Creating Motivation and Discipline for Change

As I mentioned in yesterday’s article, I’m currently rethinking my plans for how I save up for large personal “fun” expenses. My first trial run with this is saving for a trip with friends next August.

What I’ve decided to do is use this trip as a motivating “carrot” to strongly push myself to get more exercise.

The Motivation Log

Here’s how it works. As of right now, I have nothing whatsoever set aside for this trip. I’m not going to directly save for it, either.

Instead, I just created a new line item in our budget. It’s $50 a month for “self improvement motivation.” At the same time, I reduced my monthly “personal spending” by $50 to make up for it.

Starting today, I’m creating a log book that lists each time I reach a very simple exercise goal. Whenever I reach one of my relatively simple goals, I just add a line to this log book. One of those goals, for example, is to walk 12,000 steps in a day. Simple enough, right? I have a pedometer and whenever I reach my step goal for the day, I write an entry in that log. I have a few other simple goals along those lines that will force me to improve my physical fitness.

When July runs around, I’m going to tally up all of the lines in that log and that’s the dollar amount I’m allowing myself to spend on that trip (excluding housing).

My trip budget is entirely reliant on my willingness to get off my rear end a little bit and exercise.

Now, in order to make the trip better than misery, I’ll need to exercise. If I want to make it a great trip, I’ll need to exercise a lot. There’s really no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

When I go, I’ll want to eat out a few times with my friends. That’ll eat up $15, which means I’ll need to hit 15 exercise mini-goals for that meal. If I want to buy a $20 board game, I’ll have to need to hit 20 exercise mini-goals. If I want to eat out five times and also buy a game, that’s 95 mini-goals between then and now.

Thus, each time I think about exercising (and talk myself out of it), I’m now forced to envision now nice the trip has been in earlier years and how nice I want it to be in the coming year. It’s a huge motivation to get up and move.

From Idea to Motivation

Naturally, this is just one type of personal motivation. There are many, many ways to motivate yourself. I consider the strategy above to be a fairly forceful type of motivation, but it’s just one option in a much wider palette. Here are some other motivational tactics.

Fill your life with reminders of why. When I first started establishing better buying habits, I motivated myself by literally wrapping my credit cards in pictures of my infant son. Seeing him would remind me that I needed to be more careful with my spending. My son was my motivation and putting reminders of that in key places nudged me toward better choices.

Read stories of the success of others. Look for websites and books that tell the stories of how other people overcame similar challenges to what you’re overcoming right now. Not only will you see that others have actually done this, you’ll also get some good tactics on the specific new behavior you’re trying out.

Set a realistic goal with attainable short-term milestones. Let’s say you want to lose one hundred pounds. That can seem like an enormous goal. Rather than focusing on that goal, set smaller goals such as “I want to lose one pound this week.” That’s something you can grasp and target in the next few days, and it can leave you with a sense of real accomplishment.

Set short-term goals oriented toward behavior, not outcome. Even better than the “one pound this week” goal would be a goal along the lines of “I will exercise five times this week” or “I will eat less than 1,600 calories six days this week.” The loss of one pound isn’t something you can directly control, but you can control how you use your time and energy and what you put into your mouth.

The important thing to remember is that motivation really only helps give you that initial push. Motivation can get you out the door the first few times, but if it does not eventually turn into a habit, it will die on the vine. You need a plan to turn those first motivation-fueled activities into lasting habits.

From Motivation to Discipline

The goal here isn’t just to get myself in shape. The goal is to turn exercise into a normal part of my daily routine, so normal in fact that I don’t even think about it. The goal is to turn this motivation into lasting discipline.

I have a whole toolbox of things that I know work well in terms of turning a burgeoning routine into a natural habit.

Schedule it. Block off a piece of time on your schedule to devote to this new habit you’re trying to establish. Make it into an appointment on your calendar so that you’re not “penciling in” other things during that time. My exercise is penciled in for the hour before my children get off the bus because my ability to productively write is low by that time of the day. For some, scheduling a new habit first thing in the morning might work well, too, or perhaps scheduling it for the first thing after work at 5 or 6 PM.

Chain it. Print off a year-long calendar on a single sheet of paper (you can find endless versions of this on Google). Each day when you complete your scheduled habit, fill in that day on the calendar with a giant X. Once you start getting a streak going, that streak begins to have a sort of power on its own. You don’t want to break the streak.

