The Mental Tools That Actually Work When Getting Through a Challenge

It’s no secret to readers of The Simple Dollar that I am passionate about self-improvement. Our financial turnaround is a perfect example of this, as much of that success came from applying self-improvement techniques to our finances. I’ve tried throughout my adult life to apply similar techniques to other areas of my life, sometimes with great success and sometimes with failure.

One thing that my financial journey and other life journeys has taught me is that creating lasting change in your life is very difficult, as it often requires persevering through things that you don’t want to do in order to get a result you really want.

If you want to improve your finances, you’re going to have to skip out on a lot of treats and probably try some life changes that aren’t perfectly comfortable.

If you want to improve your fitness, you’re going to have to exercise hard, and for many people that’s not an enjoyable experience.

If you want to lose weight, you’re going to have to pay careful attention to what you eat and say no to things that are very tempting, and that can be incredibly difficult.

I can go on and on like this, but suffice it to say that self-improvement can be very, very challenging.

This brings me around to a research paper that I recently discovered, entitled Doing Despite Disliking: Self‐Regulatory Strategies in Everyday Aversive Activities, written by Marie Hennecke, Thomas Czikmantori, and Veronika Brandstätter from the University of Zurich, and recently published in the European Journal of Personality.

The paper’s focus is on the strategies that people use to keep pushing through activities that they don’t necessarily find enjoyable in the moment in order to achieve success on a long term goal they have for themselves. Think of a person doing intense exercise or a person being careful with every dime or a person carefully considering every bite they eat.
The paper’s abstract reveals the core results:

“Focusing on positive consequences, focusing on negative consequences (of not performing the activity), thinking of the near finish, and emotion regulation increased perceived self‐regulatory success across demands, whereas distracting oneself from the aversive activity decreased it.”

In other words, these five strategies – which I’ll walk through one at a time – are the ones that actually stood out as statistically significant from the pool of strategies they examined for self-regulation. These are the five things that actually worked.

Let’s look at each one.

Strategy #1: Focusing on Positive Consequences

This means consistently reminding yourself of the good that will come if you succeed in your efforts. For example, you might think of yourself at your target weight if you’re trying to lose weight, or think of yourself performing well at a sport or at an activity if you’re trying to get more fit.

This was a strategy I used with great success during my own financial turnaround. Here are several ways I implemented it.

I posted pictures of the life I wanted to lead in lots of places. I actually taped up pictures of the kind of house I wanted to own in a bunch of places around our apartment and on my rear view mirror in my car. In a couple of them, I even Photoshopped my son in the front yard of the house. I found that the constant visual reminder was a constant nudge to do better.

You can do this by posting lots of little visual reminders in places where you spend time. Post a picture of the house you want to live in or the job you want to have or whatever it is that you want as a goal, so that it stays fresh in your mind.

I adopted a routine of thinking about my goals every day. I thought about how great life would be if I achieved them. This became a part of my daily journaling practice and, beyond that, it became part of the reason for starting The Simple Dollar. I wanted to think about the strategies I was using and how they were leading to this great life that I wanted to have, and reflecting on that great life I wanted and the connection to the strategies I was following made me so excited that I started to share some of that material, and that became The Simple Dollar. The practice of writing for the site back then was a powerful tool in keeping my mind focused on positive consequences, and it still is.

Do whatever you need to do to spend some time thinking each day about that outcome. For me, journaling works really well. For others, it might be as simple as consciously thinking about it during the morning commute. Just find some routine of thinking about the life you want to have, every day, and connect it to the hard choices you are making.

I tracked the dollars and cents I saved and where they ended up going. Simply keeping track of how much money I was saving and then where that money was going was incredibly empowering. Seeing those little day to day actions contributing directly to a positive outcome helped me really see the connections between what I was doing each day and what my big vision was.

Just keep track of your money-saving strategies as well as your efforts to earn more and watch where that money goes. If you find ways to save $10 a day on average and that results in a $300 extra debt payment at the end of the month, that’s real progress on your goals and you can trace it to your daily actions and choices.

