Seven Tactics for Turning Short-Term Intensity Into Long-Term Intensity

“Eric” writes in with a question/suggestion:

We all want to attack our debt, but can we be “gazelle intense” for the next 10 years (or more, depending on your income)?? Even if we could, is that a life really even worth living? If not, then what progressive, yet normalized, steps can we take so that we feel we are making a difference in our battle, yet still allowing ourselves a normal life (and not feeling guilty for it!)?

Intensity by BrianScott on Flickr!Eric’s question, at its core, is: how can a person turn short term intensity (the kind that helps us polish off a week-long or a month-long goal) into long term intensity (the kind that will help us get rid of an enormous goal)?

For me, at least, the transition was fairly straightforward. When I first began my financial turnaround, my goals were very short term. I was primarily focused on reading as many personal finance books as I could stand, cutting all my spending, and trying to at least reach a point where I could pay my bills. Beyond that, at least at first, I had no goals.

Over the first few months, though, I realized that if I stuck with such short-term goals, I would eventually just wind up back where I started. So I began to look at things in a different fashion. My goal was no longer the simple “get my financial footing” – it was “get myself in a position where my own small weaknesses won’t cause a grand failure in my life.”

I’m still working on it.

Here are seven tactics to help you with your own transition from short-term intensity to long-term intensity.

Think beyond your immediate crisis It’s easy to get caught up in the fact that you don’t have enough money to pay your bills right now. Obviously, you do need to solve the short term problem, but the short term problem is usually just a symptom of a bigger problem. Often, that bigger problem is pretty straightforward – you’re living beyond your means – but correcting it can be a real challenge.

Place your goals in a personally important context As I’ve mentioned before, my infant son was the inspiration for my turnaround. I knew that if I didn’t make better financial choices over the long haul, I would merely be ensuring that he missed out on tons of great opportunities as he grew up. I didn’t want to ever have to tell him that we couldn’t afford to pay for his instrument for band or that he couldn’t go on an educational trip because we had wasted the money.

Since then, I try to put every financial move I make – every purchase, every bill paid, everything – in the context of my children. Is this a good move for them? I’m responsible for their well-being in every way.

Other angles that may work for you: personal beliefs (such as faith), a personal cause that you find important, a desire for true independence, or another person in your life that makes you strive for great things.

Focus on making behavior changes rather than focusing on results While it’s tempting to just throw everything at the wall to fix the short term problem, doing that rarely results in long-term intensity about change. It’s similar to the reason why a person who diets and exercises carefully for two weeks and sees a twelve pound change on the scale often celebrates with unhealthy foods – they’re too focused on immediate actions that produce short term results but fail over the long term.

While it’s fine to do things that help you reach your short term goal (like selling old video games or DVDs, for example), don’t let those actions be the center of your plans. Instead, look for changes you can institute in your own behavior and focus on changing those behaviors. For example, if you drive by a coffee shop every day and you’re always tempted to stop in, instead of just saying “I’m not going to stop there today,” say “I’m not going to stop there any more.” Seek long-term changes in your behavior that will allow you to keep moving towards your goals.

Set a big, long-term goal – then break it down into smaller pieces It’s easy to set a short-term goal and reach it. “I want to catch up on all of my bills.” “I want to get rid of this credit card debt.” Those are both great short-term goals, ones that you can likely reach in a few months with some intense focus.

But what is your big goal? Is it to retire early? Is it to buy that nice house in the country you’ve always dreamed of? Whatever it is, spend some time piecing it out. Figure out in detail what you need to do to get there. Come up with all of the things you need to do to reach that goal, and break those steps down into tiny pieces – “pay off this bill, then pay off that bill,” and so on. Set monthly goals for how much you need to save.

In short, use that big goal as a big vision, but break it down into little pieces that are tangible for you. Then apply that short-term intensity to each goal.

Use a coach, a mentor, or a buddy Once you’ve got your long-term goals in place, seek out someone who can help motivate you every step of the way. It may be a buddy – someone who is going through the same steps you are – or it may be more of a mentor or a coach – someone who can cheerlead you through the process and offer advice along the way.

Either way, having someone else invested in your success provides additional motivation to you just by their presence. The addition of the factor of cheerleading and encouragement provided by that person just adds to the mix.

Become an example to others As you begin to turn things around (in anything that you do), people will notice. At first, the people noticing will be the people in your inner circle – your family and closest friends. Later, even people you don’t know well will begin to notice changes. You’re less tense about things. You seem more focused on the things you need to do. You’re smarter about how you spend your money. Sometimes, in ways you don’t even expect, you’ll become an inspiration to others. “If she can do it, I can do it,” they’ll think.

