Updated on 09.18.14

Five Lessons on Money and Self-Improvement

Trent Hamm

One of the best articles on self-improvement I’ve ever read popped up recently on the Deadspin blog. Titled The Public Humiliation Diet (note: some language NSFW), it describes how Drew Magary, the author of the post, lost sixty pounds in five months without doing anything too incredibly radical. He just implemented twelve simple rules in his life, and here they are, in summary (the whole article is worth a read, though):

1. I bought a scale.
2. I weighed myself daily.
3. I posted that weight daily on Twitter.
4. I never ate after dinner.
5. I didn’t snack except for fruit.
5. I didn’t have seconds.
6. I didn’t eat sweets.
7. I avoided carbs, but didn’t go nuts about it.
8. I drank a [lot] of unsweetened green tea.
9. I drastically cut down on boozing.
10. I made sure everything I ate was [very] AWESOME.
11. I exercised, but that hardly mattered.
12. I took a fiber supplement.

All of these specific tips really boil down to five principles.

Five Valuable Lessons About Your Money and Improving Yourself

1. You shouldn’t be ashamed of where you start

Guess what? No one is perfect in life. An awful lot of us are overweight. An awful lot of us are in deep debt. An awful lot of us can’t play the piano. An awful lot of us can’t write computer code. An awful lot of us don’t read as much as we ought to. Do not be ashamed of where you’re at right now. The big thing is to be proud that you’ve decided to accept a major goal for yourself and that you’re actively working to improve your current state. The past is water under the bridge – we all start from where we’re at now, not from where we were at ten years ago when things were “better.”

2. No individual step you take while making a change in your life should be radical

Major changes to how we behave are almost impossible to perfectly implement. Going from spending thousands a month on unnecessary stuff to spending nothing at all will rarely work for more than a week or two. Why? Because whenever you make a major change like that, you’re derailing a lot of tiny routines and habits, not just one. Humans are creatures of habit, and derailing even the simplest routine can be hard. Derailing lots of simple routines all at once can be incredibly hard. Make small changes, observe small victories, and be patient. It’s far better than yo-yoing, where you make a radical change, see some great success immediately, then fall off the horse and find yourself back where you started.

3. You should keep careful track of the change you’re making in your life

If you can, find a specific number that you can calculate by which to judge your progress. Your net worth. Your total debt. Your weight. Your 5k time. Your morning blood sugar. Find a way to track your progress so you can see the steady improvement over time.

If this is impossible for your big goal, start keeping a journal and write a daily entry describing your progress towards your goal. The key is to be mindful of the changes you’re experiencing over time.

4. You should make yourself directly accountable to others, preferably daily

You’re already tracking the changes. Now share the tracking of those changes with others.

The internet makes this really easy. If you’re just tracking a number, open a Twitter account (I have one where I post all kinds of stuff) and post that number each day (along with the change since yesterday and the change since the start). If you’re doing a journal, start a blog about it and put your journal entries there.

Next, share those postings with others. This takes courage, but it’s well worth it. Just share the URL where you’re posting this stuff with the people you care most about. They’ll cheer you on and hold you accountable. When you’re about to make a bad choice, you’ll be forced to reflect on the people that are watching – and that will become a very powerful motivator.

5. You should substitute the worst stuff for something approximately the same but less costly

If you eat a lot of sugary or carb-dense snacks, just substitute your favorite kind of fruit. Replace a candy bar with a banana or a piece of watermelon. They’re both sweet and tasty and one is substantially better than the other.

The same holds true for spending. Replace buying a new book with a trip to the library – you get a book either way. Replace clothes shopping at a high end store with a trip to the thrift shop – you’ll get clothes either way. The more such substitutions you make, the easier it is to spend less.

