Getting Through the “Boring Middle”

Most life changes go through three major steps.

At the start is the “honeymoon phase.” You’re enamored with the big goal you’ve set for yourself. You’re having fun exploring all the new changes you’re making in your life. It’s all novel and interesting. You’re seeing those first steps of progress and it’s super exciting.

At the end is the actual achievement of the goal, which feels great. You did it! You’re able to retire with a healthy retirement income. You’re able to finally launch your business. You’ve lost X pounds. That’s fantastic!

It’s the middle that’s the problem.

The “boring middle” is all of those steps that have to happen after the excitement of the “honeymoon period” wears off but before you even get close to the goal (it can get kind of exciting once you get pretty close to the goal and the destination starts to feel like it’s about to happen).

This is particularly true for financial goals. The “boring middle” for a lot of financial goals is to just keep working and earning an income while the savings for that goal happens automatically.

As the saying goes, “the devil finds work for idle hands to do.” If you’re in that “boring middle,” it’s very easy to find yourself starting to desire the best parts of your old lifestyle before you adopted change. It’s very easy to feel like your current life is “boring.” It’s also quite easy to feel like you’ll never really reach that overall big goal, so what’s the point?

It’s those very temptations and distractions that convince people to “fall off the horse” of their long term goals and fall back into old patterns that don’t lead to the place they want to go. They might still want that long term goal, but the short term temptations and the lack of enjoyable progress overcomes that desire for the big goal.

I’m in the “boring middle” of my own big financial goal, which is essentially a very early retirement for Sarah and myself. We want to spend our fifties doing a lot of things that just don’t make logistical sense with three kids at home, and part of that is having complete freedom from having to work for money (this doesn’t mean that we don’t want to work, we just want to be able to make work decisions without the need for income being a requirement in those decisions).

There is definite “boredom” in the march toward my long term goal, and along with that some temptation to enjoy short term perks. I absolutely feel that tug at times. It would be fun to freely spend some of the money we’re channeling into savings and do some rather pricy things.

What keeps that from happening, though? How do I get through the “boring middle” of my big financial goal? These are some of the things I’m doing that are really helping me stay on the right track. Some of these are transferable to other goals, like weight loss, while others are mostly only applicable to financial goals.

So, let’s dig in. Here’s what I’m doing to try to stay on the right path through the “boring middle.”

Focus on Systems and Daily Routine

This has been a regular theme on The Simple Dollar as of late because I’ve found it so essential as a bridge through the difficult middle parts of many goals, keeping me going when I want to quit.

Rather than focusing on the big goal, my focus is on establishing daily routines and systems such that a normal day naturally takes me a few steps closer to my goal. What kinds of things can I do as the natural part of my day that will move me toward that goal?

Furthermore, I ask myself a variation on that question: what would a financially successful person do today? My big goal implies that I’m a financially successful person, right? That’s who I want to be, right? So, what does a financially successful person do on a typical day?

I list out those traits and behaviors and basic steps, and then I try to live out as many of them as I can, making them into my normal behavior. Some of them are small habits and specific things to do, which I can handle with checklists or to-do lists until they become completely second nature.

For example, what does a financially successful person do each day?

They don’t spend money on foolish and frivolous things without some forethought. That’s a behavioral change I can always work on.

They have automatic transfers and paycheck deductions in place that move their money for them and move them toward their big financial goals. Check.

They don’t needlessly tempt themselves. That’s a behavioral thing I can work on.

I can go on and on listing traits and behaviors and habits like this. The more of them that I adopt, the more I am behaving like a financially successful person, and the more that become natural, the more I naturally am a financially successful person.

You can do this for any big goal. What does a healthy person do every day? What does a fit person do every day? What does a smart person do every day?

I do this myself for other goals with questions like: what does a black belt do every day? What does a well-read person do every day?

Rather than worrying about your big goal, focus on this as a daily goal. Your goal today is to be a financially sound person. If you pull that off well, then your big financial goals will become inevitable.

Have a Lot of Milestones, with Celebrations That Don’t Disrupt the Goal

With almost any enormous goal, there’s a lot of value in breaking it down into progressively smaller pieces. I discussed one system recently, the 5-4-3-2-1 system and how to apply it to financial goals, but this is really about those middle steps, the “3” part of 5-4-3-2-1.

