“Any time you see what looks like a breakthrough, it is always the end result of a long series of little things, done consistently over time.”

– Jeff Olson

My sister had some medical issues in the fall which resulted in several open abdominal surgeries. She now has a badass scar of approximately 8” in length that slices right through her muscles rendering normal activity, such as picking up her children, impossible for several months. She’s got the green light from her doctor to go ahead and start strength training but she’s never been one to go to the gym so I asked if she wanted some help.

If this was several years ago, I would have promptly got down on the floor and performed a feat of abdominal acrobatics. Inspiring her to connect her actions to a far off fantasy of 6 pack bliss while she strutted down the beach holding her baby. Whereas in actuality, because she’s my sister, she would have just walked out of the room. Maybe rolling her eyes if she was in a good mood.

But this is how most of us try to enact change in others. We paint what we feel is an inspiring picture, create a complex plan of how to get there, and then watch them flail.

So what I did instead was scratch down 4 exercises with stick men diagrams. Then we practiced together to ensure the variation we chose was appropriate for her current state. The whole “program” should take her 5 minutes. My advice was as follows:

  1. Your goal is to do this once everyday
  2. If you miss a day, don’t worry but do it the next day
  3. Don’t measure results, don’t expect anything in particular
  4. Attach this program to something that is already a habit, make that habit your trigger to do your ab routine
  5. If you get bored, call me and we’ll swap out an exercise

Real, sustainable progress is not made by herculean feats of willpower. It’s made by small, consistent change in a slightly different direction than you were headed before. My whole outlook on goals and habits have undergone a monumental shift in perspective, in no small part to the works of James Clear who writes on habit and motivation.

If I want to work out today, I don’t pump myself up, I just put my workout clothes on. I feel like an idiot wandering around in my activewear if I don’t at least try to justify its presence. My trigger is getting my stuff on. I don’t measure the quality of the workout, I don’t expect any particular result that day. My job is to get over the very low threshold of changing my clothes.

Fitness and money are a great analogy for each other. They are both simple, but not easy. In order to train for a marathon, you need: running shoes, consistency, time, and a friend who is willing to laugh at the same jokes over and over. It’s impossible to control how you feel each run, so don’t try to, just get a run in and sometimes it sucks and sometimes it doesn’t. Over time, if you keep on running, you will get faster and be able to run longer distances.

Or alternatively, you can go from zero to hero and start a 4 day a week training program, buy a heart rate monitor, workout journal, and subscription to a running magazine. You can pump yourself up until week 5 when you either lose all willpower or succumb to an injury. This is why gyms and yoga classes empty out in February.

One method creates a nice sustainable habit, the other creates frustration.

The same goes for money. Wealth accumulation is simple, but not easy. It’s magic formula can be understood by everyone:

Spend less than you earn

or

Expenses < Income (for those with a knack for mathematics)

So when someone gets “serious” about their finances, they usually put themselves on a financial fast and approach their money like a fad diet. No restaurant meals, no shopping, no evenings out, nothing fun that costs money. Feelings of deprivation ensue and once willpower is exhausted they are left with their old habits and some new negative feelings about budgeting.

This is a concern of mine as I try to reconcile the value of financial planning services with the realities of how people make sustainable changes in their life. I had a friend receive a beautiful financial plan from a wealth management company, complete with year by year cash flows through their accumulation and drawdown phases. It outlined exactly how much needed to be set aside each month to reach their retirement goal. It was technically accurate and prepared by someone who was extremely competent. My friend put it in a shoe box somewhere. It was a waste of money.

I’ve had to manage my clients expectations about what they are going to receive from me. The first meeting usually involves the client ready to hand over their income, expenses, tax receipts, and other details. In return, they expect quick answers to their problems (80’s montage style), and then to return to their previous behaviour. Someone who I’ve been working with for 8 months laughed when I mentioned this and told me that she had the same expectation at first. She said “You make ME do all the work!”. Yes I do. But she is now equipped with a set of sustainable habits that will allow her to follow a financial plan.

Consider that meeting a goal in your life is less about doing all the right things, right now, and more about bite sized sustainable behavioural change. Once you can internalize and implement this in one area of your life, it will be easier to use the same process to improve other areas. 

At various points in my reading I have come across several versions of a story that illustrates this point. 

A College professor who taught photography addressed his class on the first day. He announced that he would split the room down the middle into two groups. The first group would be graded on quantity, if they provided 100 photographs by the end of the semester, they would receive an A, if they produced 80 photographs, they would get a B, and so on. The other half of the class would be graded on quality, they would get a mark based on the single best photograph that they submitted.

At the end of the semester the students submitted their work. The professor found that the vast majority of the best photos came from the quantity group.

While the group graded on quality was researching and agonizing about perfection, the quantity group was out taking pictures. They had so many photos to take that they played around with subject matter, lighting, and exposure. If they tried something and it didn’t work, didn’t matter, they were being graded on the number of photos. In this way they kept an open and curious mindset and were able to learn by trial and error much more rapidly than the group that was tasked to create perfection.

So consider carefully what you measure when you set out to improve some aspect of your life. Are you looking for perfection or for incremental change? Are you measuring for results or for consistency?