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  1. MattJ says:

    I lost 50 lbs doing pretty much the same thing, but I didn’t do the ‘public humiliation’ portion:

    1. I bought a digital scale. (analog one was inacurate)
    2. I weighed myself daily.
    3. I don’t Tweet.
    4. I did still snack after dinner.
    5. Similar to him, I snacked on fruit, not not exclusively.
    5. I didn’t have seconds. (This was a big one – portion control is important)
    6. I also didn’t eat sweets.
    7. I avoided carbs, but didn’t go nuts about it – Yep.
    8. Instead of tea, I switched completely to water.
    9. I didn’t drink alcohol before, so there was no boozing for me to cut back on.
    10. re: AWESOME food. I just made it generally healthier.
    11. I exercised, but that hardly mattered. Yeah, I was no more active during my diet than before.
    12. No fiber supplement for me.

    The only other thing I did was give up eating out – I probably had 4 (work-related) trips to a restaurant during the 5-6 months that I was on my diet. Most of these habits I’ve managed to keep up, of course now that I’ve lost the weight I intended to lose, I’ve relaxed some of them a bit.

    Public humiliation may be a powerful motivator, but one can find other ways to motivate oneself.

  2. cathleen says:

    I lost 15 lbs in 4 weeks (and have kept it off) with one simple change that did not involve food or exercise. (I eat healthily and exercise most days)

    I contacted our Facilities department and asked them to raise my desk so I stand most of the day while at work. (I can lower it if I want to with a button)

    Better on my back & posture, better on my derrière :) better on my shoulders (no computer strain).

    I love it!

  3. CDG says:

    The public humiliation idea might be amusing for a blogger, but totally counter-productive to me. Everything in the culture is lining up to tell you being overweight is ugly, gross, unlovable, deserving of mockery, etc, etc, etc.
    I think it’s incredibly depressing and discouraging rather than motivating for most people. If being humiliated about being fat worked, there’d be a lot fewer fat people.

  4. Ag says:

    I have been a fan for a long time. Funny – I write a blog about diet, weight loss, etc., and it works!!! Thanks for your awesome site!

  5. Jacob says:

    Trent, this is my first time posting and I have followed your writing for awhile. Good luck doing this. In public it will be a big motivation. Once people see your results and say positive things it will only make you push harder on your goals.

    I would recommend checking into a diet where you eat around 6 meals a day. Nothing after dinner could cause you to go into a catabolic state where you start feeding off your muscle rather than fat. Since muscle burns fat you don’t want that. 4% Cottage cheese right before bed helped me when I lost my 60lbs.

    @CDG I respect your view but the reason people are fat is because they don’t know how to lose weight properly. They want fat burners and diets with instant results and are not willing to give it the 6 months or more it deserves. People making fun of me was a huge motivator to me. From 6th grade up to college I was fat. It slowed me down and held me back.

    The ones who were mean motivated me. The ones who held me back were the ones offering verbal welfare telling me I was great just the way I was. I wasn’t, I was making my self sicker thinking I was fine. Our culture is wrong, people aren’t unlovable but it is gross and studies have shown others feel that way and can hold you back career wise.

    When were fat we look to self help instead of a tred mill. We want people to tell us it’s not our fault, that is the culture we created. The ironic part is the help comes from busting our butts to make our selves better we will have more respect for ourselves that way.

    There is a difference between freshman girls making fun of a girl for being fat and honestly setting your husband or wife down and saying they are eating their way to a hard attack, but no one ever changed because of how happy they were with themselves they change cause they are fed up with all the crap they take.

    I respect your opinion but I just disagree.

  6. PK says:

    I agree that you shouldn’t be ashamed of where you start. Back in March, a family member, seeing I was getting all agitated, suggested I go for a walk at our local boardwalk. It gave me alone time and fresh air and exercise. Soon I was seeing if I could walk longer. Then faster. Then I thought I’d see if I could run a little.

    Today I ran my first mile without needing to stop.

    For some reason, I feel more proud of this small accomplishment than the graduate degree I earned a couple of years ago, or the very important exam I took a couple of months ago that I finally passed.

