Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Changing Habits

I begin with the view that spending money is a habit; its dancing partner—saving money—is also a habit. By habit I mean behavior that runs on automatic. There are lots of other terms that mean about the same thing: personal routine, a pattern, a tradition, etc. Mostly a habit suggests that what a person or group did the last time is likely to be what they will do the next time, unless the thought process intervenes.
    Over the years I have taught groups of people a set of steps for changing a habit. I will use a personal example and walk through the steps. I invite you to find your own example, either something you've succeeded in changing or a habit you would like to change, and come along.

Step 1: Draft Your Goal or Change Statement
Since I can remember doing my taxes I used the Shoebox Filing Method: dump all my tax deductible receipts in a shoebox and deal with them once a year when preparing my taxes. The great benefit of this is for 10 months of the year I didn't think much about my receipts. The great burden were the 2 months spent dealing with them: about a month dreading getting around to the receipts, then a month dealing with each category in turn: credit card receipts, checks, cash, and Paypal purchases. Over the years, the late winter/early spring period of my life grew more crowded with other activities. So much so, that time spent entering receipts in my spreadsheet crowded out other activities or resting.

Thus my general goal statement: Enter my receipts as they arrive throughout the year. 

The next step is to re-write the goal statement according to the SMART goal attributes ...   

Step 2. Make sure the goal is SMART
[Pick attribute for each initial letter for SMART that resonates with you.]
S – stated in positives, significant, stretching, specific
Stated in positives means the goal statement says what I will do, not something I won't do. This statement as written is in positive words.

Significant means this is important somehow. And it was. Therefore, I would extend the goal statement to acknowledge it is a significant re-arrangement of what I used to do: To recapture valuable time during tax filing season, I will enter my tax deductible receipts as they arrive. 

Stretching invites you to rewrite the goal as something to reach for. The type of goal I am working with was not much of a stretch for me.

Specific means the goal has borders around it and more than some vague intention.

M - measurable, meaningful, motivational

When I think of every single receipt and out-of-pocket expense being entered every single day, week, or month, I feel drowsy and ready to fall into a deep sleep. This is clearly not motivating me. So, I think about all the types of receipts and when I have the chance to enter receipts.

I use the old-fashion system of writing checks to pay my bills. I make many payments on the go with a credit card, and writing out a check helps me carefully review the statement to make sure all my returns and charges are properly listed. With a bit more effort, I could add any tax-deductible expenses around the time I write my check. That could be enough for the first year, and I'll see about adding the others (other checks, Paypal, and cash) later.

Thus I rewrite the full statement of my goal: For the first year, I will enter my tax deductible expenses that I charged with a credit card before I write my check to the credit card company. Shorter version to remind myself: Enter expenses before writing the check.
I'm actually feel a bit more alert with this shorter goal statement. Motivation comes down to 4 words about accepting the goal: "I can do that."

A - attainable, achievable, acceptable, action-oriented

A good goal statement has a built-in stop sign: When you have accomplished the goal, you can stop going for this goal and rest or do something else. It also tilts towards movement, action, doing something. I'm satisfied that "enter expenses before writing check" works for me as a attainable, action-oriented goal statement.
R - realistic, relevant, reasonable, rewarding, results-oriented
The "R" word that I will pick from this list is "results-oriented." The results mean a lot to me, and that's good enough. Sometimes, for some tasks, working to satisfy yourself is not sufficient. At those times you either need to nestle yourself in a supportive group of people (this is largely how the various Anonymous groups support change) or vividly imagine who the result is for.

I once had a client who wanted to exercise to lose weight to help her attract the type of men she wanted to meet. Two weeks after our session she called: "John, I just can't find the motivation to get on the exercycle." I asked her who was she exercising for? She answered, "Myself, of course." I asked: "And, what about that man you're going to attract with a slimmer body?" She said, "Thanks, John, I needed the reminder. I'm off to go exercise."

T - time-based, timely, tangible, trackable
For a goal like entering credit card receipts, the "T" watchword becomes trackable: am I entering my credit card tax deductible purchases every month or not? 
If you have not done so yet, play with edits to a goal statement using the SMART goals prompting words. When you have completed this, continue reading.
Having A SMART goal statement sets the stage for you to get to work on making a permanent habit change. (Comments in quotes come from William James's 1890 "Habit" essay.) You can print a copy of this blog to check-off the steps or mentally check them off as you work through the steps. 
Step 3. Oversupply support for yourself. Find people to witness or share your progress.  People have organized support groups for everything from investing to de-cluttering. Why? They work. Millions seek it—and find it—on the World Wide Web through the means of user groups, listservs, chat rooms, meet-up.com, craigslist, and online discussions. Voluntary mutual support returns more back to us than we give to others. It strengthens our determination. And when things don't go as planned, support helps up keep perspective and strengthen our resolve to keep making the effort.
           [  ] I can do this step.

Step 4. Animate your destination. Let's imagine that by a miracle the changes you want appear in your life one morning when you awaken. The changes you want happened while you were sleeping. What would you see, hear, and feel that will let you know that the resolution has been achieved? What comments do people make on the changed you?
            [  ] I can do this step.
Step 5. Write a theme song for your resolution. Writing a theme song gives your something to hum. Sometimes a popular song has words and tune which exactly fit you needs. For example, one man in a workshop wanted to build his deck as his first ever construction project. He used "If I Had a Hammer" as his theme song without changing a word.
            [  ] I can do this step.
Step 6. "Make as strong a start as possible." Use every aid you can that supports the new habit: pin up reminder notes and signs, take a public pledge, commit yourself to a reward for keeping at it. For a strong start on my goal, I had to collect the credit card statements for the first 3 months and enter them to "catch up" because I only resolved to try my new goal as I was finishing last years' returns in April.             
            [  ] I will make a great start.
Step 7. "Seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make, and on every emotional prompting you may experience in the direction of the habits you aspire to gain." Keep motivation high by achieving multiple small interim goals. Combine discipline with readiness.  Discipline—such as setting aside regular times to apply yourself to making your change—is how your conscious self communicates seriousness to the out-of-conscious self; the spontaneous "emotional promptings"  is your unconscious's answer. Fro me, for this goal, the year turned out well. I managed to keep track of my receipts from credit card purchases, and when completing my 1040 return decided that since I had not spent much this year I would skip itemizing deductions this year. This meant I was done with entering deductions! How rewarding is that!
            [  ] I'm ready to respond.
Step 8. "Never suffer an exception to occur until the new habit is firmly rooted in your life." When is a new habit rooted? And rooted firmly? Go find out!
            [  ]  Okay, no excuses, no exceptions. I'm ready!

∞ Practice. James felt that "every good that is worth possessing must be paid for in strokes of daily effort." He further added this challenge: "Do every day or two something for no other reason than its difficulty." How's that for a goal?