Doing Versus Consuming

At an earlier point in The Simple Dollar’s history, I went through a period where I reviewed a new personal finance book each week. Believe it or not, between general personal finance, investing topics, frugality, and other related areas, there are plenty of books coming out all the time that makes such a review cycle easy.

What I found is that the more I was reading about personal finance topics, the worse I actually was in terms of making good financial decisions. If I was spending a lot of time reading about personal finance, I would invariably find myself making more spending mistakes and not actually taking care of my own finances.

Over time, I came to the realization that I was most effective with my finances when I was reading personal finance books and other materials less regularly. I found that if I dipped in occasionally for inspiration or came in with the intent to read about a specific subtopic, I would actually see much more success in my financial life than if I read extensively on personal finance issues every day.

I began to notice the same phenomenon with other self-improvement topics. If I constantly read books and watched videos and read articles on that specific topic, I would often make little or no progress on improving myself. Instead, if I read a lot to get a baseline knowledge and then moved on to just reading or watching a tiny bit of information each day – a devotional of sorts – and only dove in again when I was confused on an issue or struggling for motivation, I was actually far more likely to take action and actually improve myself.

The Two Cycles

There seems to be two cycles that people fall into when it comes to reading and listening to and watching and using personal finance materials.

In one cycle, a person fills a lot of their time watching videos or listening to podcasts or going to seminars or reading about personal finance or weight loss or whatever area of improvement they’re concerned about. They read books on the topic. They watch lots of videos and television shows on the topic. They read lots of websites on the topic.

Yet, when it comes time to actually make the challenging choices that are part of any kind of personal success, they don’t do so. Instead, they keep reading the books and watching the videos and going to the seminars and never actually changing anything about themselves.

I think what happens here is that if you engage too much on reading and absorbing material on an area of self-improvement, it ends up feeling like “success” in your head. If you’re anything like me, you read about self-improvement and visualize yourself doing it. In small doses, that’s really powerful, but if you’re constantly absorbing a lot of content about a particular kind of personal improvement, you end up visualizing your own improvement so much that it already feels like you’ve done it, even though you haven’t done much of anything yet.

A lot of reading and video watching and podcast listening leads to a lot of visualization, and a lot of visualization brings about a sense of completion without actually having done anything. You then immediately go back to the well because you feel somehow partially successful and the information makes sense, but you never really end up improving things.

The other cycle is more of a question/action/answer cycle. You’re interested in a particular area of self-improvement, you read or watch or listen to enough materials to understand what you need to do, and then you stop reading and watching and listening and take action.

At that point, you might still read a little bit on that topic regularly, but you do it just enough to feel motivated to go do something, but not enough to feel like you’ve done anything. You might turn back to trusted materials when you’re feeling a strong lack of motivation or you have a specific question, but your focus is on taking action for yourself. Rather than drowning yourself in visualization, you do just enough visualization to get yourself to step up to the plate and take action.

That first cycle is one where a book or a video or an article or a seminar leads you right into another book or a video or an article or a seminar. It’s the cycle that many people who lead financial seminars and self improvement seminars want you to fall into. They want you to feel empowered and successful… but you haven’t actually taken action to do so. Rather, they want you to feel like that next step for success is found right here in this additional book or this additional seminar, and that mixed feeling you have of success along with this sense that real success is very close by gets you to buy in. The problem is that without you personally taking action, that real success never arrives.

The second cycle is one where a book a book or a video or an article or a seminar leads you directly toward taking some kind of action to improve your situation. Rather than filling subsequent time with another seminar or video or podcast or book, you negotiate a better cell phone plan or have a meal prep day or cut the cord on your cable or start buying store brands at the store or come up with a debt repayment plan of your own. Instead of thinking about action and continuing a cycle of reading or watching videos about actions and visualizing them, you take action! You do something to improve your situation, and then you do something else, and then you do something else.

Yes, there will come a time where motivation becomes a struggle, and that’s a good time to dive back into a book or a video on the topic, to inspire yourself, but that should lead right back to action. There will also come a time where you’re not sure what step to take next – again, that’s a moment to dive back into the best material and figure out a course of action… but then you follow through on that course of action instead of just loading up another video or checking out another book.

That’s why I don’t read a lot about personal finance any more. I’ll read just enough to stay up on changes and events, and I’ll dig into a book if I’m curious about a topic or feel some motivation slipping or if a reader really recommends it, but I try to focus less on being a consumer of personal finance information and instead focus more on taking action on the abundance of financial ideas I’ve already learned.

The same exact phenomenon is true with any area in which you want to improve your life. For example, if you read endless books and watch endless videos about losing weight, it’ll probably be hard to lose weight. You need to take action rather than just visualize action.

Final Thoughts

Here’s my recommendation. Today, take an action on whatever area of personal improvement is most important to you right now. I’m not talking about absorbing more content or listening to a podcast or watching a video – I mean take real action on that area of self improvement. Do something meaningful and real to make your life better in that area, even if it’s something small. Then, tomorrow, take another action. And another. Focus on doing something. Turn back to the content only when you have a question or need an inspirational nudge, but follow that up with more action.

Need some personal finance ideas? Today, go home and cancel your cable plan. If you’re going to really miss a channel, see if it’s available over Sling. Today, if you’re going to stop at the store, buy everything in store brand form and decide over the next week or two if those store brands meet your needs. Today, go home and, before bed, prep everything you can for a slow cooker dump meal, so that you wake up tomorrow morning, toss some already-chopped vegetables and (maybe) meats in the slow cooker, and turn it on low. Today, go home and list five things from your “catch-all” closet on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace.

Today, take 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.