    The best part was a little later in the afternoon, when I was picking up some things in the grocery store still in my workout gear. The woman bagging my groceries smiled and asked, “Are you a jogger?” Startled, I replied, “Yes! Well, I’m TRYING to be one,” and laughing. It started a whole conversation where she smilingly talked about how much she’d like to start but all her fears were holding her back, etc. I tried to encourage her, telling how how a couple of months ago I couldn’t run 50 yards, but now I can run an entire mile! A small feat for some runners, but a huge accomplishment for me.

    I see all manner of people walking and running at my boardwalk — all different ages, body habitus, and obvious fitness levels. I mentally applaud everyone I pass by there for taking the first step in getting out of the house and moving around.

    Just last night I started wondering how insane would it be if I could join the 13.1 mile half marathon going on in my neighborhood in October…? It all starts with one step, right?

    Btw, thanks for the link! I was reading through some of his own reader mailbag entries and I literally laughed out loud several times. This guy can obviously publicly humiliate himself because he doesn’t much care about being judged by others of what he says or does :)

  7. How is posting your weight on Twitter supposed to motivate you to stick to a diet? WHO CARES what a bunch of people you never heard of and you’ll never see think about you? And if anyone you know does follow you on Twitter, why would they want to hear about your boring diet and why would you want to suck up to someone for whom your weight matters more than your quality as a human being?

    Stupid stuff, this.

  8. Cori R. says:

    That is an excellent set of rules. I might have to do that to help myself lose weight – posting my weight on Twitter or my food blog would be very difficult to do at first, but then again, that’s the point.

    This type of plan works for more than just losing weight, I believe. I decided this week to start another project – I want to become fluent in my husband’s native language, Latvian. I’ve been trying for a couple of years now and I’m only at the level of a 3rd grader — and I can barely speak in basic conversations. So, I started a new blog (http://learninglatvian.rozentali.com/) in hopes of making myself accountable and providing motivation. I’ll post my progress, my notes, my problems.. in hopes that by making it public and sharing it with my Latvian family (one of whom is attempting to learn English to speak to me!) and the rest of the Net, it will help me move forward.

    I think it will. I’ve already had to work through one of my known problems and I’ve only just begun.

    It all begins with a single step.

  9. jgonzales says:

    I created my blog for the sole purpose of the Public Humiliation Tatic. I need to start following my rules really close because I haven’t lost weight yet. I do know several people in my life read it regularly and it helps keeps me motivated to keep going every day. I still don’t always make the right choices, but I’m working on it.

  10. Jennifer says:

    Wow, some of you are touchy. The message I took away from this was not the posting of information publicy which I guess is what the post indicates it is about but the fact that Drew states you can start anywhere, it doesn’t matter how much you’ve let yourself go and put on weight or how you’ve frittered away the years and not studied and now are only employable in crappy admin /office jobs. This piece made me feel good about myself because I just needed to read that yep, perhaps I am in a bit of a mess than I was 6 years ago (divorce and all that fun) but I can start from here in this downward spiral I’ve been travelling along and do it. I thought it was a great article. Well I’ve already begun my re-visiting my gym and beginning a degree and my small business is increasing a little bit more every month.

    If you don’t want to make yourself accountable daily to others which I personally do not wish to do, then don’t but else have you taken from this article?


  11. Anne Oeldorf-Hirsch says:

    @Funny about Money–
    It’s a well-known tactic in accountability to tell someone else about your goals & current status. A major tip of many weight loss programs is to tell someone of your plan. So the number itself or who is reading it is not the important factor.

  12. Bill says:

    An alcoholic, drug addict or gambler can hide his issues to some extent. An over-eater cannot so everyday can be humiliating. However he is not helpless is avoiding food it is just really hard.

  13. Lisa says:

    Great article. I really believe that making non-radical changes is the key to sustainability.

  14. Leisureguy says:

    Instead of soda or iced tea, I make the following in a 20-oz glass: juice of 1/2 lemon, 1/2 cup pomegranate juice (promotes arterial health), and fill the glass with cold water.

