The Missing Ingredient for Change

I’ve had a lot of successes in changing my life for the better. Over the course of approximately five and a half years, Sarah and I managed to pay off three student loans, three car loans, four nearly-maxed-out credit cards, and a full home mortgage, moving ourselves from financial disaster to complete debt freedom. I essentially built a new career for myself out of whole cloth, too, practically making my own job up along the way. I switched from a meat-heavy diet to a vegetarian diet (with rare fish consumption).

At the same time, I’ve had a ton of failures along the way. I’ve failed at many of my personal fitness goals. I’ve failed repeatedly to write a novel that I felt was publishable. I’ve failed in countless other things, too.

When I look back at my own successes and failures, I can’t help but ask myself what the difference is between the successes and failures. Why did I succeed at some things and fail at other things?

I tried hard to remove outside influences from the list and break it down to just my own personal choices because, after all, that’s what really matters when it comes to personal change. People may help, but in the end, it is you who is responsible for doing the things that need to be done to succeed and it’s you who also chooses to avoid those things… and subsequently fail.

In the end, I realized that every major change in my life boils down to four ingredients. If all four of those things are present, I tend to succeed – at least, I succeed as far as the things I can personally control. If even one of those things fails to be present, the change that I dream of almost always fails.

The tricky part is that you can’t simply create all of these elements. Some of them have to grow and build themselves up over time. Others are habits that have to become completely natural within you.

In the end, whenever you fail at change, one of these four ingredients is missing. It’s a pattern that’s repeated over and over again in my own life and in the lives of people close to me, too.


Do you have a sufficiently good reason for this change? Why are you trying to make this change happen? Without this kind of strong internal motivation, I have never succeeded at changing my life. External motivation – a coach or a friend or a spouse – has never pushed me to any sort of lasting change, either.

Usually, the kind of strong motivation that works for me consists of two parts.

First, there’s a long period where I sense that change is needed and I’m thinking about it, but not ready to commit. During my financial change, the idea that change was needed floated in my head for at least a year before I actually began to make that change.

Second, there’s a powerful moment that moves that thought into action. I’ve had various trigger moments in my life and the biggest thing they’ve all had in common is that they launched from some kind of personal failure where I had simultaneously let myself down and let others down. I wrote at length about the powerful moment that triggered my own financial change.

With my career shift to writing, I had always enjoyed writing but had never taken it seriously until 2006, when someone told me that something I had written had profoundly affected their life in a very positive way. That moment made me want to do that again and again and again – it became my motivation and that motivation still rings true through almost everything I write for The Simple Dollar and elsewhere.

When most people struggle with change, they have the first half of motivation – lots of thinking about change – without the second half – a key moment that pushes that change. My suggestion is to try to find that key moment that triggers change. For example, you might schedule a full physical with your doctor and get all of your health numbers checked. Ask your loved ones what you do that lets them down. Look at your financial state and ask where you’ll be in a few years if you don’t change things around. Those kinds of experiences can create key motivational moments.

What about external motivation? Some people thrive on coaching. I find that most of my external motivation comes from having friends who are moving in a similar direction in life as compared to my own direction. Normal conversations with them become a great external motivator for consistent change.

Without real motivation, I find it hard to take more than a step or two toward real change in my life. I find the work that needs to be done to be purposeless compared to the other things I could be doing with that time, so I either never start at all or only take the most feeble steps toward change.


Self-control simply means the ability to control oneself, in particular one’s emotions and desires or the expression of them in one’s behavior, especially in difficult situations. When the going gets tough, can you continue to make good choices?

For me, the key to self-control is mindfulness. Most of my self-control mistakes occur when I’m not being mindful at all. I do a lot of things to cultivate my ability to focus in the moment – meditation helps, as does periods of daily reflection on my decisions and mistakes of the day.

A while back, I wrote an article outlining ten strategies you can use to cultivate mindfulness. Here they are, in summary:

1. Face the fact that you mess up sometimes. We’re all human. We all mess up.

2. Think about specific situations outside of their normal context. Replay challenging situations in your head later on in the day when you’re in different company and in a different location and the emotions aren’t fresh.

3. Keep a journal. Use it to record things you’re grateful for. You can also use it to aid in reflecting on life situations that you’re unsure about.

