

That's tricky since by saving I typically have less to work with to get a better reward.

As it turns our that might not be necessary. I can replace that bad habit with a good one, if that good habit can satisfy more of the 5 human needs than the bad habit does.

What am I talking about? Here's the TED talk by Zoe Chance, where I learned that from. If you'd rather not sit through a 17-minute video after already suffering from my blabber, here's a quick run-down.

According to Zoe (who in turn apparently got it from Tony Robbins), there are 5 human needs:
  • Significance - feeling important, that you matter (ego)
  • Certainty - need for security/safety, that your expectations are likely to be met
  • Uncertainty - need for variety/surprise
  • Connection - form social groups
  • Growth - feel that we're moving forward, making progress

As it happens, my bad spending habit is satisfying only 2 or 3 of those - Uncertainty (varied treats), Connection (since some of it goes to my wife), and maybe Significance (because hey, my ego feels great when I spend money on myself).

To rebuild my good saving habit, I just need a better game plan. For now, it probably won't be enough to just stash money in my savings account. So what I plan to do is:
  • Give myself a nice treat (hitting Significance),
  • when I save a certain amount (Certainty),
  • It'll be a cheap one, most likely from the grocery, and the reward can vary (uncertainty).
  • Additionally, I can more closely monitor my savings goal so I can feel the progress even if it's small (Growth). Which is good since that might get me to work harder on my real goals.
  • And probably every time I reach a certain amount, I'll treat my wife to something (Connection, plus maybe Uncertainty again).

Will it work? Well, I guess time will ultimately tell. But so far my spending is under control, and I'm able to save after the fact.

It probably sounds at least a little stupid, to go through all this trouble with the research and behavior change. I could just pay myself first and be done with it.

But in reality, we all have bad habits. Sometimes we call them weaknesses. And the best long-term solution is usually not to avoid them but to get to the root cause and deal with that instead. This approach won't just remedy overspending, but a lot of other bad habits as well.

Just think what you'll be able to do if you can drop most, if not all, of your bad habits.


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photo credit: La Shola y EL Gringo? via photopin cc

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