    If I want to be fancy, I fill it half-and-half with sparkling mineral water and unsweetened tea.

  15. @PK: Congrats on your progress!!! My girlfriend and I just started jogging a couple of weeks ago. The very first day she wasn’t able to barely get started running and it was incredibly frustrating for her but over the course of the next couple of days we were able to see small improvements. I think over the course of the next few weeks she will be in for a real surprise with what she is able to do.

    I like your story and am wondering if you wouldn’t let me repost your comment on my blog. Thanks! :)

  16. MelodyO says:

    Holy moly that was a funny article. Wildly entertaining, and some good ideas, too. Thanks for the link, Trent.

    Metamucil: Poop yourself thin!

  17. Laura says:

    +1 to comments #2 and #4. I think it’s terrible that people think of their weight as a point of “public humiliation.” If that’s really how you perceive yourself, maybe your “weight issue” is the least of your problems. Also disturbing is that this guy loses weight by ignoring his own appetite (not eating after a certain time would be one example). This is actually counter-productive. The more you ignore your appetite and rely on “rules”, the harder it is to tell when you’re actually full.

    Let’s not miss what this article pointed out though. It wasn’t to discuss how to lose weight. It was to discuss how to apply it to spending wiser. Applying this guy’s rules to financial spending, you might say unwisely, “I forbid myself to ever spend money after 6pm.” Making these rules is like ignoring your own “spending appetite.” You wouldn’t necessarily learn to differentiate between when you actually needed to purchase something and when you didn’t. When you eventually stopped restricting purchases after 6pm, you wouldn’t have learned much. Rather, I agree with Trent when he suggested that you substitute something cheaper for something more expensive.

  18. Systemizer says:

    I have a pet peeve about reports on weight loss.

    Losing 50 lbs is meaningless unless a person reports height and weight.

  19. Kai says:

    Losing 50 pounds is an achievement for anyone – even if they still have 200 more to go. The details don’t matter.

  20. Not being ashamed about where you start is probably the biggest one here.

    And its probably the biggest obstacle standing the way of most obese people.

    Once you get over that and simply get going, its all smooth sailing thereafter…

  21. Very funny post and great progress nice to hear , some good tips thanks

  22. andrea says:

    Avoiding carbs when dieting is a poor strategy for some people, as it can backfire on them. The following is from MIT researchers, and other sources easily found on the web. I’ve read the same in a book by TV doctor, Bob Arnot and also aspects of this are covered in the website “Body Blues.”
    Our bodies use carbs to make serotonin, the happy brain chemical. This is why we want to eat sugar and starch when we get stressed or depressed. When severely limiting carbs, some people can become extremely moody. In addition, too much protein can interfere with the body’s ability to process carbs to make serotonin. Some researchers believe asparatame may also interfere with seratonin production. Stress depletes serotonin… including the stress from over exercise. SOOO all this means that many of the common things people do to lose weight may be counterproductive, causing an overwhelming craving for carbs, resulting in them failing at diets. The MIT researchers identified the moodiness resulting from too little carbs combined with too much protein as “Atkins Attitude.” This happened to a cousin of mine the two times he tried Atkins… he had rages of anger. I too find I get angry and moody if I limit carbs, and doing it caused me to become a binge eater. I have known this about myself decades before I knew there was any research to back this up.
    Carbs are an important part of our diets, but the answer is to eat complex carbs. Simple carbs (sugar, white flour) give a quick emotional boost, followed by a crash that causes you to crave more. Complex carb give you an even slow release of positive feelings over a longer time period. So a bowl of oatmeal in the morning is a good thing. Other seratonin boosters include sunshine, moderate exercise, and accomplishments of any sort.
    I believe we are all different and you have to know what works for you. I know people with weight issues that crave meat and fat, but not carbs. So this information might not resonate with everyone. But if you are a “carb person,” eat go ahead and eat good carbs, just count the calories.
    Protein has no fiber, while complex carbs have plenty. Fiber helps you feel fuller, causes calories to move through your system quicker so fewer calories are absorbed, and not all fiber calories can be absorbed by our bodies. So complex carbs are a helpful diet food.
    The frugal angle is that complex carbs are generally cheaper than protein. Eat a balanced diet of wholesome foods, and just keep track of calories. If you are good at managing money, transfer those same life skills over to managing you food intake.