4. When you’re unsure about something, research it. Very few things in life need to be addressed right now. Take the time to research them.

5. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Ask yourself how you would like to be treated. Consider how that person is feeling and how their problems might be altering their behavior.

6. Don’t put yourself in decision-making situations when you’re not thinking well. If you’re emotionally out of whack, exceptionally tired, or simply not feeling well, don’t allow yourself to make decisions of even the slightest importance.

7. Get adequate sleep. If you’re consistently feeling tired during the day, you need more consistent sleep. Try going to sleep earlier or consulting a doctor if you can’t get adequate sleep.

8. Understand what you really value. Often, people aren’t motivated by the things that they think they’re supposed to care about. Think about the things you really do care about and use them in your life.

9. Let yourself wander when it’s safe. No one can be mindful all the time. Let your guard down in situations where you’re not actively making decisions so that you can be more mindful in other situations.

10. Never forget that the perfect is the enemy of the good. You will make mistakes. That’s okay. The goal is to do better than before, not to be perfect.

I also find it incredibly useful to define two or three key missions for the day. I do this at the start of the day and then refer to them regularly throughout the day. When I’m trying to cultivate change in my life, I make sure that one of those key missions is related to making that change happen. Doing this keeps those missions fresh in my mind throughout the day and this pierces through instances where my self-control might be weak.

Another useful method of reinforcing self control is to eliminate temptation and distraction. If you’re trying to control unnecessary spending, cut up your credit cards and delete your credit card number from websites. If you’re trying to control unhealthy eating, keep unhealthy foods out of your home.

Yet another useful strategy is to ask friends and family for help. Ask them to remind you if you’re about to make a bad choice. The big key here is to be thankful when your friends step in and stop you or else they won’t help you after the first time.

This is the area of the four that I’m the strongest at, but I’m not always perfect. I’m usually undone by brief periods of poor self-control, like when I decide to buy something on the spur of the moment or when I choose to eat a quick but unhealthy snack.

Without self-control, I constantly undo my positive steps. If I have the other elements, I can make lots of positive steps. For example, I’ll enthusiastically make and eat a really healthy meal. When self-control fails me, I’ll sneak in an unhealthy snack a few hours later. If self-control isn’t an ingredient, then it’s one step forward and one step back, no matter what the goal.

A Clear Goal

A clear goal is a vital element for creating change in your life. It provides direction. It clues you in to the things that you need to be doing. It gives you something to focus on.

A clear goal contains three key elements, all of which need to be present if you want a useful goal.

One, the goal’s success and failure is entirely in your hands. It does not rely on outside factors or things outside of your control. For example, rather than committing to losing X pounds in a year, you should instead commit to 30 minutes of exercise per day or eating less than 600 calories each day before dinner. Those are things you can control – the exact poundage of your weight loss isn’t. Another example: rather than committing to writing a novel, commit to writing 500 words per day. You can’t control whether or not you actually complete a novel, as you might find your writing path doesn’t pan out. However, if you commit to writing each day, you’ll eventually complete something.

My primary goal when bringing about personal finance change was simply to reduce my spending month over month (excluding true emergencies), starting off with a month where we lived pretty tightly. This pushed me to start keeping better track of every cent, then it pushed me to focus on restricting my spending in key areas. I worked on cutting back my hobby spending first, then my food spending once my hobby spending became much more reasonable.

Two, the goal is challenging but achievable. A good goal pushes you, but it doesn’t push you off of a cliff. For example, an exercise goal might encourage you to exercise today, but it doesn’t tell you to run wind sprints for 30 minutes on your first day of exercise and it also doesn’t tell you that ten jumping jacks is sufficient either.

My primary goal when building my new writing career was to simply write a certain word count every single day. I divided it into a number of short articles, which became the foundation for The Simple Dollar. It was a challenging threshold – at the time, it was 1,500 words a day outside of my normal job – but it was achievable if I committed my time and my energy to writing.

Three, the goal itself immediately describes the action you can take today to move forward. “I want to lose weight” tells you nothing about what you need to do today. “My goal is to exercise for 30 minutes each day” tells you that. “My goal is to eat 600 calories or less before dinner” tells you that.