The positive changes you make for yourself aren’t just positive for you. They can be positive for everyone around you. Eventually, you’ll begin to see it in little ways – and the idea that your actions are helping others in such a subtle fashion can become a nice additional motivator to stay intense.

Share If you begin to really achieve success, you might find it helpful to actually share your success with others. Perhaps you can volunteer to be involved with a help session in the community, or maybe you can just offer advice to your circle of friends. Maybe you’ll find enough initiative within yourself to actually start something new to share your experience, as I did with The Simple Dollar.

Once you begin to share, letting others know of your failures and your successes and how you managed to turn things around, you’ll find that people will listen – and those very people will convince you to continue to be intense about your choices. They’ll ask questions and you’ll want to answer them. They’ll want you to effectively be their “coach” – and that responsibility will push you to excellence, too.

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  1. Jackie says:

    I loved this article! I’m a big list-maker, and years ago I read a great tip– that your success in crossing everything off your to-do list depends in part on whether the items on your list are do-able things. In other words, making a list of huge, abstract goals is not going to be an easy list to work with, or one that is helpful to you in pursuing your goals, and could even make you more frustrated. I think that idea is present in the list you make in this article, which is so great.

  2. Ryan says:

    Trent,
    As a software engineer, I agree wholeheartedly with you.

    Divide and conquer works best.

  3. older 'n wiser says:

    Trent, you’ve given great advice here. IF ONLY, if only, I had been that financially aware and purposeful when my children were little. I hate to admit it but everything was still all about “me” at the time. And, because my children were the only grandchildren of my parents, it was easy to let them do things (too much) when we couldn’t afford to do it ourselves because we had wasted too much money.

    For Eric, whose comments prompted the above post, the answer is YES. YES, you can be “gazelle intense” for however long it takes and can certainly live a “life worth living”. (?????–I’m wondering what your criteria are for this statement.) I can promise you if you DON’T attack with a “gazelle-like intensity” you won’t much enjoy that life. I speak from experience.

    The peace and freedom that comes with the knowledge that you are “taking care of business” or have gotten started on it, with a plan in place is better than any entertainment, “toy”, trip, new car, or eating out experience you can even imagine.

    It took me until I reached the ripe old age of 54 to realize all of the above. Eric, don’t waste those years like I/we did.

    Oh, and MY wake up call? It was when I realized how much my mom had sacrificed while “doing” for her grandchildren and me. We had just come to accept/expect that the “Bank of Meme” had a money tree in a back room. When my mom got sick and I had to pay her bills and get a handle on her finances I nearly fell out at the debt she had accumulated because of us. It literally made me sick to my stomach. I had to put her on a plan but realized we needed to “walk the walk” as well.
    13 months later I have no debt, a fully funded six month emergency account, and a smaller, more immediate needs emergency account.

    Life is good.

  4. Ryan says:

    I really enjoy reading your blog. However, this post doesn’t seem to be related to money in my opinion. This seems like a self-help post or a boost-your-self-confidence post. I don’t intend to be rude but I hope you can appreciate the criticism.

  5. steve says:

    I wanted to comment on this sentence: “For example, if you drive by a coffee shop every day and you’re always tempted to stop in, instead of just saying “I’m not going to stop there today,” say “I’m not going to stop there any more.””

    I find that that sometimes works, and at other times, just making a moderate short term goal/decision, like “I’m going to brink my own coffee for this entire month” works either just as well or as a stepping stone. The goal could be even more moderate, like, “I’m going to bring my own coffee, but on Fridays only I’ll go to the cafe and buy one, even if I don’t feel like it”. How this one works is that (for me) it contrasts the absurd relative expense of buying the coffee at a cafe, with the lack of expense and ease of just packing your own coffee.

    After meeting the shorter term/more moderate goal, I often find that my habits and perspective have changed enough that the old behavior feels “foreign” to me, making it MUCH easier to make a long term commitment since I’m no longer as attached to the routine or habit, having formed a new routine and habit.

  6. steve says:

    So, what I was getting at was that part of the key is changing values. As you change your habits to meet short term goals, you begin to realize that “hey, life is enjoyable like this–I don’t necessarily need to do those things I used to do, they don’t give me enough value to justify their cost to me”. So to some extent, the problem solves itself–your new habits and values become the norm and the old habits and desires fade away. Such a transformation equates to long term change.