What you’re seeking out is things that constitute a significant step forward toward your big goal somewhere in the timeframe of one to six months. You might choose something like paying off a debt or reaching a certain net worth value or maxing out your Roth IRA for the year. It really depends on what your big goal is and how you’ve broken it down.

When you achieve that medium-term goal that fits into your big goal, find some way to celebrate it. Do something with your wife or with a few close friends. Spend a day doing something fun.

Whatever you do, though, make sure that it’s in line with your goal and isn’t undoing part of it. Don’t celebrate achieving a new low weight by eating a whole pizza and a pound cake. Don’t celebrate a new peak net worth by going on a giant spending spree. Don’t celebrate a new low time on your 5K by sitting on the couch for a week. Find ways to celebrate that don’t undo your goals. Tap into resources you’re not using, like time and energy, rather than the resources you’re using.

I usually celebrate a financial milestone by giving myself a day off of work to have a one day “staycation” to literally do whatever I want. I usually just spend a day delving deep into a hobby. I’ll spend the morning making something, spend the afternoon reading a book, and spend the evening playing a six hour long strategic board game with friends. It’s a wonderful day that doesn’t undo my financial progress. I plan it out in advance and look forward to it.

Find Things You Enjoy Within Your Current Lifestyle

For a lot of people, financial change usually comes along with abandoning a few routines in life that they enjoy. For example, many people delve into their daily routine, find things that they were spending money on every day, and cut them out of their routine.

While this is a great first step, what often happens is that when people hit the “boring middle,” they really start to miss those things that they cut out and they regret getting rid of them. It often starts to create a feeling of unhappiness in life and a sense that there aren’t things to enjoy in life any more.

That’s a bad path to start going down because it almost always ends in either resentment or an abandonment of the big goal.

A much better approach is to find lots of things that you enjoy within your current life so that you don’t miss the things you used to do nearly as much.

When I went through my financial turnaround, I cut a lot of expensive routines out of my life. I gave up golf. I stopped going to the bookstore more than once a month or so. I stopped going to the coffee shop more than once a month or so.

What kept me from missing them after a while was the fact that I didn’t merely replace those things by just sitting at home and feeling bored and feeling self-pity. Rather, I intentionally started finding other things to do with my time.

I started visiting the library and checking out armloads of books, making it my goal to have a big fat list of books I’d actually read than ones I merely owned. I started learning how to cook for myself and experimenting in the kitchen. I got into disc golf, which basically requires a couple of frisbees, and there were multiple free courses close to where I lived. I started participating in a few community organizations and I started going to several meetups. I started getting into hiking. I made it an effort to try new things all the time, too.

Those things filled my time and my thoughts and pretty quickly and efficiently replaced the expensive things I was doing. This went a very long way toward killing the sense of something missing in my life. I wasn’t sitting at home bored – I filled my life with other things.

You can do this with lots of personal goals. If you’re tackling a dietary goal, find lots of foods you like that are in line with your new dietary direction and fill your cupboards with them so that you always have an abundance of choice. If you’re tackling a fitness goal, find a variety of exercises you enjoy that meet your fitness needs so that it doesn’t feel like a drag.

Focus on Other Significant Life Goals with Tangential Benefits to Your Current One

When you’re in the “boring middle” of a big goal that’s occupied your mind for quite a while, it’s easy to just feel burnt out. There’s nothing new to try, it all feels stale, you want something different.

Often, that sense of wanting something different leads straight back to undoing the things that got you to that “boring middle” to begin with. You give up on the goal and revert back to bad habits just to change things up.

A different approach – and one that has worked well for me – is to simply dive into a new goal in life that tangentially helps the previous goal. Combined with having a good set of daily systems and habits, described above, this tends to keep things fresh as it allows you to change focus as needed.

For example, I have five major life goals going on right now that will each see completion sometime in the next one to ten years. I have minimal things I do to move forward on each one, but I find that my intense focus moves from goal to goal. For a while, I’ll be really focused on frugality and cutting spending, but then my focus will shift to working toward my taekwondo black belt, but then my focus will shift to a writing project. While my focus is on something else, I still maintain basic daily steps toward the big goals, but my intense focus is elsewhere.

Most of these goals have synergy with each other, something I’ve discussed before. I view life as being made up of nine or ten spheres: financial, physical, mental and spiritual, intellectual, marital, parental, professional, and social, and they all overlap in different ways. Each of those links, in fact, goes to an article outlining how those areas overlap with one’s financial life. Many of the goals people choose in life directly benefits one or two spheres and then indirectly benefits several others.

