Why Internal Solutions Trump External Ones

If you’re reading this, you’re likely a problem solver of some kind, and the problem you identified was likely related to your personal finances. Finding a solution to that problem led you, in some fashion, to The Simple Dollar – maybe it was a Google search or a link from a friend or something else.

Financial problems come to us in various shapes and sizes and they appear in a number of different ways. Maybe you lost your job and are really struggling to make ends meet. Maybe you’re just treading water financially and your debts aren’t really going away. Maybe you’re in good financial shape but you’d like to prepare yourself financially for a career change because you’re unhappy with some aspects of your career. All of these approaches have a central theme in common: We all want to improve our lives.

When a problem presents itself in life, we tend to attack it in a number of different ways, depending on our personality. Some of us turn it over and over in our minds, trying to decipher the specifics of the problem as clearly as possible. Some of us simply try to work around the problem. Others want to quickly face it head on and dive immediately into a search for solutions.

Personally, I tend to stew over a problem for a while, writing it out in my journal and digging into it until I’m sure I understand what the root cause is. Then, I start researching methods for fixing that root cause – I’ll do Google searches and read books and even talk it over with friends who have handled that problem.

Sometimes, if I’m lucky, a solution will just fall into place. Someone will give me the key to fixing the problem and suddenly everything’s better. At other times, I have to figure it out on my own, make changes to my own behavior, and put in a lot of work.

External Versus Internal Solutions

The first type of solution is what I call “external solutions.” External solutions are solutions that come from an external source that we have no control over. Maybe your great uncle Winthrop suddenly leaves you $200,000. Maybe you buy a lottery ticket and win a prize. Maybe a friend says, “Hey, I have an extra freezer in my garage and you can have it.” Maybe your boss suddenly comes to you and says, “Your hard work has been noticed and so here’s a 10% raise.” These types of solutions have varying degrees of likelihood – there are steps you can take to somewhat increase the chances of external solutions, but they’re really not solutions that can be relied upon.

External solutions, in my mind, are in the land of daydreams and luck. They’re things that are wonderful if they happen, but you can’t really rely on them. That doesn’t mean that it’s not worthwhile to cultivate them and increase the chances of their occurrence (here are some real ways to increase your “luck” and a discussion about how hard work complements “luck”), but if a real problem is pressing you, don’t expect an external solution to save the day.

My interest is in the other kind of solution to problems – the “internal solutions.” Internal solutions are ways in which you can solve a problem via personal action, but you have to make the decision to take that action. These usually involve some sort of personal effort and typically a significant amount of it.

For example, if you observe that you’re just treading water financially and you decide to solve this problem by changing your own spending habits and using that surplus to get rid of debts and start saving for retirement, that’s a prime internal solution to a problem. If you observe that your career isn’t going anywhere and you decide to solve this problem by getting some certifications and polishing your resume so that you can move to a new position, that’s an internal solution. If you observe that you’re overweight and you decide to solve this problem by counting your calories and learning how to naturally consume fewer calories during the day, that’s an internal solution. Internal solutions are all about actions you take to cause a particular outcome, whereas external solutions are actions taken by others that cause an outcome in your life.

Often, when people say that something is hopeless, they believe the only route to success is either an external solution – outside of their control and usually among the high-benefit but low-likelihood end of the spectrum – or a prohibitively hard internal solution – radical frugality, working four jobs, etc. Because external solutions are out of our control and many internal solutions are very difficult, we often buy into the notion that change is basically impossible.

High Intensity Versus Low Intensity

While people sometimes find success due to an external solution falling on their lap and people occasionally find success pushing through a high-intensity internal solution, I’ve found that most of the success I’ve found in my life in terms of solving life problems comes from low-intensity internal solutions.

A low-intensity internal solution is one where we are directly taking action to cause the change we want, but that action isn’t an intense life change in and of itself. Low-intensity internal solutions are things we can pull off in our life with relative ease. Often, low-intensity internal solutions come off like common sense – when one occurs to you, it feels like a “why didn’t I think of that?” idea. They feel like common sense.

