Happy New Year! As this post is being published, it is now 2018. I hope you’re having a great year so far!
Just under a year ago, I started writing this blog in earnest. I published a few posts in the fall of 2016, but had done absolutely nothing to promote them. In January of 2017, though, I started commenting under others’ posts and listing my website. Mrs. Frugalwoods, who lives close to me, graciously met with me, and she filled me with inspiration and practical ideas, as she is wont to do. I went home from that meeting with a lot of ideas percolating, one of which was to start blogging about the habits that could help me in achieving our family’s goal of doubling our net worth and becoming location independent in three years, which I dubbed “A Year of Good Habits.”
The idea came in part from Charless Duhigg’s infinitely practical book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Duhigg is great at telling stories, and one of the stories he told really stuck with me: there was a young woman named Lisa who was overweight and a smoker. She was in debt and had never held a job for longer than a year. Her husband had just announced he was going to divorce her, so she took a spur-of-the-moment trip to Cairo, because she hadn’t yet maxed out her credit cards and had always wanted to see Egypt. One morning on her trip, after feeling helpless about the life she faced back home, she got in a cab and rode by the Pyramids. She decided, as she saw The Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza, that the only way to change her life was to set a goal to work toward. So she decided to come back to Egypt in a year and trek the desert.
In order to do that, she knew she would have to quit smoking. So she went back to the US, gave up cigarettes, and started jogging. Replacing that one bad habit with a good one led to a series of new habits that changed how she ate, slept, exercised, worked, and organized her day. She eventually started running half marathons, then marathons, then went back to school to get her masters, bought a house, and got engaged.
Neuroscientists interested in habit formation studied Lisa’s brain as part of a larger study to see if it was the trip to Cairo that caused the waterfall of good habits, or the desert trek she eventually made that was the catalyst for her new life. Instead, they found “it was that Lisa had focused on changing just one habit–smoking–at first. Everyone in the study had gone through a similar process. By focusing on one pattern–what is known as a ‘keystone habit’–Lisa had taught herself how to reprogram the other routines in her life, as well.”
Duhigg teaches that replacing bad habits with good ones doesn’t eliminate our old cravings. Our brains consistently produce the hormones that make us want to engage in unhealthy behavior like overeating, drinking too much, or smoking. But when we engage in new habits, day after day after day, then we create “behavioral inhibition and self-discipline” that eventually override those old urges and allow us to bypass them with healthier behavior. We learn to trick our brains.
Could my financial life improve if I improved other habits in my life, even seemingly unrelated processes like making my bed? Could I replace, bit by bit, the bad habits that lingered and replace them with better ones, that actually served me more? I decided to do a one-year experiment inside our larger three-year experiment to find out.
Over the past year, I’ve taken on twelve new habits, focusing on implementing one per month. After a year of lots of practice, some failure, and some success, here are some larger trends that have been revealed:
A Keystone Habit Starts a Waterfall
What’s the one thing that, if you were to do it, you know your life would change for the better? What’s the thing that little voice whispers to you that would change your life, a lot, if you were brave enough to do?
For me, it was drinking. I had spent the better part of my post 21-years (and several of my pre-21 years) using alcohol as a lovely numbing device. Not so much that you could call me an alcoholic, mind you. And not so much that anything in my life was outwardly affected. But enough that my body had started to rebel, in a major way. The one or two glasses of wine that I drank at dinner started to create major problems with my health. I would wake up in an Adrenalin rush in the middle of the night and not be able to go back to sleep for an hour or two. I started to have severe stomach pain episodes every several months, and my immune system was affected–I got sick at the drop of a hat. Even if I just had a beer with dinner, I would get so groggy that I would sit around and do nothing. It may have just been age and a slower metabolism that was finally catching up with me. But my body was giving me a message.
I tried to cut back, and only drink once in a while, but inevitably, I would slip back into my old habits and be back to my trusty glass or two of wine per evening. That little voice inside me had been telling me for a while that the only way I would successfully change my habit was to stop drinking any alcohol at all.
I knew, because of what I studied about habits, that the only way I could rewire my brain, which had a strong inclination to turn to alcohol, was to never give it that option. To cut that option off completely, or those brain urges would find a loophole and revert to bad habits.
But what would I tell people? My family loves wine, and my dad collects pricey vintages that we enjoy as a family. My friends drink, and we had girls’ nights where we shared a bottle of wine. In Chile, Mr. ThreeYear and I enjoyed pisco sours, a delicious lemony-liquor drink that tastes a bit like spiked lemonade. Our favorite. I just couldn’t lose that part of my identity. And drinking was the very strong habit that my brain had consistently turned to for decades now.
It took several years, but finally, in June of this year, I quit for good. I’m convinced that part of the reason I was finally able to say “I’m done with alcohol” was because I had been implementing so many new habits in my life. This wasn’t even one of my monthly habits from the experiment, but it was definitely a byproduct.
