Developing Self-Control and Perseverance

Laurie writes in:

My main observation though is the constant path of self control and perseverance you seem to follow. I commend you highly for being able to do this. I guess my question is, even though you manage to make it all sound so (sometimes not) simple and using a lot of common sense, how does the everyday person find or learn the right mindset to stay on the straight and narrow so that it becomes more or less second nature? That seems to be a lot of my problem and I’m sure many others. It’s easy to get all gung-ho about an idea and run with it, but how do we stay the course? I’m not so much speaking about getting off track and totally blowing the bank, but how do you manage to keep such a positive attitude about things for so long? Can this kind of mindset be taught do you think?

It’s difficult at best to show young people why they should be looking so far ahead into the future, and those of us older folks know it’s only a matter of time before some kind of event comes along and knocks us off our feet. “How” do we develop that “no matter what” fortitude? Are there any type of books (other than the run-of-the-mill self-help) that could help build a plain ‘n simple better outlook on (financial) life? It seems to me that it’s mostly inherent in a person. You either have it or you don’t. Some have it but don’t know exactly how to direct it, (which is why we look to you and others), and others have none but could surely benefit from some conditioning.

Laurie’s question hits upon a fundamental part of personal finance success – and, frankly, success in a lot of areas. How exactly do you maintain the level of self-control and perseverance needed to succeed in the long term? That question applies to countless areas, from health to money to careers to hobbies.

I think the best way to start is to tell my own story. Give it some time – there is a point.

When I was in college, I was a pretty unfocused person. I could certainly bear down on a specific project for a short period if I needed to, but I could never sustain anything. I got good enough grades to get through, but I would often get A’s in difficult classes that interested me (theory of programming languages and mathematics of biological algorithms come to mind) and C’s in classes I didn’t care about.

After college, I took a job where I was immediately tossed into the deep end of the swimming pool on a very difficult project. I was handed a legacy database system with a poor web interface that had been built piecemeal over several years and essentially told to modify it into something modern so that people using the interface could easily extract data from it. I worked with one other guy whose experience was in databases, and the two of us were essentially given about six months to come up with a highly functional prototype or else hit the road.

I spent those six months (the middle of 2002) focusing intensely on this project. It consumed me. I worked on it night and day. I thought about it when I woke up and when I went to bed. I taught myself a new programming language, the ins and outs of a database system I’d never seen before, and the details of data sets that I had never even heard of before I started the job.

At the end of those six months, I was completely blitzed. I essentially spent the last bit of that year falling back into an unfocused state, mostly due to burnout.

What I noticed at the end of the year, though, was that the big thing I accomplished during the year was the thing I focused on. I didn’t accomplish much of anything outside of those six months.

I spent a lot of the next two years essentially working on my ability to focus on large projects. I wrote a novel. I started a social media site similar to reddit (I eventually closed this down due to lack of users). I started a blog on parenting that became rather popular (I shut it down due to some privacy invasion issues, lessons that I carried forward to The Simple Dollar). I started investing for retirement.

What I found was that focus on a goal takes practice. It’s not something that comes naturally to a lot of people. Yes, some people have a gift for focusing on a specific goal and carrying it home, but it is certainly not something that comes naturally to me.

Why? I think that in the day-to-day lives of many people, long term goals don’t really have a vital place. They get up, they take care of basic life duties, they go to work or to class, and they relax. They don’t feel a real push to focus on a long-term goal.

Then, when they do feel the urgency of such a goal, they’re simply not mentally prepared to take on that kind of long-term planning and focus. They’ve never invested themselves in a project that didn’t pay dividends within a month or two.

I spent the first two decades of my life in that pattern and it was hard to break out of it. I think there were three things that really changed the story for me.

I completed a long term project after sticking with it for a while. For me, it was that software prototype that I mentioned above. Simply sticking with that project for so long with such focus was very hard and the sense that I had actually achieved something so big really stuck with me.

How can you do this? I would just select a large project that you’d like to accomplish, put my nose down, and make it happen. Maybe you’ve always wanted to write a novel. Maybe you’ve always wanted to run a 5K in under 30 minutes. Whatever it is, set that as your goal and then take action every single day to get there. You’re not just doing this to complete the specific goal, but to show yourself that you can carry off something big.

I made a conscious choice to regularly think about my future self. I actually started putting aside time to think about the situation that I would be in a year from now and five years from now. The more I thought about those future versions of myself, the more I wanted to make their lives better. It became easier to convince myself not to go to the bookstore or to work harder on this project if I knew that it would really benefit my future self.

How can you do this? Think in detail about where you’d like your life to be in a year, and then in five years, and then in twenty years. What aspects of your life do you really want to be included?

Then, look at every choice you make today through that filter. Which choice that I make today will make that “future me” have a better life? I can’t even tell you the number of times this very thought has made me focus on a task at hand or choose not to spend money. I just always reflect on that future self.

I hesitate. I find myself doing this all the time. Whenever I’m about to make a decision where I’m going to use a significant amount of time or spend any money, I stop for a bit and simply ask myself if this is really what I want to do. Yes, sometimes I still go ahead with it, but quite often, I stop in my tracks and make a better choice.

This goes hand-in-hand with thinking about my future self, since it’s that picture of the future that I want to have that I use when I hesitate.

How can you do this? Work hard on establishing a habit of hesitation. Whenever you’re about to spend any money or you’re about to spend some time, stop for ten seconds and ask yourself why you’re doing this and what you’re hoping to get out of it. Think about what else you could do with that time or that money.

You won’t always make the “good” decision – no one does – but you’ll start increasing the frequency of making “good” choices.

In the end, it’s all about practice and establishing good habits. The more you do it, the more natural such choices become and the easier it gets to accomplish something great.

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