Strategy #2: Focusing on Negative Consequences

On the flip side of focusing on positive consequences is a focus on negative consequences – in other words, what happens to you if you don’t make the changes and do the hard things? What happens to your life if you don’t get rid of some of the debts? What happens to your life if you don’t lose the weight? If you sit down and look at your life in the long term if you don’t change, that picture can be extremely negative.

Again, I used this strategy successfully during my own financial turnaround. Here are some suggestions for that kind of implementation.

I visualized the bad outcome for myself in detail and reminded myself of it. This is an exercise that people usually don’t like to do, but it’s so powerful. I just envisioned myself still living in that tiny apartment as I reached middle age, with nothing in the bank to show for all of my work. I likely would never have taken any career risks, so I would have likely been in a poorly-managed field.

Then, I effectively tied that feeling to the apartment I was living in. When I went home to that apartment, I saw it as a sign of failure, of where I might be long term if I didn’t change things.

You can do the same thing. Just visualize your long term future if you don’t change. What does that really look like? How does that make you feel? Then, find some element of your life that’s a stark indicator of the path you’re on and of the destination you don’t want to reach. Ideally, this should be one that you see every day. Think about that element and how it represents the path you don’t want to be on. Eventually, seeing that element of your life will remind you of the path you want to avoid.

I visualized the bad outcome in the lives of the people I cared about the most. In my own life, having a regular vision of what my son’s life would be like growing up if we didn’t change direction really hung over my head. I wanted him to grow up in a home where he felt secure and where there wasn’t constant money stress and professional stress hanging over everything like a rain cloud. My vision of his future centered around living in a tiny apartment with stressed-out parents and a constant edge of not having a secure home life, and I didn’t want that for him. I thought about this often enough that the vision began to be tied to the time I spent with him. Whenever I spent time with him, I was reminded that if I didn’t behave better, I was consigning him to a life I didn’t want for him.

Again, you can do the same thing. Visualize the long term consequences of you not changing on the lives of those you care about most. What does that look like? How does that make you feel? Then, associate that vision with that thing, that place, or that person. Just think about that bad future whenever you’re around the object of your focus and it will remind you that you need to do better in order to do right by this thing you care so much about.

Strategy #3: Thinking of the ‘Near Finish’

The “near finish” refers to pushing through a particularly hard moment because things will be better when that moment is over. Think, for example, of someone working really hard on an exercise at the gym and trying so hard to pound out a few more repetitions of that exercise. Think of someone who is really hungry walking through the aisles of a grocery store. Think of someone who is really tempted to buy a book walking through a bookstore. It’s a trying situation, but that situation will pass shortly.

Focusing on that “near finish” has helped me push through many difficult spending situations where the temptation was high. The key is to keep that “near finish” fresh in one’s mind. Here are some ways to do that.

I visualized myself walking away from situations without spending money BEFORE getting into those situations. So, if I knew I was going to a bookstore, I’d visualize myself leaving that bookstore without anything in hand (other than maybe a list of books to check out from the library). If I knew I was going to a restaurant, I visualized myself ordering a modest meal rather than eating like a horse. Those types of visualizations almost always encourage better behavior.

You can do the same thing. Think about specific situations where you really struggle to finish or to do the right thing over a short period of time, like a trip to a store or to a restaurant or to the gym. Visualize yourself persevering and keep that vision in your head as you approach that particular activity. You’ll find it’s easier to get through it while making good choices.

In the moment, I keep my focus on the end. When I’m at the bookstore and I’m tempted to buy, I think about leaving with just a list of books in hand. When I’m working out and I’m tempted to quit, I think about how that goal I want to achieve is usually just a few seconds away. It reminds me that if I give in now, I won’t be proud of myself, but if I can hang on just a bit longer, I will be and things will be easier.

Again, this is easy to adopt. When the going gets rough, imagine the end of the difficult momentary part and how you’ll feel if you get through it with success. It somehow makes it all easier.