For example, one of my major goals right now is earning a black belt in taekwondo. This is a physical goal, as it aids my fitness and health, and a mental goal, but this connects to other areas. It helps me to focus, which helps with professional work, which earns money, which helps financially. It helps me improve my health, which reduces health care costs long term, which helps financially. When I work on this goal, as long as I’m not throwing money at it (which I rarely am), there is indirect financial benefit, plus I’m finding something else to focus my energy on so that I don’t get “worn out” by financial goals.

If you find that you’re in the “boring middle” with a big goal, seek out another big goal in life that doesn’t undermine your current goal. You’ll probably find that there are a lot of little synergies between the two and thus throwing yourself into one goal doesn’t undermine the other and in fact indirectly aids it. Plus, it’ll give your mind and body something else to work on rather than the proverbial devil finding work for idle hands to do.

Surround Yourself with the Right Culture

I’ve touched on these factors in various ways before as separate things, but they really come together as one core idea: you need to be enmeshed in a culture that’s supportive of the direction you want to go in. Financially strong people generally don’t emerge from cultural situations where everyone is living paycheck to paycheck and accumulating debt, for example. You have to find cultural elements with which to surround yourself that encourage financial progress.

So, how do you do that? One healthy step is to hang out with people who are headed in a financially positive direction. Develop friendships with people who aren’t always buying tons of things and are focused on other areas of their life. This doesn’t mean abandoning relationships with more materially-oriented people, but simply building friendships with those who are less materially oriented.

You can also cut down on media consumption that lauds lifestyles in opposition to what you’re working for, and increase media consumption (if you want to) of things more in line with what you’re working for. Stop watching things that are about people who spend lots of money and are rampant consumers. Stop watching things that are loaded with ads or have lots of product placement. Stop watching and reading “news” reports that are little more than ads for new products. Instead, look for sources of entertainment and news that don’t have that focus. What news sources don’t waste time covering new products or other things to buy? What television shows focus on areas of life that don’t involve buying lots of stuff or buying expensive things? What things that you watch or read are loaded with ads? If you can, look for things that actually show the opposite, ones that show frugality in a positive and normal light and ones that show financial progress and hard work as good things.

All of these moves will nudge your thoughts much less in a consumer-oriented direction and much more in a financially responsible direction.

Find Contentment and a Positive Mental State

One final tip, and one that underlies all of these things, is putting in the effort to find contentment and a positive mental state in your life. This means things like reducing stress, recognizing and having gratitude for good things in your life, having an abundance viewpoint about life, having a growth viewpoint about life, realizing that you have “enough” in your life, and recognizing and appropriately treating depression and other conditions. This does not mean being constantly happy or anything like that.

All of these steps are pointing to the same core idea: your life is actually pretty good, especially in the scope of human history, and there are many good things within that life. Capturing that feeling goes a long way toward killing that sense of inadequacy and not having enough that often drives our worst spending impulses.

Again, this does not mean that you’re in a perpetually happy state. Rather, it means that adding more stuff to your life, particularly buying more stuff and consuming more stuff, doesn’t make you happier. Money doesn’t buy happiness. It merely buys little bursts of fleeting pleasure, but then the lack of money actually brings stress and a lack of contentment and that can lead to unhappiness.

Make a conscious effort not merely to find things that make you happy, but to recognize that your life is already abundant and that you don’t really need more – you have enough already, and things are actually pretty good, even if you’re not necessarily happy right now. (We all feel melancholy sometimes, and companies even prey on it.)

Having that kind of mindset makes it easier to handle the “boring middle” of a big goal, particularly a financial one, because it is much easier to recognize that your life is already abundant. Achieving that financial goal just secures that abundant life and opens up even more opportunity, whereas spending money with reckless abandon closes those doors.

Final Thoughts

The “boring middle” of any goal can be dreadfully challenging, particularly as you’re adjusting from the end of the honeymoon period and you’re recognizing that there’s a lot of work ahead of you without a ton of novelty.

Thankfully, there’s a set of tools you can use to help you get through that “boring middle.” Focus on systems and daily routine. Have a lot of milestones, and celebrate them in a non-disruptive way. Find lots of things you enjoy within your current lifestyle approach. Work on other major life goals. Build up the right culture around you. Find contentment and the right mental state. Those tools will make the “boring middle” much easier to get through as you make your way to the goals you’ve always dreamed of.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.