I’m currently midway through the intriguing book Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts and Becoming the Person You Want to Be by Marshall Goldsmith, and I’ve already adopted a tactic from it that’s shown surprising dividends in my life that I wanted to share with you. I’ve actually found a lot of interesting things in Triggers that I intend to discuss at length in the future, but this one tactic is really clicking with me and I wanted to share it as soon as possible.
It’s actually really simple. Think of an area in your life where you’d really like to improve. Many of the areas of improvement are common ones that many of us have – maybe you want to spend less money or eat healthier or get more exercise or become a lifelong learner for your career, or it could be something else entirely. Choose one of them or two of them or whatever works for you, but it’s probably best to start with a small number.
Let’s say your decision is to simply spend less money, ideally as little as possible to still have a joyous life.
At the start of each day, just tell yourself this:
Today, I will do my best to spend as little as possible.
You can write it down (I recommend this, because I find a ton of value in writing things down), or you can read it a few times, or you can even think of it over and over in your head for a couple of minutes like a meditation phrase. Just focus intensely on that phrase for a while.
Then, at the end of each day, sit down and answer this question:
Did I do my best at spending as little as possible?
This isn’t about identifying a specific metric of success, but instead asks whether or not you put forth effort on that behavior you want to implement. For example, some days you might be able to emphatically say “yes” to this even when spending a fair amount of money in a given day if it was a grocery day and you kept your spending super lean at the store.
When you think about that question, you’ll probably find that it’s a bit difficult to give a strong, emphatic yes, but a strong, emphatic no is also hard. It’s usually a mild “yes” or a mild “no” or something in the middle, and that’s okay.
Rather than simply making your answer a “yes” or “no,” answer it in a different way. Score yourself on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is a complete failure and 10 is your ideal. Think about where you’d line up on that scale and give yourself a number.
In reality, this is a way of simply thinking about your effort during the day and focusing that thought down to a single number.
Personally, I find that this question makes me want to write a bit of reflection as part of a daily journal entry. I want to explain my thinking when it comes to that answer, because that question just draws it out of me.
Now, at first, I didn’t think this was all that great of an idea. I honestly only tried it because the book practically begged me to give it a shot, and for the first day or two, it didn’t really click at all for me. I bought a Kindle book I probably didn’t need and I got a fountain drink at a restaurant when water would have been just fine, for example.
On the third day, though, when I woke up and thought about my goal of doing my best in that area, it really clicked. The idea stuck in my mind all day and nudged my behavior constantly. I found myself semi-consciously moving away from a few different spending opportunities, convincing myself I could get it later or find it for a lot less or that I didn’t really need it, and I spent very little money that day at all.
On an ordinary day, I probably would have drained some of my monthly hobby spending and probably not spent optimally at the grocery store, but because I had that thought running through my head all day long, I didn’t. I held off.
It wasn’t because I set some sharp goal for myself, but because I simply committed to doing my best to improve my spending habits.
The next day, I bought a board game that I probably should have been more patient with. It ate up a healthy portion of my monthly hobby budget. The thing is, the voice in my head saying, “WAIT!” was shouting extra loud, but I fought to ignore it.
At the end of the day, I asked myself that question. Did I do my best at spending as little as possible? I couldn’t say yes – in fact, it was an emphatic “no,” and my explanation of it seemed really week. I didn’t need that game, especially not at that price. I might have eventually picked it up, but I certainly could have waited and bargain hunted for it. I gave myself a “3” that day, and I deserved it, and I felt bad about it.
In the days since then, I’ve spent nothing. I simply haven’t not spent a dime on anything in the last handful of days.
What have I been doing? Each morning, I simply write down “Today, I will do my best to spend as little as possible,” and I think about it as I’m doing some of my early morning routine. Each evening, I sit down with a piece of paper and answer the question “Did I do my best at spending as little as possible?” with a bit of explanation and give myself a score from 1 to 10 on it. On days when I spend nothing, I give myself a 10 – can’t get better than that. On days when I’m really really wise with my spending, I give myself a score between 8 and 9. On bad days, the score is lower.
That’s it. It takes about a minute in the morning and maybe two or three minutes in the evening, but it’s really effective at locking a particular behavior in my head.
The key, I think, is that I’m not striving to be perfect, just to put forth real, genuine effort toward the behavior I want to be my “normal.”
Naturally, I’m thinking of applying it to other areas of my life, most notably physical fitness. I want to use it to nudge myself to exercise more, using the same pattern of thinking about doing my best in the morning and then asking whether I actually did it in the evening. I’m not setting some specific standard of success in a given day because days are different – what I’m looking for is initiative and effort and action.
That’s the goal of this idea. The goal here is to encourage you to actually put effort into the thing you want to change in your life. That doesn’t mean subscribing to some harsh and absolute rules, but simply putting forth effort each and every day to move in the direction you want to go.
The repetition of it is intended to ingrain the idea in your head that you should put forth effort today to mover toward the outcomes that you want and that a good day includes a healthy dose of that effort, no matter the specific results.
The idea can be applied to pretty much anything, but it works really well for derailing bad habits (like spending too much money) or implementing good ones (like being nicer or exercising more). The key to it is simplicity and repetition, as it’s the simplicity that makes it do-able twice a day, and it’s the repetition that smashes it into your conscious thought.
If you’re struggling with getting your spending in order (or building any other positive personal habit) and you find that it’s mostly because the effort is lacking in the key moments, try this strategy. Simply start your day by writing down or meditating on the idea that you will do your best today to do whatever it is you’re wanting to do (spend less money, eat healthier food, get exercise, etc.), and then at the end of the day, ask yourself if you did your best in that area and score yourself on a scale of 1 to 10 (I really encourage you to write down that part). That’s it. Give it several days to kick in. I think you’ll be very pleasantly surprised by the effect.
I have found a lot of great ideas in Triggers that apply to personal finance behavior and personal growth and I fully expect to return to the ideas in this book in the future, but I really wanted to share this powerful tactic with you all as soon as possible. It’s easy and it works so well.