My belief is that low-intensity internal solutions are almost always the best solutions for life’s problems. They don’t rely on others to “save” you, they don’t require major life changes, and they’re not complicated, either. They just work. They might not individually create an enormous change in your life, but they nudge the trajectory you’re on in a meaningful way and that really adds up over time.

Why Doesn’t Everyone Use Them?

So, why don’t we automatically solve all of our life problems with low-intensity internal solutions? There are a lot of reasons, but four of them bubble to the surface.

First, low-intensity internal solutions still require effort. They’re not effortless. They usually require a burst of up-front effort or a small amount of ongoing effort to implement. You can’t just sit on the couch and watch it magically happen with zero effort.

Second, people believe that the only way to really change is either an external solution or a high-intensity internal solution. People often buy into the idea that they can’t change their life without a huge windfall coming in or a radical shift in their life in which they give up tons of things that they actually value. They don’t even consider low-intensity solutions.

Third, people feel like low-intensity internal solutions are just common sense and blow them off. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been told that the solutions I used to turn our financial life around were “common sense,” as though that somehow invalidated them. They might be “common sense,” but the vast majority of Americans aren’t actually doing them… so maybe they’re not as “common sense” people think they are.

Finally, they’re often not very glamorous. People want to hear the story of how someone lost 115 pounds quickly by making major life changes. They don’t want to hear the story of someone who lost 25 pounds over several months making a straightforward life change. They watch “The Biggest Loser,” not “The Moderate Loser.” Low-intensity internal solutions usually don’t feel like the big splashy life change that attracts people, so they get overlooked.

How Low-Intensity Internal Solutions Turned Around Our Finances

Let me make this very clear: Our financial turnaround wasn’t a high-intensity solution, at least once we got past the “honeymoon” phase; rather, we just used a handful of low-intensity solutions that stuck around. Our solution wasn’t a radical life change, but a lot of small tweaks. The basic flow of our life didn’t really change at all, honestly.

For example, I used to spend a ton of money on books. Instead of going to the bookstore frequently, I just switched to going to the library to browse books. Instead of hitting Amazon when I hear about a great book title, I just switched to using my library’s online book reservation service.

Sarah and I used to eat out a lot. Instead, on a night-by-night basis, we made an effort to eat at home. Simple change: unless it’s really really difficult, we’ll just eat something we made at home. Often, it was something really simple – a pot of spaghetti with some sauce on top or some scrambled eggs and toast. Over time, cooking at home got easier and easier and now I’d honestly rather make a meal at home than eat out regardless of the costs, and eating at home is way cheaper.

We used to go out with friends a lot. Our only change here was that we just started hosting stuff at our house – potluck dinner parties followed by a movie or a board game or something like that. Over time, we started accentuating friendships that were really on board with this and de-emphasizing friendships that weren’t.

We used to buy name brand everything. Rather than buying the name brands, we just started buying store brand everything and only switched back to name brands if there was a problem. This is the definition of low intensity change.

The thing is, each of these low-intensity solutions alone wouldn’t bring about big financial change, but none of them were really very hard, either. What we did was simply do a bunch of them at once and, because they were pretty easy (especially with a bit of practice), most of them just stuck as new normal life behaviors.

That’s really the secret of low-intensity internal solutions – they usually just end up feeling like the natural way of doing things if you do them for a while. It feels normal to buy everything in store brand form. It feels normal to cook almost all meals at home. It feels normal to have our social lives revolve around dinner parties at home and community events. It feels normal to get almost all of my books from the library. I could list a lot of these things – they’re just things that have become normal for me now, but they cost a lot less than my old, bad way of doing things.

For me, whenever I’m wanting to make changes to my life, I look at low-intensity internal solutions first. I might want to make big radical life changes to see big results immediately, but I’ve witnessed time and time again that it’s the little low intensity solutions that really stick and really add up to meaningful change over time.

Low intensity internal solutions have helped me fix a lot of relationship problems. Low intensity internal solutions have helped me navigate career changes and put my career on a great path. Low intensity internal solutions have helped me improve my health. They always come through when I see a problem and I want to make changes.

My Process for Finding Low-Intensity Internal Solutions

Over the last decade or so, I’ve developed something of a process for taking a problem I see in my life and solving it via low-intensity internal solutions that eventually just become my normal process of life. Let’s walk through those steps.