Strategy #4: Regulating Emotion

If you read the full paper, this strategy boils down to staying in a good mood even when a challenge is difficult. You have to figure out ways to accentuate the good moods and cut the bad ones in the bud.

For me, the strategy best works when I am conscious of the negative thoughts I’m thinking and then intentionally quell them when they arise. If I notice myself thinking negative thoughts, I intentionally turn away from them to the best of my ability and try to think positive thoughts. I look for positive traits in things as much as I can, including in myself.

To make that easier, I try to spend less time around and energy on people and things that bring about negative thoughts, and more time around and energy on people and things that bring about positive thoughts.

Being mindful of negative thought patterns and changing those patterns take time and practice. For this, I have found incredible benefit in learning more about and practicing stoicism as well as secular Buddhism. Both of those intellectual traditions provide a lot of tools for doing just that – controlling one’s thoughts to accentuate the positive ones and trim out the negative ones.

In a nutshell, stoicism teaches (in part) that the path to happiness for humans is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself and not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or fear of pain. Secular Buddhism, on the other hand, focuses on the idea that we cling to impermanent things and ideas and that by overcoming that tendency we can find a better life, and it offers strategies for doing just that.

If you want to dig into those topics, I highly recommend my earlier article on how the principles of stoicism can help transform your financial life. For additional reading, I strongly recommend No Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners by Noah Rasheta as a great introduction to secular Buddhism, and How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci as a great introduction to stoicism.

Strategy #5: Avoiding Distraction

Becoming distracted is the single thing that the paper noted as a negative impact on getting through a challenge, and thus avoiding distraction is an effective tool in your arsenal as well.

For me, distraction can be a real problem. I am often pulled away from the things I want to achieve by momentary distraction, and when that happens, my results are often disastrous.

Over the years, I have learned some techniques for overcoming distraction that really help.

First, I fill a lot of my day with “time blocks” and, within those time blocks, I focus on a single task (or type of task). For example, as I write this, I’m in the midst of a “time block” that I’ve set aside for writing. In about an hour, I have a time block set aside for lunch, exercise, and a shower. Later today, I have a few time blocks for spending time with family and for some household chores and a bit of hobby time. I actually do this in Google Calendar at the start of each day and it reminds me when I need to switch to something else. Sticking to those blocks keeps me on task. I don’t have to think about what I’m supposed to be doing. I just do it.

Doing this makes it clear what I need to focus on at any given time, so within a given time block, I intentionally clear away as many distractions as possible. I keep my cell phone turned off quite a lot – sometimes I even leave it in another room. I block distracting websites. I will sometimes turn on music that helps me focus, depending on the task.

I also utilize positive visualization. As I’m getting ready to start on a task, I imagine myself nailing it. If I’m going to go grocery shopping, I think about myself just buying stuff just from my list, flying through the store, and having an amazingly low receipt at the end of the visit. I think about having a great visit with my parents. I think about having a great time with my kids and what that will look like. This almost always gears me up to stay focused on that task.

I find that meditation helps with avoiding distraction. If I meditate for about 15 minutes a day – I just focus on my breathing, note when I lose that focus, and bring my thoughts back to my breathing – it’s like exercising some kind of “focus muscle” in my head and it makes it harder for me to get distracted. It’s one of those things where, if I do it consistently, it helps, but it doesn’t really help if I do it irregularly. It needs to be a daily thing over an extended period for it to help, but I find that the time invested is more than worth it.

Final Thoughts

In my own experience, these strategies really are helpful when it comes to pushing through the hard parts of achieving a goal. There are always going to be hard parts with anything worth doing in life – if there weren’t, everyone would achieve those difficult things. What separates those that succeed from those that fail (or don’t even try) is whether they can persevere through the hard moments.

These are the strategies that work. They’ll help you get through those moments where you’re tempted to spend. They’ll help you get through those moments when you’re tempted to snack. They’ll help you get through those moments when you want to slack off.

Use them seriously and wisely and they’ll help you get to where you want to go.

Good luck.

More by Trent Hamm:

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.