One of the best articles on self-improvement I’ve ever read popped up recently on the Deadspin blog. Titled The Public Humiliation Diet (note: some language NSFW), it describes how Drew Magary, the author of the post, lost sixty pounds in five months without doing anything too incredibly radical. He just implemented twelve simple rules in his life, and here they are, in summary (the whole article is worth a read, though):
1. I bought a scale.
2. I weighed myself daily.
3. I posted that weight daily on Twitter.
4. I never ate after dinner.
5. I didn’t snack except for fruit.
5. I didn’t have seconds.
6. I didn’t eat sweets.
7. I avoided carbs, but didn’t go nuts about it.
8. I drank a [lot] of unsweetened green tea.
9. I drastically cut down on boozing.
10. I made sure everything I ate was [very] AWESOME.
11. I exercised, but that hardly mattered.
12. I took a fiber supplement.
All of these specific tips really boil down to five principles.
You shouldn’t be ashamed of where you start. Guess what? No one is perfect in life. An awful lot of us are overweight. An awful lot of us are in deep debt. An awful lot of us can’t play the piano. An awful lot of us can’t write computer code. An awful lot of us don’t read as much as we ought to. Do not be ashamed of where you’re at right now. The big thing is to be proud that you’ve decided to accept a major goal for yourself and that you’re actively working to improve your current state. The past is water under the bridge – we all start from where we’re at now, not from where we were at ten years ago when things were “better.”
No individual step you take while making a change in your life should be radical. Major changes to how we behave are almost impossible to perfectly implement. Going from spending thousands a month on unnecessary stuff to spending nothing at all will rarely work for more than a week or two. Why? Because whenever you make a major change like that, you’re derailing a lot of tiny routines and habits, not just one. Humans are creatures of habit, and derailing even the simplest routine can be hard. Derailing lots of simple routines all at once can be incredibly hard. Make small changes, observe small victories, and be patient. It’s far better than yo-yoing, where you make a radical change, see some great success immediately, then fall off the horse and find yourself back where you started.
You should keep careful track of the change you’re making in your life. If you can, find a specific number that you can calculate by which to judge your progress. Your net worth. Your total debt. Your weight. Your 5k time. Your morning blood sugar. Find a way to track your progress so you can see the steady improvement over time.
If this is impossible for your big goal, start keeping a journal and write a daily entry describing your progress towards your goal. The key is to be mindful of the changes you’re experiencing over time.
You should make yourself directly accountable to others, preferably daily. You’re already tracking the changes. Now share the tracking of those changes with others.
The internet makes this really easy. If you’re just tracking a number, open a Twitter account (I have one where I post all kinds of stuff) and post that number each day (along with the change since yesterday and the change since the start). If you’re doing a journal, start a blog about it and put your journal entries there.
Next, share those postings with others. This takes courage, but it’s well worth it. Just share the URL where you’re posting this stuff with the people you care most about. They’ll cheer you on and hold you accountable. When you’re about to make a bad choice, you’ll be forced to reflect on the people that are watching – and that will become a very powerful motivator.
You should substitute the worst stuff for something approximately the same but less costly. If you eat a lot of sugary or carb-dense snacks, just substitute your favorite kind of fruit. Replace a candy bar with a banana or a piece of watermelon. They’re both sweet and tasty and one is substantially better than the other.
The same holds true for spending. Replace buying a new book with a trip to the library – you get a book either way. Replace clothes shopping at a high end store with a trip to the thrift shop – you’ll get clothes either way. The more such substitutions you make, the easier it is to spend less.