  7. liv says:

    i am trying to be an example to my friends. they might be too tired of hearing me talk about this blog though :P

  8. Johanna says:

    I took an approach something like the one steve describes when I went vegetarian six years ago. The thought of never eating meat ever again was a little bit scary to me, so I decided to allow myself to eat meat once a month, as a treat. After 2-3 months of this, meat just didn’t seem that exciting anymore, so I gave it up entirely.

  9. David Andersson says:

    Becoming an example is good, but it can also be hard. Some of my friends in the beginning had a hard time accepting me having a daily budget on expenses like coffee/hamburgers/etc. I rather went to a stand buying a coffee to go and have it at a bench watching people, the sunset or whatever, instead of paying fourth times the price in a coffee shop.

    However, I did turn into quite a boring guy, always arguing the price of coffee.

    I learnt to just prepare to pay a high price if my friends were in majority in favor of coffee shop coffee. Realising that and being prepared – financially – saved a great deal of hardship on my friendship. Nowadays, if I’m not prepared to pay a contingent high price of coffee, I’d rather stay at home to avoid strain.

  10. gaga says:

    I think it’s just like weight loss. It’s not about starving yourself for a month and then going back to your old habits. It’s about a lifestyle change (and in turn an attitude adjustment, etc, etc).

    And like you said, and just like losing weight, setting short term goals like 5 pounds a month vs 100 pounds some time in the future helps with motivation and periodic feelings of success which help keep you on track.

  11. Ryan McLean says:

    Behavioral changes are really important. Often we get stuck in a rut and keep doing the same bad habits over and over again. We need to change our behavior so we can cut our spending and increase our earnings.
    Great post. I am currently $20,000 in debt but I am a fighter and an entrepreneur and I plan to be out of debt completely by Jan 01, 2010

  12. Thanks for these great tips! The second one talking about your son as your driving force really hit home for me. We are expecting in January and I want to make financial decisions that will make his life better.

  13. moneyclip says:

    I think what works for some may not necessarily work for others. Some people are just cold turkey types. They set a goal and go at it like a hyena in a hotdog factory. They seldom stumble and continue unabated until the goal is reached and they’ve attained a sense of accomplishment.

    That said there are those, like myself, who heed the advice listed in this article because it works. We’re not cold turkey people. We’re more like chilly chickens. We need incremental successes with long-term goals to achieve our desires and to necessitate changes in our lives.

    I think several of the 7 tactics are applicable depending on your personality type, either introverted or extroverted. For example, I highly doubt a severely introverted type would be willing to share or become an example to others. That’s not to say they’d never do so, it’s just improbable. Whereas for an extrovert, sharing and becoming an example to others would be welcome tactics for taking short-term intensity into long-term.

    My question lies in how does one address the different characteristics of people with advice like that which Trent gives in this article?

    I think the first four tactics are practically universal. But the last three really depend on the character and personality of the individual as whether those tactics are effective.

  14. Two comments.

    First, directly at Eric’s question. You can’t be gazelle intense for 10 years. The point of gazelle intense is a mad dash to get out of debt. 10 years is a mad dash its a mini-marathon. If that is how the numbers are working out, then the plan needs to change. More income, sell cars and houses, etc.

    As for getting long term motivation, I have found that connecting to a ‘personal context’ to be the most important. Frame your short term action as steps to longer term goals that fill your soul with pure joy, like children, or the perfect career, or working from home, or starting your own business, or volunteering, or travel that you are so excited about you can’t help but attack the short term goals with eagerness and joy.

  15. steve says:

    @ older ‘n wiser, who wrote: “The peace and freedom that comes with the knowledge that you are “taking care of business” or have gotten started on it, with a plan in place is better than any entertainment, “toy”, trip, new car, or eating out experience you can even imagine.”

    Very well said. This is a very key realization, which I think many people who apologetically say “don’t I deserve a treat because I work so hard” etc, haven’t gotten yet. But that’s ok, maybe they will understand it later.

  16. Nick says:

    I’ve helped some friends with their debt issues, and the one thing you just have to keep telling them is, “the sooner you get out of debt, the sooner you can start spending money (responsibly) on the fun stuff.”

  17. Tracy says:

    Gazelle intensity doesn’t have to be a struggle if you do things to make the goal achievement automatic. Things like putting your debt payments on automatic bill pay based on your salary, or having large amounts transferred automatically to savings.

    Doing little things to change habits works better than using ironclad (and often flagging) willpower every day to make a change. If you can come up with ways to make changes that come close to replicating past behaviors that are satisfying, then the changes are more likely to stick. Creating a void (i.e. not eating) in a routine is harder to cope with than behavior changes (i.e. trading potato chips for carrot sticks).

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