The Challenge of Following Advice

Whenever I read a personal finance book, I’m struck by how hard some of the steps seem and how easy other steps seem. There are some things that just seem like normal behavior to me, while others seem almost insurmountable.

Whenever I see a new exercise routine, I find that some of the exercises are really easy to do and others are very hard to do. I can blow through some exercises that are difficult for others, while there are some things that just kill me.

Holy books are a great example of this. When one reads the Bible, some of the words of Jesus are easy to bring into our lives. Some of them are very difficult. This phenomenon is true of the holy works of virtually every major religion, from Islam to Hinduism, from Judaism to Buddhism.

Whenever a person sits down with a document or a video that shares in-depth advice, that person is going to find some pieces of that advice easy to apply – and they’re going to find other pieces much harder to apply.

Often, we ignore or overlook the most challenging parts. Often, we learn the hard way that the most challenging parts are the key to change.

Let’s back up and look at how this idea works in terms of money advice.

Whenever you pick up a book that purports to turn your financial life around, it usually comes with some sort of debt repayment plan. The book lays out, step by step, what you need to do to figure out all of your debts, develop a plan for repaying them, and execute that plan.

The book will devote twenty or thirty pages to the process of setting up that plan. However, for you, that’s the easy part. You can set up a debt repayment plan in an hour or two with a few sheets of paper and a pencil.

Once you have the plan, though, the book often doesn’t have much to say about actually executing that plan. Day in and day out, you have to repeatedly face the challenge of temptation. Month in and month out, you have to send hundreds of dollars off to a faceless corporation to pay for the debts you incurred in the past.

That’s hard. Yet, in many personal finance books, that part of the equation is given much less attention than the plan. It’s discussed, sure, but if you read a personal finance book, this incredibly challenging part is often seen as no big deal.

If you approach a long struggle of overcoming bad behaviors and temptations as something that’s no big deal, you’re setting yourself up for backsliding and failure.

Now, for some people, making the right choice over and over again is easy, but the challenge comes about from figuring out what the right choice is. I’m not in that boat, of course, but I know that at least a couple of my friends feel that way.

The challenge doesn’t come from understanding the plan. The challenge doesn’t come from executing the parts of the plan that come easy. The challenge comes from executing the parts of the plan that are hard, and those hard parts aren’t the same for every person.

My approach to overcoming this is simple.

First, I try out as much of the plan as I can. I go full bore into the plan, not just as an effort to head quickly to success, but to learn more about it.

What I want to learn is what parts come easy and what parts don’t – for me. Those parts might not be the same for you.

Once I’ve figured that out, I maintain the easy parts and focus in on mastering just one of the hard pieces.

For example, when I was first digging into my financial recovery, I found that doing things like brown-bagging lunch came easy. I found it really enjoyable to do it. I also found that finding one-time tasks that either earned money – like selling off things – or reduced my spending – like airing up my car tires – really clicked with me.

My biggest difficulty was overcoming the routine temptations that life held for me. I loved going to the bookstore and buying a few books. I loved going to a coffee shop in the morning. I loved buying goodies on Amazon.

Those were the hard parts and giving them all up at once would have made things much more challenging. Instead, I focused hard on one of these at a time.

I adopted a new route home from work so that I could avoid the temptation to stop at that bookstore. Eventually, I began to miss it less and less.

While that was going on, I didn’t sweat stopping at the coffee shop, but as it became easier to avoid the book temptation, I started putting a bit of pressure on myself to trim out the coffee shop temptation.

I focused on one hard element at a time.

This is an approach that works well for me no matter what the advice. When I want to make changes in my life – whether they’re related to finance or something else – I figure out which pieces of that change are easy and which are hard for me. Then, I adopt lots of the easy steps, but I focus on mastering the hard elements, one at a time.

It’s a process that really works well. It’s also a process that a lot of advice books simply overlook as they’re throwing piles of suggestions at you.

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