Eliminate decisions. The fewer decisions you have to make, the better. Your goal is to make this new routine so automatic that you don’t have to think about it. Establish a pattern and chop away as many daily choices and options as possible. If you’ve reached a point that you know exactly what to do without any decisions when your scheduled time comes around, you’re on the right path. That type of thing just imprints itself into your brain.

Minimize resistance. This goes hand in hand with eliminating decisions. Your goal should be to make the transition into this new habit as simple as possible without any obstacles in the way. Put your workout clothes in a place where you’ll run into them at the exact right moment to start exercising. Toss out your junk food as you begin to establish better dietary habits. Make it so that it’s easier to actually do things the “good” way and harder to do things the “bad” way.

These are fascinating tools, but how can you use them for personal finance changes in your life. Here are five examples.

“I Want to Be Free of Debt”

This is a laudable goal, one that was a big part of my life for several years. Achieving debt freedom unlocks so many doors in life. It kills off a lot of stress and gives you many, many options for life that just weren’t there before.

From Idea to Motivation

Fill up your life with reminders of “why.” What is your reason for wanting to make this change? What is it that you really want here? Find a clear visual indicator for whatever that “why” is and post them everywhere. It might be something you’re wanting to protect – like me with my son – or it might be something you want to work toward – like a new career. Post those reminders everywhere. I found wrapping a picture around my credit cards helped.

Read success stories. There are many, many blogs out there concerning people in debt. Mine started off as one of them – you can read my story from the beginning. All you have to do is Google “debt blog” to find a ton of examples of debt freedom success stories that can inspire you and show you not only that you’re not alone in your struggles, but that it actually can be done.

From Motivation to Discipline

Eliminate decisions. Set up a debt repayment plan so that you know exactly what debt you should be paying off this month. Stop carrying credit cards in your wallet and delete them from your preferred e-commerce sites, too, so that you don’t even have the option to make bad spending decisions. The fewer decisions, the easier it is to just do it.

Schedule it. Automate as many payments as you possibly can and then focus your energy on scraping together money for an extra payment to whichever business is at the top of your list. Make it so that you don’t even have to think about making positive movement on your debts.

“I Want to Save for Retirement.”

Planning ahead for retirement is a laudable goal, but it can be an intimidating one, particularly for people who are already stretching their paychecks. This is one of those big ideas that seems important but not urgent, so many people put it off.

From Idea to Motivation

Set a realistic goal with attainable short-term milestones. You do not need to save everything today, but you do need to save something today. Start off by saving just a little bit. Put aside 2% of your check into your 401(k) and see how that goes. It’s just a few dollars per paycheck. Then, if that’s easy, bump it up. Give it a healthy bump each time you get a raise so that your paycheck doesn’t change at all (if you get a 3% raise, for example, move your contribution up by 3%, from, say, 4% to 7%).

Read stories of the success of others. You can find tons of retirement success stories via Google, but here’s my own. I’m in my mid-thirties, as is Sarah, and we both already have about twice our annual salaries saved for retirement. If we just keep bumping along at our current pace – a savings rate we don’t even really notice – and the market continues to go up at about 7%, we would be able to retire at age 65 with basically no reduction in overall income (Social Security plus retirement savings). It can be done.

From Motivation to Discipline

Eliminate decisions. Don’t rely on yourself to make contributions manually. Set it up so that the money is taken out automatically so that you don’t even have to think about it. It just happens for you. The automation just takes care of it.

Chain it. Retirement savings doesn’t work by saving a mountain of money right now. It works by chaining together a lot of weeks where you successfully make a much smaller retirement payment. Dropping $40 every week into retirement for 30 years (at 7% a year), which is a pretty forgettable amount, adds up to over $200,000 in the kitty. It’s the power of the chain – doing it over and over and over again.

“I Want to Buy a House”

Buying a house is a major life milestone for a lot of people. It’s something to genuinely look forward to and it becomes a moment of great pride for many. The catch? It’s one of the first truly intimidating financial goals that people deal with in their lives.

From Idea to Motivation

Fill your life with reminders of why. Go online and find some pictures of a house you’d like to buy, then put those pictures everywhere. Wrap your credit card in those pictures. Post them on your refrigerator and on your computer monitor and on the rear view mirror in your car. Set the image on your phone to the house you’d like to buy. Change them regularly so that they don’t just become familiar things that you don’t even notice.

