As I’ve mentioned before, one extremely helpful practice that I’ve been employing for years in terms of keeping my spending in a healthy place is something I call after action reporting and visualization. It’s simple and I do it all the time when I’ve got a few spare minutes, like when I’m in the car or waiting at the dentist’s office. I’ll write down more complicated ones in my journal.
All I do is reflect on a recent time when I spent money on something that wasn’t an obvious need. (I use it for other potential mis-steps in my life, too, but bad spending choices are a stellar example.) I’ll simply think back through the spending choice I recently made, ask myself whether or not it made sense, and look for potential alternatives that give me a better outcome, either in terms of spending less money or getting a better result. Then, I visualize myself doing it the “better” way the next time I’m in such a situation.
The part I really want to center on here, and it’s something that I use (and you can use) even in the heat of the moment, is the “ask myself whether or not it made sense” part.
For me, this really boils down to one question: will it help?
That question might need a bit of explanation.
I have a handful of really big long term goals – one might even call them life ambitions. I want to write some novels. I want to finish raising my children to successful adulthood and then, if it happens, be an involved grandparent. I want to “retire” early, which means I can move on to other activities without the need to earn an income (though one is welcome if it works out). I want to spend some extended time in every national park, hiking lots of trails. I want to be in good physical and mental shape for as long as I can. I want to establish and maintain a healthy handful of lifelong relationships and friendships. I want to be involved in the community, doing some of the grunt work of things like budget preparation that people don’t often see when they see a functional public service or community. Those are just a few key ones.
When I look at the thing I’m doing in the moment, the question I ask myself is whether or not the choice I’m about to make will help me move toward those life ambitions. Will it help?
For example, spending extra money to buy an unhealthy treat doesn’t help at all with several of those goals, so it gets a resounding “no” unless there is a very strong compelling reason to do otherwise. Spending money on a fleeting want does not help any of my long term goals. Eating an unhealthy treat does not help any of my long term goals. That choice just doesn’t help.
But what if I’m hungry? Well, in that case, I’m fulfilling a need, so it’s okay to spend some money to eat. However, that still doesn’t justify buying unhealthy food – unhealthy food doesn’t help with any of my long term goals.
But what if I’m with friends? I can go along with them and just skip out on eating if I’m not hungry. I don’t have to eat to be social.
But what if I’m with friends and hungry? That still doesn’t prevent me from choosing one of the healthiest options available? I don’t have to choose something absurdly unhealthy in that moment – I can seek out the healthiest option available.
I think you get the idea. “Will it help?” is a simple question that reframes a choice in the heat of the moment in the context of big goals and life ambitions.
You’re thinking about calling in sick to work today so you can play a video game. Will it help?
You’re thinking about sitting on the couch aimlessly channel surfing. Will it help?
You’re thinking about buying a book when you have a bunch already on the shelf and a great public library nearby. Will it help?
You’re thinking about skipping your daily workout so you can do some relatively unimportant chores. Will it help?
You get the idea.
But doesn’t “will it help?” just strip everything fun out of life? If the things you consider “fun” in life are in direct opposition to the big things you want out of life, then that’s a conflict you need to resolve before the question can really make your life better.
For example, let’s say I have the big lifelong goal of being healthy – being in decent physical shape and having a normal BMI. Yet, in the moment, I yearn for really unhealthy foods – I love having a few cookies each day and I love drinking several craft beers each day.
That’s a conflict that I need to resolve, because the short term “fun” is in direct opposition to what I want out of life. Which one is truly most important to me? Whichever answer I come to is entirely up to me, but it means effectively choosing one path over another. You can’t have both.
Thus, “will it help?” is also useful in helping a person clarify what they really want out of life. If you find that the question is “draining fun” out of how you’re spending your life, then your life ambitions are out of alignment with what you’re actually doing. The things you think you want aren’t in alignment with what your everyday actions are showing that you want. So… which is it that you actually want?
You might think that you want financial independence, but if you’re spending money on silly things all the time without a very strong and coherent reason, then you actually want the ability to spend frivolously more than you want financial freedom.
You might think that you want to be healthy, but if you’re choosing to veg out instead of exercise and you’re consistently choosing unhealthy foods, then you actually want other things more than you want to be healthy.
Again, there’s nothing really wrong with any of those paths. What matters is that the things you’re doing on a daily basis are in alignment with the big things you want out of life, and that simple “will it help” question pretty quickly reveals where they’re out of alignment.
If you find the question really helpful, then that’s great! You’re probably on the path to achieving the things you want most in life.
If you rather resent the question, then it probably means your daily actions and choices are out of alignment with your big ambitions and you haven’t figured out which one really matters more to you, and that means that some time for reflection is in order.
Lately, I’ve found this question to be incredibly powerful, whether it’s just helping me eliminate bad habits that I was doing without thinking or whether it’s helping me to see situations where my goals and values are opposing each other and not helping me make the progress I want to make. Those three simple words open up both paths. It’s been the source of a lot of thinking while I’ve been running errands as of late and it’s also been at the center of a lot of journal writing, too.
In terms of actual results, it’s been really nudging me to clean up my eating habits as well as some of my spending habits, too. It’s also made me think quite a lot about some of my choices about how I spend my leisure time.
Three simple words. Will it help? Ask yourself this about all of your choices and you might be surprised at what comes out the other end. Whatever it is, piecing through that answer and how you feel about it will put you in a better place.