Those two successful goals both pointed to specific actions that I could achieve in the next month. The first goal said “cut your spending.” The second one said “write something today.” The goals boiled down to those kinds of actions that I could literally take at any time. There wasn’t any doubt about what I actually needed to do.

Every time I’ve had a clear goal that’s clicked in my life, it’s involved all three of these elements. It’s also left me in a position where I have some leeway to plan some sort of action each day, but the goal almost demanded daily action. I had a lot of flexibility in terms of the path, but there was always some basic threshold pushing me forward.

I’ve also found that goals sometimes evolve over time. You might start off with a clear goal, but then find that it’s somehow not right for you. Perhaps it’s introducing a requirement into your life that just isn’t realistic. Maybe it’s not pushing you hard enough. You may find yourself revising your goals, particularly in the first month or two of your change. That’s okay.

Without a clear goal, I’ll get frustrated that I’m not really moving forward or achieving anything and give up out of pure frustration. I need that clear goal to provide not only a sense of direction, but also a sense of accomplishment as I’m moving forward. An unclear goal – one that uses metrics that are outside of my control or one that doesn’t use any metrics at all – is practically as useless as no goal at all.


Persistence means the long-term continuation of something. When you’re looking at change in your life, persistence means that you stick with that change over a long period of time.

For me, persistence is what’s needed to bridge the gap between a good short-term change to a lifelong change. It usually happens between the one month and the six month threshold; if I can persist through the six month mark, the change usually becomes automatic for me.

Persistence is deeply connected to the emotional cycle of change that I’ve written about before. In that article, I outlined the five key stages of how we react to change:

Stage 1: Uninformed optimism.
Stage 2: Informed pessimism.
Stage 3: Hopeful realism.
Stage 4: Informed optimism.
Stage 5: Completion.

I find that the other three elements of change – self-control, motivation, and a clear goal – are enough to get through the first stage without any problems. It’s that second stage – informed pessimism – that absolutely requires persistence. Without it, a person simply can’t make it through that period of informed pessimism.

For me, there are several key tools that help with maximizing persistence.

The single most valuable tool – and the one I’d recommend to everyone – is spending time to find the intrinsic joy in whatever change I’m cultivating. I spend time looking specifically for all of the things I actually like about the changes I’m making. Do I feel better on a daily basis? Do I feel good when I’m productive? What types of exercise make me feel joyful rather than exhausted and unhappy? I make an effort to seek out elements that bring me joy and I spend time thinking about those elements, reinforcing the “good” in the change I’m trying to make.

Hand in hand with that, I’ll think about what will happen if I revert from this change. What will my life be like if I throw away this change? In six months, I might be poorer. I might be heavier. I might be in worse shape and less able to keep up with my kids. I will be very unhappy with that outcome.

Another strategy I really like is the Seinfeld “chain.” The idea here is that you choose a specific action that you commit to doing every single day, then you print off a year-long wall calendar. Each day, when you compete that single action, you mark off that date on your calendar with a big black X. As you start marking off consecutive days, you’ll find that a “chain” of Xs starts to grow and, on some level, you’ll really want to avoid breaking that chain. It becomes its own little persistence motivator.

Without persistence, my life changes start faltering after a month or two. I’ll give up on exercise routines or dietary changes at that point because I begin to really see the challenges more clearly than before. I get focused on the negative aspects of the change and without persistence, it becomes so easy to just turn away from that change and go back to old routines.

Final Thoughts

Motivation. Self-control. Persistence. A clear goal.

Those are the key elements to lasting change in one’s life.

They’re like four legs on a stool. If all four legs are present, you can stand upon that stool and reach for new heights. Take away just one of those legs and it quickly becomes nearly impossible to achieve your dreams.

Over and over again, in my own life and in the lives of others, I’ve seen life change happen when all four elements were present. Over and over again, I’ve seen life change fail because one (or more) of those elements were missing.

If you want to change your life, start by working on these four elements. Make sure they’re present in your life. If you find that one of them is weak, focus on what you can do to strengthen that element.

Eventually, you will be able to stand upon the sturdy stool of success, supported by those four pillars of change.

I’ve done it. So can you.

Loading Disqus Comments ...