Establishing a Difficult but Rewarding Habit

The process of moving from spending all that you earn (or more) to spending significantly less than you earn is an absolutely essential part of gaining control over your finances – and it’s not easy. It involves upsetting a lot of the habits that you’ve established in your life. At the same time, you also have to establish new routines as well. Some of them seem difficult at the start, but it’s easy to see the long term rewards.

If you stop spending money on non-essential things, you’re going to have money left for more important things, but establishing new routines with less spending can be really hard, especially at first.

For example, I used to stop at a coffee shop each day before work. Not only did I need to break that habit to save money, I also needed to establish a caffeine-free beverage habit for my own health. I tried instead to establish a water habit. It was hard. I wanted caffeine and sweet beverages, but I knew the financial and health benefits of making this switch.

This phenomenon shows up in many different avenues of life. When we try to make a change, we have to establish new habits. Those habits are often difficult, but the long-term rewards of that habit are clear.

Going to the gym is a good example of this. When you first start exercising, it’s really easy to wear yourself out, and then there’s also delayed onset muscle soreness which can leave you feeling miserable the next day after you first start exercising. It’s a habit that’s really difficult to start building, but there are great long-term rewards for doing it.

Quite a lot of self-improvement comes down to a person’s ability to establish habits that are difficult to start but are incredibly rewarding over the long haul. Perhaps it’s establishing an hour of reading a day for a non-reader. Maybe it’s something like exercise or starting a water-only beverage routine. All of these can be very difficult to push from the “great idea” stage to the “ordinary part of your life” stage.

Here’s how I make that transition work.

First, I establish a very clear standard for success for a single day. What do I need to do today to make sure that today is clearly a positive day for establishing that habit? I might only drink water today. I might go to the gym today. I might spend an hour reading a book on my shelf. I might spend half an hour doing yoga in the family room. It all depends on what habit you’re trying to establish.

What makes each day a success? It doesn’t mean you have to repeat the exact same thing every day. It just means you need to have a clear threshold of success. Success might be going to the gym each day, but that doesn’t mean you have to do the same thing at the gym. Success might be freezing an extra meal or eating a frozen meal each day, but you don’t have to do this with the same meal.

Second, I focus only on today. Once I’ve figured out that master plan, I worry only about executing today’s portion of that plan. I don’t think about a week in terms of repeating a habit over and over – I’ll let tomorrow deal with tomorrow. My focus is on today – nothing more, nothing less.

Third, I stick up a year-long wall chart. I’ll print off a single sheet of paper that runs for an entire year. Each date square is pretty small. On the top of that sheet, I’ll write the habit I’m trying to establish. Each day I execute it, I put an X on that spot. After a while, I have a strong internal motivation to keep it up, as that long string of X’s becomes very motivating.

I learned this trick from Jerry Seinfeld, actually, and I wrote about it in detail a while back. The key, I’ve found, is to put the calendar in a place where you’ll see it over and over again.

Finally, keep the end goal in mind when things get tough. I’m something of a visual guy, so I usually try to create a picture of my final goal using online images and Photoshop. I’ll print out an image that represents what I want and then I’ll post it right next to that wall chart.

For example, my picture of my workout goal is a picture of me from early in college when I looked really thin. My picture for a particular frugality goal (not buying Kindle books except for one day a month, when I can make good decisions about Kindle books – I wrote about the challenge of forgotten purchases before) is a picture of the Eiffel Tower, where I want to take my daughter (and the rest of my family) in a few years.

At first, I find that all of these motivators and tools are vital. They push my buttons several times a day and get me to actually do whatever it is I’m trying to do. After a while, though, those motivators aren’t the thing that pushes me to keep going. Instead, the routine has become normal and it generally feels “right” to do things the new way. That’s the point you’re working for – until you genuinely feel that way, these other tools will help keep you on the path.

Trent Hamm
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.

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