Buying Something to Force Yourself Into a New Behavior Doesn’t Work: New Rules for a New Routine

Routine- Golgatha I.  Photo by h.koppdelaney.Several people I know have a treadmill in the garage or basement of their home. They bought it with great visions in their head of walking every day, but after the newness wore off, the treadmill began to gather dust – then it was folded up and put into storage.

One reader of The Simple Dollar invested almost $1,000 in pans for her kitchen. Six months later, she’s still mostly using the microwave and the pans are gathering dust.

One of my friends bought a netbook recently, thinking she’d use it all the time to keep up with her email better for her online business. It’s still in her purse, but she claims to have only used it three times in the last month. Instead, she still uses her cell phone.

I myself have done this. Take Wii Fit, for example. When I bought it, I thought it’d be great for establishing a simple cardio exercise routine. I do use it, but instead it just comes out once a week to play mini-games on.

Each of these purchases is essentially the same story. You have a behavior you want – a fitness routine, cooking good food at home, keeping more up-to-date with email – but you’re having some difficulty establishing it. So you make a big, splashy purchase in order to kick-start things – and then you find that didn’t do the trick either, and you’re left with a lot of money sunk into something you don’t really need.

Many people have stories like this (in fact, share yours in the comments!). Why is it so prevalent? I think there are at least three reasons.

First, we have the best of intentions. Most of us do actually strive to improve ourselves, but lives are complicated. Almost every moment is a balance of different things – the things we want to do, the things we should be doing, and so on. It’s often hard, even with the best of intentions, to push another routine in there, especially a time-intensive one.

Second, advertising appeals to those intentions. We see ads for exercise equipment, think about our goals, decide that “we could do that for twenty minutes a day,” and order the equipment. A good ad is designed to do that – prey on a notion already in our head and transform it into a purchase.

Third, a new routine is perilously hard to establish. You have to make yourself do it every day, at least for the first month or two. It doesn’t come naturally.

Add these all up, and buying a piece of equipment in order to jump-start a new routine is almost always a complete waste of money.

Instead, I propose some new rules for a new routine.

First, figure out a very simple routine – don’t dive in with a complex one. Walk for fifteen minutes a day. Practice the guitar for fifteen minutes. Cook one meal a day – and keep it a fairly simple one. Check your email three times a day. Check Twitter three times a day.

Second, try establishing the routine with minimal equipment. Don’t go buy a treadmill or new running shoes. Instead, go outside and walk every day for fifteen minutes – go around the block three times or so. Don’t go buy a netbook – instead, try checking your email on the equipment you already have. Don’t go buy $1,000 worth of pans – instead, buy one low-end pot and one low-end skillet and try making some very simple dishes every day. Don’t go spend $3,000 on an electric guitar – get an old acoustic one to practice on and see if it sticks.

Third, make room for the new routine. In other words, find an unhealthy routine and minimize it. Cut your television viewing down to an hour a day – or less. Trim down your internet usage if you use it excessively. Stop going out to eat so often – cut it down to once a week. All of these choices free up time – and that free time can easily be filled by your new routine.

Finally, make reminders. Leave your equipment out where you can’t miss it. Put your guitar in your favorite chair. Sit your jogging shoes there. Keep your pans right out on the stove. Leave recipes out where you can find them. In short, make your new routine screamingly obvious at all times, giving you the best chance possible to make the leap to maintain it.

Good luck on the new routines in your life.

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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