Do your future self a favor: How changing your habits can help you reach your goals.
I am not a creature of habit. It wasn't until my husband and I began living together that I settled into enough routine to take a daily vitamin or regularly wash my face before bed.
Despite the fact that my natural state is a bit erratic (Anyone else predisposed to 1am bedtimes? No? Just me?), I still believe strongly in the power of routines. After some years of living with a creature of habit, I now automatically reach for the Vitamin B12 and the witch hazel toner even when my husband is away on tour. In fact, research tells us that habits are a great tool for accomplishing what we need to do while expending less energy:
Left to it's own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often. This effort-saving instinct is a huge advantage... An efficient brain also allows us to stop thinking constantly about basic behaviors, such as walking and choosing what to eat, so we can devote mental energy to inventing spears, irrigation systems, and eventually, airplanes and video games. -- Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit
Our lifetimes are built from a series of habits.
Habits do much more than help us conserve a little brain power. Day in and day out, the things we habitually do become the framework for our whole life. What we do when we get up, the route we take to destinations, how we react when someone snubs us at work, what we eat during the day, how we greet our family when we arrive home... Very little of what we think of as conscious choice is actually a mindful act of "well-considered decision making" according to the argument made by Duhigg. Most of our everyday actions are habits.
In the personal finance community, you will often hear stories about the value of investing early and regularly, even if the amounts aren't large. Modest investments like these add up over time; they compound; and eventually, they build a strong financial future. In essence, we unleash a powerful financial force when we make a habit out of saving. Duhigg argues that the power of habit does not just affect our finances, but virtually every aspect of our lives:
Though each habit means relatively little on its own, over time, the meals we order, what we say to our kids each night, whether we save or spend, how often we exercise, and the way we organize our thoughts and work routines have enormous impacts on our health, productivity, financial security, and even happiness.
If life is built from the actions we take on an every day basis, then the bricks of habit loom large. Each day, we lay down hundreds of these bricks as we move through our day, complete our work, interact with others, and choose what to do with our free time. Over time, just like when saving money, our habits have a compounding effect. The outcomes of our habits can be stronger relationships, increased financial security, and better health... or rapidly passing years filled with shallow interactions, fast food, illness, and credit card payments. Luckily, we can choose to build healthy habits that support our future goals.
How to use the power of habit to radically change your spending.
If you want to learn more about the "Cue-Routine-Reward" cycle that fuels our habits and how to change them, I highly recommend that you read Charles Duhigg's book, The Power of Habit. He offers practical tips as well as some incredibly motivational stories. While reading the book, I was reminded that the process of changing my spending habits was an essential piece of becoming less wasteful with my money.
In the first six weeks of my journey to spend more mindfully, most of the work I was doing was breaking down old habits and building up new ones that better aligned with my true goals. Here are four of the habits I changed:
I used to pay $6/day for parking in order to sleep in as late as possible and still get to work a few minutes early. When I realized how much this convenience was costing each month, I knew the habit had to end. It took me six whole weeks before I finally broke the habit completely. How did I know that I'd made a real change? My whole mindset about paid parking shifted. Now, the cost savings and the extra exercise I get when I use free parking feels like a reward. There have been one or two days when I thought I might have to pay, and I dreaded the idea. Once a mindless convenience, the expense of parking now feels like a horrible waste.
Before I tallied up exactly how much money I was spending each month on coffee, I had already noticed that I was sipping it absently when I bought it and no longer enjoying it as a treat. When it became a daily habit, the deliciousness of the soy latte lost it's thrill. At that point, the latte was costing me extra money and unnecessary calories without bringing me the same enjoyment. I changed my routine to make coffee at home, and I continue to enjoy it while getting ready for the work day. I still treat myself to an occasional coffee on the weekends or sometimes during a particularly grueling work week, but it's no longer a habit.
Clothes, outdoors gear, project supplies, home items... Shopping was not one of my biggest down falls, but I still did too much of it. Whenever there was a home project to be done, a feeling of discontent about our home decor, or a potential gap in my wardrobe, I whipped out a card to begin purchasing whatever might fix the thing that seemed wrong. There was a temporary boost that came with my productive feeling purchase, but the feeling of unrest that motivated me to make the purchase always returned (along with some added anxiety about my bank account balance). Over the last year, I've worked to come to peace with my appearance and the appearance of our house. I am learning to be content with what I have, instead of temporarily delaying worries by spending money on them. Shopping is no longer my habitual response to discomfort or unrest. In exchange for doing less shopping, I have found myself with extra time and some extra money too.