The first part, of course, is noticing and identifying the problem. Something’s not right in my life. I’m unhappy with something. What is it? I usually spend some time thinking about this, because I don’t want to go off making changes to things that aren’t really the source of the problem.

What I usually try to do is look for specific things I don’t like, then ask myself why those things are the way they are. I repeat that “why” question five times, and then that fifth answer is usually very close to the core problem.

This isn’t a snap judgment kind of thing. If I notice some things that are out of place in my life, I try to evaluate each of them and see if they lead back to a common core problem.

When I’ve identified a core problem that i want to solve, I try to identify all of the choices in my life that I’ve made recently that are leading to this problem. I focus on my choices. I don’t worry about external events. I don’t worry about other people’s behaviors. I worry about what I chose to do.

If I don’t feel like my relationship with Sarah is going well, I start to look at how I’ve behaved recently in relation to her. How have I been acting as a husband when we’re together?

If I feel overweight, I start to look at every situation in which I consume food. What am I doing in each of those situations?

If I feel like I don’t have enough money to go around, I start to look at every situation in which I spend money. Are each of these decisions wise?

What I’m trying to do is identify all of those little choices I’m making in my life that have led to this problem. Then, I try to look for patterns in all of those choices. What little decisions do I make over and over again? What situations come up over and over again?

For example, what do I do each day when Sarah gets home from work? Maybe if I adopt a better routine when she gets home, like maybe greeting her with enthusiasm and giving her a kiss and asking how her day went, I might be able to better connect with her.

What do I do when I feel hungry in the afternoon? Maybe if I eat an apple instead of grabbing some chips or something else unhealthy, I might reduce my calorie intake with little effort.

When I’m getting food for a meal, maybe I can just put half as much food as normal on my plate and eat it a little more slowly and then decide if I want more rather than piling on the food. I don’t have to put some sort of huge restriction on my eating – just be a little more mindful of it.

The goal here is to look at all of the decision points during the day that led me to having this problem and ask how I can tweak some of them in a low intensity way to produce a better outcome.

I don’t want to go from eating 3,000 calories a day to eating 1,200 calories a day. That won’t work in the long run. Rather, I want to go from eating until I’m basically uncomfortable to eating until I’m sated.

I don’t want to go from spending money on every frivolous idea I have to basically spending no money at all. That won’t work in the long run. Rather, I want to find ways to channel some of my interests down a path that doesn’t require as much spending.

Most of these solutions are common sense. If you see a pattern in your life and you don’t immediately see a solution for it, don’t hesitate to go hunting for an answer – that’s what Google is for – but don’t be surprised if the solution feels like utter common sense.

The trick, then, is to maintain this low-intensity behavior tweak over time. Usually, it’s not a matter of effort but a matter of being mindful; you’re so used to doing things in the bad way that the good way doesn’t even pop into your mind.

For me, two approaches really work here. One is a “30-day challenge,” where I try to make one or two of these changes and keep that change front and center in my mind. Here’s a great guide for utilizing meaningful 30-day challenges in your life. The other is simply keeping a list of the changes I’m working on, reviewing it each morning, and then asking myself honestly whether I tried my best to adjust each behavior in the evening by literally sitting down and giving myself a score on that behavior. I found this concept in >the wonderful book Triggers by Marshall Goldsmith; the key element is to ask yourself “Did I do my best today?” and not focus on results, but rather on effort.

Final Thoughts

Don’t spend your energy wishing upon a star and hoping an external solution will fix everything. Unless you’re extremely lucky, this won’t happen, so don’t devote your time and energy to daydreaming about it.

Don’t try to make enormous radical life changes, either. Again, unless you’re extremely lucky or extremely self motivated or a massive external change has happened in your life to force some of those changes, radical life changes probably won’t take, either.

Instead, focus on finding those smaller changes, ones that over time can become your normal behavior. Look for the tons of decision points in your life that have contributed to the problem at hand and look for how to tweak those decisions, then focus on maintaining those tweaks until they feel normal.

You won’t notice a radical change overnight, but you will notice that your life trajectory begins to change for the better.

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.