Amanda Mull’s father was a smoker for 20 years. When he became convinced that cigarettes were harmful, he simply quit smoking them. Later, when he decided he should take up running, he got up at 4:30 AM to get in five miles before work. And has continued this practice every day for more than 30 years.
Mull, writing in The Atlantic, says that her dad’s ability to adopt life-changing habits (or quit bad ones) was seen by her as the norm. For years she struggled to exercise regularly, and compared to her father, she’s been an abject failure.
But many of us hold to a similarly unrealistic standard.
“Stories like my dad’s,” she writes, “often serve as pop-psychological proof that you, too, could become a runner, if you really wanted to.” (emphasis added)
That’s the thought we punish ourselves with after we fail. “I just don’t want this bad enough.” We think the key to lasting change is just somehow digging up more willpower.
But the truth is that the virtue we label “willpower” comes in two varieties: the kind that requires ongoing self-discipline, and the kind that’s innate. The first requires a lot of extra effort, while the second more or less comes naturally.
Up until about 20 years ago, popular psychology lumped these two together, and added the idea that your success or failure at gaining a new habit was a matter of personal character. If you succeeded at your diet or put more of your paycheck into savings, then you were a better person.
But since then it’s been shown that for some people, beneficial activities that the rest of us struggle to maintain, are easy or even enjoyable. There are people who actually like going to pool at 5 a.m. or updating their budget on a daily basis. Conversely, a person who prefers the taste of kale to French fries, will have less trouble cutting out fast food.
But what about making a change in an area that goes against your natural bent? Can you establish a good habit where you’ve failed before?
There’s reason for hope here. Behaviorists have found that you can increase your chances for lasting success if you make the new habit as easy as possible. In other words, you can enable yourself in a positive way.
Mull gives her own example of wanting to eat a more healthy diet, which means eating out less often, which means doing more cooking at home. The problem was that she didn’t like cleaning up the kitchen, and so would fall behind on doing the dishes, which made it difficult to prepare the next meal—something she wasn’t naturally inclined to do anyway.
She solved her willpower problem by buying a bluetooth speaker for her kitchen. Now doing the dishes gives her the opportunity to listen to her favorite podcasts. Something she otherwise wouldn’t have time for. And the task she once avoided is now a regular source of enjoyment.
As you consider the lifestyle and financial habits you’d like to establish this year, think about ways to reduce the friction and make them something you might even look forward to.
To meet your objectives as you save for financial goals and retirement, ask about ways to automate the process, making it as easy as possible to see positive change.