- Meals for days.
As mentioned at the start of this article, I am not a creature of habit. During the summer months, I am especially loathe to spend a day of the weekend meal planning, shopping, and prepping the week's food. However, when the fridge is full of food options that work for the whole family, then I'm not tempted to go out to eat. Most of my Sundays are dedicated to prepping food for the week ahead. (TBH: While I habitually make time for these tasks now, it does require a bit of extreme will power to get the job done some weeks.) While I'm working out our food for the week, my husband is usually catching up our laundry -- making sure that our wardrobes and our lunch boxes are ready for week day success. (Author's confession: we actually don't have lunch boxes, but you know what I mean.)
Parking, coffee, shopping, and meal prep were the areas I needed to change in order to reduce my spending, but habits are deeply personal and everyone's are different. Taking the time to understand your spending can help you identify habits that might be derailing your money goals.
Habits as a gift to my future self.
While the changes I made during the first six weeks of my journey created a huge impact, the power of habit can be harnessed at any time to keep us building a rich and meaningful life. There are many more ways that I am hoping to build habits that help my future self, including:
We do a lot of walking. In addition to walking from my parking spot, I try to take walks during breaks at work, I hike on weekends when free time allows, and we walk the dog almost every night for 20-45 minutes. We don't always hit 10,000 steps (particularly in winter), but it's our goal. Ideally, I would like to build some strength-building activities into my daily activity as well. Last winter, I worked in a set or two of the 7-Minute Workout a few evenings each week. It was not as impressive as the free workout that Amy of Life Zemplified and her husband used to train for an obstacles course, but it definitely left me feeling stronger and more capable. My husband has taken to adding some basic exercises to his midday break at work, and I know I'd feel healthier if I did the same.
- Ending the day on a healthy note.
We can be busy folks. A bit too busy by some people's standards (my husband's included), but we also make time for cozy. Our evenings often include some combination of these interlinked habits: Popcorn, good cheese, scotch, tv, and snuggling. While I will never disagree with snuggling, my waistline could do without the consumption of calories directly before bed. I'm working on unwinding other ways (bath, reading, etc). And really, skipping straight to bed to double down on the snuggling has been sounding awfully appealing as well, which brings us to...
- Regular bed time.
While I've had some improvement in this area, I have been trying to talk myself into an earlier bed time for most of my adult life. My son started working his first job this summer and he has been learning a lot of lessons. As he poured a bowl of sugar cereal at 10pm on a work night, we had a chat: The kind of sleep and fuel you give your body has the power to make the next day of challenges either easier or harder. Not enough sleep? You're bound to have a shorter fuse if you encounter a conflict with a coworker. Crummy food? A body without good fuel is totally going to want to call it quits at 3pm. And while I know all these things, heading to bed early is the area where I am least likely to look out for my future self. My husband is a positive influence in this regard as well, but his sway has not been enough to make hitting the hay at a reasonable hour a regular part of my routine. (In fact, I am often a bad influence on him getting a full 8 hours of shut eye.)
Much like building better spending habits, I know that improving in each of these areas would come with it's own rewards. I don't miss paying too much for parking and lattes, and I certainly wouldn't miss walking up sleepy or the few pounds I've gained over the last two years.
While the goals I've listed above are mostly related to health, we can use habits to strengthen our relationships too. I make an intentional choice to find my husband wherever he might be in the house when I get home from work to greet him after a long day. As someone who leans toward being an introvert, I have also been trying to invest more in my relationships by checking in with close family and friends more regularly about the things going on in their lives. (Friends and family who might be reading: Yes, I still have a long ways to go in this area.)
Daily investments of our time can also help us to learn a new skill. We can create habits that help us learn a language, write a novel, play an instrument, or build a website.
Whether you are working to strengthen relationships, exercise, eat healthier, learn a new skill, or make free entertainment part of your routine, there is really no limit to the ways we can use The Power of Habit to build a rewarding life with less effort. The small things we do (or don't do) for our future selves today will eventually become the sum of our lifetime.
I would love to hear about the ways you are using habit to build a healthier, more meaningful life.