I knew I could only get so far in acquiring new habits if my health and well-being were compromised. And part of the reason I was able to quit was this blog post. I apparently needed someone to give me permission to quit drinking, even if I wasn’t a “problem drinker” or alcoholic. Because drinking alcohol was so embedded in my cultural identity, I needed someone to say “but you, personally, need to quit for the good of your body and your future” (crazy that I needed a perfect stranger to help me see, but there it is).
So what about all those terrible ramifications I worried about? I explained my decision to my family. They rubbed it in my face (literally–I had a glass of Continuum passed right under my nose). But they saw I was serious, and they accepted it. My friends accepted it, even if not understanding why I had to give alcohol up completely. I replaced my glasses of wine with cups of tea. With seltzer with lime. And on special occasions, when other people were drinking (which was definitely the hardest time not to be drinking) I drank Coke. Real Coke. With sugar. Still do. It’s awesome. It’s the only time I let myself drink it. Yum.
People ask, “will you go back to drinking once you’ve developed the habit not to do it? Just once in a while?” I think of that as asking a smoker to go back to smoking, you know, just a cigarette or two, once they’ve finally quit for good. Crazy, right? But our culture has a hard time with people who don’t drink.
They also have a hard time with people who retire early, who don’t buy new cars and instead invest and save, or who dress their kids in hand-me-downs. Our family just smiles and keeps doing what’s best for us.
The ramifications that did come from that decision have been overwhelmingly positive, and have profoundly assisted my Year of Good Habits experiment. I feel better and sleep better. That is huge. I wake up in the morning, almost every morning, when I’m supposed to. I don’t feel bad from drinking, so I’m able to get more accomplished. I’m not grouchy from feeling bad, so I’m in a better mood. My stomach doesn’t hurt, so I’m not concerned about my health. And the most important ramification is that I am proud of myself again. I am so proud of myself for being able to do this overwhelmingly difficult thing, and to listen to that small voice inside of me and trust it. Therefore, I’m able to tell the truth more. Because I’m not as scared of what people will think. I’m able to trust myself to accomplish the goals I’ve set, and not be afraid that my bad habit of drinking will derail me.
So as I’m typing what’s shaping up to be a really long post, I’m realizing that the Year of Good Habits has already been an overwhelming success, since I’ve been able to replace a bad habit that was doing tons of damage in my life with a good habit that has already reaped, in just six months, innumerable benefits.
But now that we’ve talked about the Keystone Habit, let’s talk about the ones I actually featured.
I featured habits in several categories that I worked on changing. We can group them in four main areas:
Adopting new budgeting software: In January we started using YNAB and I spent the whole year working to stay in budget. We are still not a month ahead in our budgeting, as YNAB suggests that you work toward, and we went overbudget many months. But, we are currently in budget, with a goal to become a month ahead by the end of 2018. YNAB has definely helped us improve how and what we spend. And how we budget, because we can make last-minute changes to our budget and it doesn’t let us budget too far into the future, so we’re forced to stay in the present and work with what we’ve got now.
Tracking what we spent: In July I decided to manually track each and every expenditure in an old-style ledger book, in order to help us better pause before making spending decisions. We were on vacation in South Carolina this month, and were spending a huge amount of money eating out. This is one habit that I failed at miserably. I only tracked one or two expenditures before giving up.
No eating out: After that huge month of eating out in July, I decided that we’d have zero eating out for the month of August. During the time of the habit challenge, we didn’t eat out at all (except for one time when Mr. ThreeYear took the boys out to eat Mexican because he forgot about the challenge). We set this as a habit we’d only adopt for one month, but the truth is, we’ve been eating out less ever since. This is a habit we will continue throughout 2018, because it is such a great way to save money, and once you’ve committed to not eating out, it’s really not that hard to do (at least in our small town!).
Listening to money-saving podcasts: In October, the habit was to use my commute time to listen to podcasts that would help us with our saving habits. While I couldn’t actually find very many good podcasts with practical, and at the same time entertaining, money-saving tips, I did listen to tons of podcasts in general. Paula Pant’s Afford Anything is my favorite. I’m also a big fan of The Minimalists. I have found that listening to smart, successful people who are committed to the types of lifestyles that appeal to me, is a great way to generate more ideas about how we can achieve our goals, and also learn about more things. It’s All in the Mind is a podcast I listen to that teaches so many fascinating facts about neuroscience and the brain. I only have a commute time of 25 minutes a day, Monday through Friday, going and coming, but listening to podcasts during those minutes has been a really beneficial habit to adopt.
Setting my top three to-dos the night before: This habit was one that I have tried to adopt for years. During the month of March, I consistently wrote down my top three goals for the next day. But the habit hasn’t stuck. Part of the problem is that when I’m working, my day is completely programmed with teaching, so I don’t have time to achieve my goals. That only happens in the margins. So setting my top three things to accomplish doesn’t really feel doable. Yet I feel like it would be a powerful habit to consistently adopt. I will keep trying to adopt this habit.