  23. Leah says:

    I’m not where he is yet, but I have been steadily losing about 0.5 pounds per week (a better level for me than a pound a week — this rate doesn’t leave me hungry all the time). It’s super exciting. What I do:

    1. Weigh myself daily, in the am, in the buff. I then put the weight into the chart at physicsdiet.com to watch my weight trend. I almost completely (try to) ignore the actual number, which sometimes works.

    2. Write down every single thing I eat. (I started doing this and have recently taken a little break after two months worth of writing down my food intake.) If I know the calories, I write it down too. It really helped me gauge what I was taking in, and the calorie bit helped me see what a real portion size is.

    3. Cook more meals at home. And, like he said, work on making them tasty. True that unless you’re adding whole sticks of butter, whatever you make at home will be healthier than eating out.

    4. Walk regularly. I’ve always exercised a lot, so I don’t think this makes a huge difference. But I spent the last week walking at least an hour a day, and that seems to be helping. And even if it doesn’t help, it sure does make me feel good.

    5. Cut back on sugar. I’m a total junkie, so I have to make myself work for it. For example, 1.5 hour walk or bike ride = split a blizzard with the boyfriend (only sparingly, tho, and not every time). Or set goals and give yourself a little splurge — my next is getting to eat some twizzlers when I hit 160.

    My high weight ever was 175. I started my diet around 170 pounds in March, and my average weight this morning was 162.5. Slow and steady progress. I’m a 5’4″ female, so I’m shooting for somewhere in the 140s. I figure I’ll decide once I get there whether or not I want to keep going lower.

  24. Evita says:

    Gosh, some people will go public with anything! pretty pathetic in my opinion!
    Great tips though…….

  25. Tiffany says:

    Listing these things makes the process seems so simple, but i’m sure it was a lot of hard work. Great tips though!

  26. Melissa says:

    This is a really good idea. I find that taking photos and being very public about goals is EXTREMELY motivating. Nothing displays the truth about our weight more than a camera.

    I’m not a “weigh myself daily” junkie, but I do take measurements once weekly instead. Measurements + the fit / feel of clothing are two huge indicators of progress.

  27. steve says:

    @ #17: The commentary by Trent about the weight-loss post wasn’t about the ten rules and how they apply to personal finance. It was regarding the five principles that applied to the weight-loss rules. Fortunately, the principles can definitely be applied to personal finance as guidelines.

    …Not spending money after 6pm? Yes, I agree with you–that’s VERY silly! :)

  28. Casey says:

    “I exercised, but that hardly mattered” In general I would say that there is something wrong with the way you exercised if it hardly mattered.

    Also, most informed people find weight a poor metric of health. It is not difficult to find 2 people of the same height and weight with dramatically different levels of physical strength/stamina/CV endurance, cholesterol or body fat percentages. It’s like comparing the balances of two people’s checking accounts (and only their checking accounts) to measure wealth.

  29. Charlie says:

    When I first read this post, I got very excited about a diet like this that I knew right away would actually work for me — with its very public accountability aspect. But when I got on the scale the next morning, intending to start my PHD (Public Humilation Diet) that very day, the number on the scale was the highest I had ever been and I knew that I would not be able to bring myself to advertise it. So then and there I started my Pre-PHD diet — I have lost 5 pounds in the knowledge that if I fall off the wagon, I will have to go on the PHD as a last-ditch effort. The threat of possibly having to expose my weight to everyone I know is keeping me REALLY motivated. In the meantime, I am enjoying myself and my weight loss.

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