Set short-term goals oriented toward behavior, not outcome. Set some short term savings goals, but focus more on ways in which you can consistently save rather than big bursts of money. Commit to chopping your grocery spending by 20%, then take that 20% and put it straight into savings. You can achieve that simple goal every single week!

From Motivation to Discipline

Eliminate decisions. Once you’ve adopted some new routines that revolve around spending less money (like better grocery habits and better energy efficiency in your home), set up an automatic savings plan for your goal. Ask your bank to start taking, say, $50 a week out of your checking account and put it into your savings. The let that money just sit there and grow and grow. After a year, that’s $2,600. Push it harder and make it $100 a week – after a year, that’s $5,200. At that rate, you’ll have your down payment in no time and you won’t have to think about each choice.

Chain it. The key with savings success is always chaining them together. Sure, it’s nice to drop a big lump sum in at once, but the real success comes from linking together a constant chain of little savings moves. Saving $100 once is great, but it only takes six weeks for a commitment to $20 a week to pull ahead.

“I Want to Cut Back on My Spending”

People often want to prepare for the other goals on this list by cutting back on their personal spending. We’re all tempted to spend, after all, so finding ways to trim back on that spending smartly – without adding a lot of life misery – is a powerful thing to do.

From Idea to Motivation

Fill your life with reminders of why. You’re cutting back on your savings so that you can… do what? What’s your goal? Do you want to trim your debt so that you can leave behind your job and your troll boss and do something more meaningful? Find a picture of that meaningful job and plaster it everywhere. Want to save for a house? Plaster house pictures all over the place. Constantly remind yourself why you’re doing this.

Set a realistic goal with attainable short-term milestones. In other words, build a budget and define (realistically) what you’ll spend in each significant category in your life. A budget that has realistically attainable numbers can itself be a great motivator. You see a target that you know you can reach with a few good choices, so you strive for it!

From Motivation to Discipline

Schedule it. You can schedule and plan ahead for a lot of your spending. For example, pencil in a set time to buy groceries each week, then plan for that week’s worth of groceries by building a shopping list before you go. Put aside an afternoon once a month to make a pile of “make ahead” meals. You get the idea – actually add things to your schedule that encourage good spending behavior.

Minimize resistance. Keep that grocery list on the front of your fridge with a pen attached to it – that way, there’s basically no resistance to adding items as you see them missing. Leave your credit card at home before you go shopping – that way, there’s no way for you to be overcome with temptation to buy stuff you don’t really need.

“I Want to Start a Side Business.”

Many people are fascinated by the idea of running their own business where they get to make the rules and create or sell products to their satisfaction. The problem is that many businesses require seed money and all businesses require constant effort and attention.

From Idea to Motivation

Set a realistic goal with attainable short-term milestones. In other words, create a business plan before you ever start that describes what you’re going to do, what you hope to build, how you hope to achieve it, and how you’ll overcome some of the obstacles in the way. This plan should end up providing you with clear guidelines for what you need to do all along the way.

Read stories of the success of others. Few things are as inspiring and motivating as hearing the success stories of others. These can be found all over the place; there are countless tales of one or two guys or gals starting a side business in their garage because they were passionate about something and gradually building it into something amazing. This can turn a vague idea into something much more real and exciting.

From Motivation to Discipline

Schedule it. Put aside a firm block of time each day (or each week) to build this side business. Add it to your schedule and do what you need to do to make it happen. That block is vital. During that time, everything else goes out the window. That time is your business time. Make the magic happen.

Minimize resistance. Do whatever you can to make each batch of work seem appealing. Personally, my favorite part of writing is taking an idea and researching it, so I try to include a pure “brainstorming and research” session at least once a week (often twice a week). I basically intermix the most fun things with other things that might not be as much fun (such as formatting articles) so that I can always have something fun to look forward to when I sit down for a work session.

Final Thoughts

Short-term change in your life comes from motivation. Motivation is what you need to take action right this minute, to make a tough choice in the here and now.

But motivation doesn’t last. It won’t bring you permanent change. It’s a well that you can go back to a few times, but eventually it runs dry.

That’s when you need discipline. Discipline steps in to ensure that you keep moving forward when the motivation runs dry.

The two walk hand in hand. You need them both for real change. You need that initial spark to get you started – that comes from motivation – and you need that continuing perseverance to keep rolling forward when it’s not as easy – that comes from discipline.

Bring both to the table and you can succeed at pretty much anything you put your mind to.

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.