What is the most efficient path to sustainable behavior change?
Die-hard willpower devotees will tell you to suck it up, flex your will muscle, punch yourself in the face, and crush your goals through sheer strength of mind. Me? I don’t believe in willpower. Do you? Let’s try an experiment. Why don’t you go open a bag of chips and then only eat one of them for the rest of the day? Go ahead, I’ll wait.
[The next day.]
How did that work out for you? If you’re a regular human person, you probably ate the entire bag while watching Netflix and then shuffled to bed in a haze of salty shame. I know this because I’ve done the same thing on numerous occasions.
If willpower was really the key to behavior change, wouldn’t more of us be successful at eating right, exercising, and saving for retirement? Wouldn’t our completion rate for New Year’s resolutions be higher than a measly 8%?
My philosophy is that psychology > math when it comes to behavior and as a result, true efficiency lies in manipulating your environment to engineer success. We are squishy sacks of habits and urges. Why rely on a difficult method of change with a low success rate when we can choose something easier and more effective?
GAH (Gamify, Automate, Habitify) is my trifecta of behavior change. If you can harness the full power of these three concepts, you will be practically unstoppable! All of these changes are easy to implement and should give you better results than relying on willpower alone.
Track your progress. Celebrate the milestones and reward your small and large successes. If you’re feeling discouraged, look back over the past few months or years to reinforce how far you’ve come!
- Make yourself some achievement badges or feel free to use mine!
- Color in your debt or savings using charts or coloring pages.
- Make notes on an annual calendar.
- Add a marble (or better yet, a chocolate coin!) to a jar for every $100 or $1,000 or $10,000 you need to be debt free or financially independent.
- Fill in a spreadsheet with payments or savings amounts and watch the numbers go down (or up!).
If you treat your goal like a game, you’ll be much more motivated to get to that next level. Ask me how many hours I spent playing Zelda: BOTW. Technology companies are fantastic at gamifying our lives. Just look at how addicted we are to our phones – addicted enough to walk off of cliffs or into traffic because we’re so absorbed in them! Imagine how much you could accomplish if you used these same techniques for self-improvement.
Choices require a certain level of processing power, and using too much of it can be exhausting. Automatic actions are easier, so the key is to automate beneficial actions and de-automate detrimental ones.
The next time you find yourself overspending (detrimental action), ask what roadblocks you could throw up to prevent it from happening again. Could you delete your account information from the online stores so you’re forced to manually enter everything? Even a minute or two of extra effort might slow you down enough to reconsider the choice. Remember the credit-card-in-a-block-of-ice trick? Same idea.
If you want to save more (beneficial action), figure out ways that you can make setting aside money easier. One common strategy is to set up automatic transfers to a savings or investment account.
Every payday, I log into my bank account and the first thing I do is transfer a payment to my student loans. One of my budgeting philosophies is to pay your past self first (or your future self, if you’re debt free). If I transferred the amount that was left at the end of the month, I would be trying to pay with cobwebs and tumbleweeds. Frontloading my student loan payments means I stick to my budget, or else! There’s no excuses or ‘I’ll pay extra on it later’ if the money is already gone!
Changing habits is all about manipulating triggers in our environment. We all respond to certain triggers that cause us to act in different ways. Behavior modification starts with identifying the habit and its triggers.
Let’s say that you’re trying to spend less on clothing.
What are the triggers that cause you to do the behavior (purchase clothing)? How can you alter or eliminate these triggers and replace them with positive ones instead?
- Email newsletters? Unsubscribe, and subscribe to lists about minimalism and mindfulness.
- Pressure from friends? Tell them you’re trying to lower your spending and request their support. Invite them over for a movie instead.
- Nothing to wear? Try making a capsule wardrobe with items you already own. Project 333 is a great resource for creating a capsule wardrobe!
- Bored? Find other hobbies that don’t involve shopping. Meditate. Take a walk in a park.
Another great tool to try is habit tracking. Every day you don’t buy clothing, mark it off on a calendar. Imagine that each day is one link in a chain. How long of a chain can you make? Don’t break the chain! This is surprisingly motivating, and relates back to the gamify piece of the trifecta!
Personal finance is largely about behavior, so the more that you can do to steer yourself in the right direction without necessarily being at the wheel, the better!
What are some areas of your life that you’ve gamified, automated, or habitified?