How to Turn What You Read into Financial Action

“But though we are capable of writing and reading these sentiments, though we can praise them as we read, yet they do not bring conviction to us, nor anything like it.” – Epictetus, Discourses: Book Four

It’s a cycle that many of us are familiar with. We read some article on how to improve some aspect of our lives that we’re concerned about, we get all excited and ready to change things, and then we do nothing at all other than read another article the next day and repeat the cycle.

I know this cycle certainly hits home for me. I read stuff about some form of self-improvement, finance, productivity or health every day. A lot of it is exciting and empowering, but I take action on only a very small portion of it.

Yes, some of it is volume — you can’t do everything, after all — but there’s a deeper issue going on here.

When we read an article about a self-improvement topic, whether it’s financial, health or something else, several things can happen that keep us from actually converting that good idea into action.

Sometimes, that idea just doesn’t make sense in our life. It might be something we could do down the road, or something that made sense to our life 10 years ago, but it doesn’t quite click now. You might share that article with your parents, child, great-niece or whatever. It’s got good ideas, just not ones that make actionable sense for you right now.

Sometimes, we just forget about them. We forget the vast majority of what we read. (I’ll come back to this in a bit.) This doesn’t mean we’re bad or that the article or book is bad. It just means we’re human readers.

At other times, the action of reading the article itself feels like accomplishment. It’s similar to how we’ll watch a cooking show and then not translate it to the kitchen because we already have a vague sense of fulfillment about the dish having merely watched a cooking show. (I do this too often with Binging with Babish — I still need to make those nachos.)

At still other times, we actually intend to try out some of the ideas presented, but we just don’t. This happens to me quite often. I’ll think that an article or a book has some great ideas in it, but I just don’t translate those ideas into action.

I have a solution to this conundrum that has been working well for me, but for it to work for you, you have to actually take action on this article. Trust me — following through here will really make a difference.

Whenever you read an article about something to improve yourself, whether it’s a personal finance article here or any kind of article or book anywhere else, ask yourself three questions.

First, is there anything in this article that feels like it could actually improve my life in a way that I seriously want? It’s OK to read something and learn a little from it without translating that into action; that’s not what I’m talking about here. Rather, if there’s an article you’ve read that clearly translates into action in an area of your life where you want to make a change, recognize that. Is this article proposing a change I need to make or really ought to make in my life?

Second, is that proposed change a realistic one for my life situation? Is this something that I could actually pull off, in other words? Often, you’ll read about something that could improve your life in a way that you want to improve but, for some reason or another, you can’t really do it. Maybe a financial article proposes a retirement savings strategy that requires more income than you have or requires a better employer, for example.

If you’re in this situation, where the big picture is something you want to change but the specifics don’t work for you, take action by finding another article on the same “big picture” where the specifics might make more sense. For example, if you read an article about getting started on retirement, something that you really want to do and think you can do, but the strategy described doesn’t apply to you — maybe it requires a workplace 401(k) — take action by finding a different article on getting started on retirement. You might simply Google it by searching for “saving for retirement without 401(k)” or something like that.

Now, the final question: if this article is both relevant to something you personally want to achieve and it describes a method for doing it that makes sense in your life, what is the single action you could take that would get you started on that path? Or, if it’s a list of tips, what is the single tip that makes the most sense to you?

Don’t worry about big all-encompassing strategies or doing fifteen different things at once. That’s what keeps you from actually translating what you read into action (and it’s why I haven’t yet made those nachos from Binging with Babish).

Instead, focus on that one singular thing, that single action that you can take that will really make a difference. Make doing that one single thing a top priority today. Put it on your to-do list or, even better, just go do it right now.

If you read an article about retirement savings without a 401(k) and it all makes sense to you, take action by signing up for a Roth IRA. Not sure which one to sign up for? Look for an article on choosing a Roth IRA and follow that advice.

If you read an article about frugality and it has a bunch of tips on it, go through that list and choose the one that makes the most practical sense in your life, the one that’s obviously going to work for you in your situation. Whatever that tip is, do it. Put it on your to-do list if you must, but even better, do it right away.

If you read an article on a bunch of good frugal ideas for Valentine’s Day and you want to do something frugal but romantic for your partner, go through that list, choose one thing, and do it now. Take whatever action needs to be done today so that it’s in place for Valentine’s Day. Ask your boss for a day off. Make a plan and a shopping list for a home-cooked meal. Write a good first draft of a romantic note. Take one singular action right now to pull something off.

If you read an article on the connection between your physical and financial life and it motivates you to make some changes to your health, choose just one thing and focus on it. Even if it’s just an action you take today, do it. Go on a walk. Eat some extra veggies with your supper and a little less of the main course. Go to bed an hour earlier.

You get the idea.

Now, here’s the real trick: the next day, after you took that action, ask yourself if it worked out for you. Are you glad you did what you did? Chances are you’ll be very proud of yourself for taking action on it, and you should be.

If it’s just the start of something bigger, or something that reaps rewards with repetition, could you do it again today? If so, put that on your to-do list for today, too. Keep repeating it until it’s a habit.

The key to all of this is simple: don’t let a self-improvement idea that really strikes a chord with you sit there undone. Reading it isn’t enough. Feeling that sense of finding a good idea that would work for you isn’t enough. Translate that into action, but don’t overcomplicate it. Just choose one singular action to take from that article.

Don’t worry if it’s something small and seemingly inconsequential, like eating a few extra veggies or going to bed earlier or writing a draft of a romantic note. It’s fine that it’s small. What’s important is that you did something.

Personal finance articles and books, along with all other self-improvement materials, are great to read. They can inspire you and fill you with great ideas for a better future. However, they don’t mean a whole lot if you just read a really powerful idea and don’t translate it into action in your life.

Make it a point that, when you find an article that describes something really powerful and meaningful to do, you actually translate that into one single meaningful action. Do just one thing. Don’t try to do it all – that’s overwhelming. Break it down to just one step, do that one step, then ask yourself tomorrow how you feel about it.

That’s how real change begins. It doesn’t come from reading an article and forgetting about it. It doesn’t come from trying to change everything all at once. It comes from that one meaningful action.

Good luck!

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.