It's that time of year — the time when everyone makes resolutions in hopes that a year from now, we'll be thinner, wealthier, smarter, more productive, and better-smelling. As I ponder my own resolutions for 2012 (wow, is it really almost 2012?), I thought I'd relate how I was actually able to follow through on a goal from several months ago.
As loyal readers may recall, in the summer of 2010 I began to try to lose weight. I clocked in at around 205 pounds, and my clothes were starting to no longer fit. As I wrote back then:
“You may be wondering why I'm telling you, the money-minded GRS audience, about my jiggly parts. Well, I think money management and blubber management have a lot in common. They both rely on smart consumption and good habits that, frankly, aren't a lot of fun. The effects — both good and bad — aren't noticed immediately, which makes the bad habits seem not so bad, and the good habits not-so-instantly rewarding.”
The thought of having to replace my wardrobe with bigger clothes would have been a blow to my wallet and my ego. So I decided to go on a diet.
A year and a half later, I weigh 180 pounds and feel the similarities between fiscal and physical health are even more numerous. So here's how I was able to disperse 25 pounds into the universe (since matter can neither be created nor destroyed, that 25 pounds went somewhere — my guess is Goldman Sachs turned it into an investment and sold it to an unwitting client). Regardless of what you're trying to lose or gain, I think these principles will apply to any of your efforts to make 2012 more jingly or less jiggly.
1. Go extreme
In my post from 2010, I bemoaned the fact that after three weeks of less food and more exercise, I had lost just three pounds. I questioned whether I shouldn't get extreme with my plan — essentially eat nothing but vegetables and lean protein, and exercise my butt off. Many commenters to that article gave the very sound advice that an extreme diet doesn't work; it's unhealthy and unsustainable.
That's all true. But I eventually found that I needed to kick-start the weight loss just to feel like I was getting somewhere. So for a few weeks, I went extreme — and lost 10 pounds. It felt much more rewarding, and much more encouraging.
As for money, I've known many people who try to get out of debt or build up their savings by making small changes to their spending habits. These small changes can be powerful when compounded over many years, but at first they can seem like they're not making much of a difference, which can lead people to think, “Why am I making these sacrifices when there's such little progress?” For some people, a period of completely new habits — even if they're extreme — are the jolt they need to break old patterns, and provide enough progress in the beginning to maintain the motivation they need to keep going.
2. Don't go extreme forever
All that said, I eventually worked ice cream, French fries, and cookies back into my diet. I just couldn't give them up forever. But, given the progress I already made, I wasn't going to let them bulk me back up to 205 pounds. So I've been able to limit them.
In her book The Beck Diet Solution, Judith Beck discusses all the weird ways we have of thinking about food. One particularly fattening train of thought that I found myself conducting was “Well, now that I've eaten that, I've blown my diet for the day, so I might as well blow it for the rest of the day and start fresh tomorrow.” Now, I eat the occasional crappy treat, but I don't let it open the floodgates.
With finances, it's important to allow some “fun money” back into your life, and if you blow your budget, don't let that be an excuse to continue your old spending habits.
3. Change your associations
I intentionally use the term “crappy treat” since I've come to see all the bad food for what it really is: unhealthy, fattening, teeth-attacking, and not a particularly good way to spend money, but still a treat (which, in my book, is something you can still enjoy but only once in awhile). One example: I loved soda, particularly Mountain Dew. Even as I drank it for decades, I associated it with being a kid and visiting my grandparents' farm in Ohio (where I had more freedom to drink what I wanted). But then I began to do more research into healthy foods, and really began to understand how bad soda is. In particular, I heard a story on NPR about how meth addicts love Mountain Dew, and how it contributes to them losing their teeth (which the taxpayers have to replace for the meth addicts in prison). Now, I can't have a Mountain Dew without feeling like my teeth are going to immediately fall out.
Watching several food-related documentaries — such as Super Size Me, Forks Over Knives, and Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead — also helped me better appreciate the long-term health effects of a bad diet. Given my family history of heart disease, I began to see a healthier lifestyle as not just a way to be only slightly embarrassed at the pool during the summer, but as a genuine way to stave off death for as long as possible.
When it comes to finances, the important change of associations I've made is seeing responsible habits not as self-denial but as a way to provide for my family, afford college for my kids, and a secure old age for me and my wife (especially my wife, since she'll likely live longer than I will, regardless of my diet).
4. Use the right leverage
If changing your associations doesn't get you to change your habits, then you might need some external motivation. Sites like RescueTime.com, QuantifiedSelf.com, Xpenser.com, StickK.com, and Fatbet.net will help you monitor your use of time, money, and food, and encourage you to lay some money on the line to encourage you to follow through on your resolutions. Or maybe you need to put your ego on the line. In their book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, John Tierney and Roy Baumeister discuss the “public humiliation diet” of Drew Magary, who Tweeted his weight every day. As Baumeister explained to me in an interview, “I think we are shaped by nature to work together with other people and therefore to care what other people think of us. The basic biological strategy of human beings is we survive and reproduce by cooperating and working together with others in these small groups, so success with them is very important.”
The Motley Fool's internal financial fitness coach has decided to use this leverage to get me to the gym more often. He took a picture of me with my shirt off, and he has the right to put it up on the screen during a company meeting if he feels I'm not making enough progress. Now, if you knew me, you might be surprised that this means anything to me, since I've taken off my shirt and/or pants at several company meetings (you don't really want to know all the details — such as announcing the new company 401(k) match by having “8%” written on my underwear — but it suffices to say that The Motley Fool is just that kind of place). But there's something motivational about knowing that my picture could be held up before the company as an example of a guy who could use some work and isn't getting it done.
If public accountability is the secret to your success, inform a group of people (friends, family, coworkers, government spies who monitor all our emails) about your goal — financial, physical, or otherwise — as well as when you plan to have it accomplished and how you'll prove it. Or follow in the spirit of Drew Magary and post on your blog a picture of your scale or account balances every day, or use sites like Tweetwhatyouspend.com.
Or send us a picture of you without your shirt; we won't judge.