Change is hard. It takes a lot of effort to move a boulder, and as everyone who’s ever been on a diet or tried to create a budget knows; effort isn’t fun. It’s so much easier to leave our boulders in their well-worn ruts. But change is possible, and can even be easy when you figure out the right thing to change to get the result you want. The trouble is that most people focus on changing a behavior or habit, without examining why those habits exist in the first place.
Tricks of the Trade-Off: The problem is that we tend to rely on tricks that promise little effort and fast results. It’s an easy sell – do less, get more – but it doesn’t work that way. On their own, tricks can only attempt to enforce behavior you’re not really motivated to change, which dooms them to failure. Don’t get me wrong, tricks can be useful tools for change, rather like behavioral training wheels. Consider all the tricks for weight loss: Specialty ‘diets’, prepared foods, meal-replacement drinks, home fitness videos, ‘shake weights’, etc. They are great tools (except the shake weights), but fail if you aren’t sufficiently invested in the goal – improving your health. The question is what motivates you? If you love to eat, and prefer the satisfaction of rich food to that of improving your health, no fitness trick is going to result in lasting change. Having goals that truly motivate you is the only path to real change; the new patterns just feel right and change becomes natural and even exciting.
Case Study in Change: Here’s an example from my life – I used to love buying books, movies and CDs (we’ll call it ‘media’ here). I easily spent $50 to $100 a month on this habit. I got excited by every new purchase, but within a month or two the book was read, the movie was watched, or the CD was listened to, rarely ever to be read/watched/played again, and the item itself got stacked on a shelf. I was losing money and running out of space, but in my old mindset of spending impulsively with no real goals, it was an easy habit to fall into. Once I started overhauling my finances, I got fired up about my new goals and priorities. When this issue came under the microscope, I identified three problems:
- I was spending too much money on media, and doing it habitually
- My apartment was overflowing with the stuff
- I was getting no further value from 90% of it
- Phase 1 – Stemming the Tide: I cut my budget for this category in half immediately. Then I started asking hard questions about any new purchases – Is this something I would truly use again after my initial enjoyment? Is it worth the space it would occupy thereafter? Could I find a better use for this money that is more in line with my goals (ie; paying debt, saving for a house)? As I answered these questions, my purchases dropped even further. I started going to my local library and found that I could get nearly every media item I could ever want without paying a dime or taking up space in my home. Even better, the online capabilities of library systems have advanced to Amazon-like levels; searching for, requesting, and renewing media from any branch in the system is a breeze. If I decided something would be truly valuable as a part of my collection, I would go buy it. My spending dropped to rock bottom and the incoming media river dried up to a trickle.
- Phase 2 – Cleaning House: As I was preparing to move into one small apartment with Courtney, we both realized it was time to tackle our existing inventory. Purchasing now fully tamed, we started spending serious time sorting through our respective collections. I filled half a dozen large packing crates full of old books and donated to library drives. We ripped our CD collections to our computers keeping only our favorites on disc. We had a big garage sale, and Courtney began selling movies, CDs and newer books online. In a few months we had cleaned out 50% of our inventory, made a couple hundred bucks, and freed up lots of storage and shelf space. We did a second winnowing and sold even more.
- The Payoff: We made some money and got rid of a lot of excess stuff, but the real payoff was doing it together. Sharing the task made it easy, and we spent hours talking about books and movies and music that had touched our lives. And the work, though minor in the grand scheme, moved us further toward our goals of simplicity and financial peace, which provided tremendous satisfaction and motivation. In the end we were left with a small media collection that was truly valuable to us, grew closer as a couple, and had a great time working together toward our dreams.
The best part is that it was easy; it didn’t come from rigidly forcing myself to stick to a budget against my will. I never needed tricks to force better habits, or felt I was depriving myself. That’s the cool thing about inertia – once you start them rolling, boulders move all on their own. My behavior simply changed as a result of new priorities that in turn stemmed from setting goals that I truly embraced. And where did the goals come from? They grew from the decision that something in my life needed to change: If I wanted something I never had before, I needed to do things I’d never done before (to paraphrase Mr. Ramsey). With that fundamental realization powering the engine, big changes don’t seem so hard and the results provide even more inspiration. It’s a pretty cool cycle.