Is organization not your niche?
In his book The Story of Philosophy, the late American philosopher and historian Will Durant says, “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly.”
Or, as comedian Jerry Seinfeld said to software developer Brad Isaac, “Don’t break the chain.”
While Seinfeld was offering his advice to Isaac in the context of developing as a comedian, it applies to every area of life: Your diet, study habits, housekeeping, and handling money.
What Seinfeld specifically told Isaac to do was to get a large wall calendar that shows an entire year on a page, and for every day he completed his self-assigned task of writing, he got to put a big red “X” over that day.
Eventually there would be a train of X’s, and the longer that train of red X’s became, the less Isaac would be willing to miss a day. Simple, but effective.
Reasons People Don’t Stick to Habits
Some of the reasons people don’t stick to good habits, like money management, include:
- They try to start too many habits at once
- Routine is disrupted due to visitors, travel, or other externalities
- They miss a day, or a few days, and become discouraged
Sometimes others actively discourage changes.
If you’re trying to develop the habit of managing your finances better, friends or family members may feel threatened by that change.
Maybe it means you don’t go out as much, or maybe it throws light onto their own poor habits.
One of the most important reasons that people don’t develop solid habits related to money or anything else, however, is simply that it’s hard to get started.
But if you know how to get started, you have a better chance of succeeding.
Getting Started On Developing Good Habits
Developing good habits brings to mind other famous aphorisms, like “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” (Lao-tzu).
Here are techniques for developing positive habits in managing your money, your time, your studies, or other aspects of life.
1. Develop one habit at a time. If your goal is better money management, create a small, definable habit, like “At the end of each day, I will write down how much I spent and what I spent it on,” or “I will spend five minutes per night reviewing my Mint.com account.”
2. Keep your new habit small. Writing down how much you spent and what you spent it on may be too much to start with for some people. In that case, simply write down how much you spent. It’s a good start. Five minutes checking Mint may be too much. In that case, make it three.
3. Commit to your new habit for three weeks. Practice your habit once per day for 21 days, and you’re well on your way to having the habit ingrained.
4. Concentrate on starting. In the first several weeks of developing a habit, the important thing is that you start. Maybe you can’t find the slip of paper you’re using to track spending. Write it on the back of an envelope instead. Getting started, even imperfectly, is progress.
5. Recognize the positive in what you’re doing. Checking your Mint account doesn’t magically make your bank balance bigger, but it helps you get a handle on what you’re doing with your money every day, and that’s the first step to better money management.
6. Don’t miss two days in a row. You know how people join a gym January 2, but stop going by Valentine’s Day? Chances are they missed two days in a row, which made it easier to miss the third day, and so on. It doesn’t need to be perfect every day, it just needs to be done every day.
Developing Good Habits is a Skill
Developing good habits is like learning to play bridge or learning to sketch.
When you know how to create good habits and have successfully created them, it’s a little easier to develop the next good habit.
With money, perhaps that next good habit is setting aside a dollar a day for savings, or going through the change in your pocket every night and saving all the “state” quarters.
Learning to develop good habits is itself a good habit, and takes time.
As Jerry Seinfeld said to Brad Isaac, it’s all about keeping that chain of red X’s going: “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”
Mary Hiers is a personal finance writer who helps people earn more and spend less.