Working out after dinner: Mr. ThreeYear and I adopted this habit for the month of April, only, because we knew that we’d start running outside in May. I work out in the mornings, usually running with my running partners. But adopting this habit for the month of April worked very well. We used our after-dinner time wisely, and the kids joined us for many of the workouts, hanging out and playing in the basement while we completed our workouts.
Putting the phone away when I get home: Scrolling through my phone and not being fully present at home is one of the things I hate to do, so in May I plugged my phone in to its charger every day when the boys and I got home from school, and tried not to look at it again. This is the habit I need to be the most consistent about, but am not. I’m going to make this a priority in the new year.
Waking up at 5am: I started waking up at 5am in November. This is another habit that I have intermittently adopted, but love. Waking up early and giving myself several hours to write, or a little time to write before I run, and then having time to make lunches, linger over coffee, and fix breakfasts, totally changes my day. I am happier, nicer, more patient, and more fulfilled. I love my family to pieces, but I need alone time, and the only time I get it is when I wake up early. Very early. I’m also very slow to get going in the morning, so giving myself almost three and a half hours is wonderful. Yes, I have to go to sleep at a geriatric hour, but it is worth it.
Making my bed everyday: In February, I decided to implement the advice I’d heard (and practiced on and off) for years. I started making my bed every morning. In November, after talking with a friend about how she cleaned her house before she left every morning, I adopted her advice and started making the boys’ beds. I usually make them make their own beds, but really only on weekends or school vacations, so I figured I wasn’t taking over for them. This is the one habit I’ve been the most consistent with, and it really does make me feel better and start my day off on the right foot. Every time I walk into my room after work, I have this little jolt and think, “Wow. This room is so clean. Awesome! Thank you, Past Self, for making the bed!” That never goes away and never gets old.
Not wasting any food: June called for a month of careful preparation for our time away from home. I worked really hard not to throw any food away, and eat everything we had in the fridge. We are guilty of buying too much food and letting some go to waste. This habit morphed into one of the achievements that made me most proud this year–bringing curbside composting to our little town. A new curbside composting service started coming to the farmer’s market in August, and I found several families who were willing to use it along with me. Now we compost all of our food scraps (including meat, which we couldn’t do when we composted at home) and have dramatically reduced the amount of trash we produce.
Practicing gratitude: September was a month where I knew that with the hustle and bustle of our family going back to school, I was bound to get “busy” and forget to notice how much we already had to be thankful for. So I spent time every day writing down what I was grateful for. I was actually surprised at how much it made me feel happier to focus on what I had, versus what I didn’t. I don’t write down what I’m grateful for every day now, but I do make a point to think about what I’m grateful for. Before meals, we often say a blessing as a family, and we list a couple of things we’re grateful for.
Laughing: I can be pretty serious, so I decided that December should be a month of laughing. It was really stressful to get ready to leave for Chile. It was really stressful when we were stuck in LaGuardia airport on our way to Chile. But knowing that I was committed not to getting things done, but to seeing the funny side of things, helped me shift my focus and appreciate the funny, beautiful, and human side of life that I often overlook.
The Habit of the Year (the Winner!)
The habit that has contributed the most towards making my life better and helping me achieve my goals is, without a doubt, November’s Habit, waking up at 5am every day (come on down and get your crown, Miss November! Okay wait, that sounds like something else…).
Waking up early and having time to myself to write, plan, and start my day at a slower tempo has made me feel more in control of my days. Instead of reacting to everything that happens to me, rushing through breakfasts and lunch packings and dressing, yelling at the kids to get going, I have unrushed time to linger over blog posts, check on our investments, and think.
I will keep this habit up through the New Year. I’m going to add in ten minutes of treadmill time when I first wake up, because I doubt I’ll be running more than once or twice a week outside (it’s currently -12F in New Hampshire) for a while. I’m adding in the ten minutes of treadmill time not because I think that’s going to contribute to my health in any meaningful way, but to instead develop a new habit of running a bit before sitting down to write. I tried to do it a couple of times before we left for Chile, and I failed. But running five or ten minutes doesn’t feel so overwhelming, so I’ll try that and see where it leads.
If you’re looking for a habit to really change your productivity levels, may I suggest this one? And may I suggest that you not try to get up at 5am from one day to the next, if you normally wake up at 7am? I tried that and it didn’t work for me. I had to slowly push back my wake up time by ten or so minutes at a time, until my body got used to it.
Slow, Steady Change
I’ve found that slow, steady change works much better for me than immediate, revolutionary changes to my schedule or life. Often, tweaking one or two tiny details in my schedule helps a lot, and helps me stick with a habit. Even though I haven’t kept up with all of the habits I started this year, I’ll go back to them, and try, again and again, to keep incorporating them into my life. I think an “all or nothing” approach to habit formation is misguided. Our neural pathways take years to develop, and our habits take a lot longer than three weeks to fully form, despite the oft-cited advice to the contrary.
If you’ve started a habit and abandoned it as unworkable, but think it might provide real benefit in your life, keep trying. If you’ve tried to write down your to-dos the night before, but aren’t consistently doing it, go back to it and tweak one or two ways you approach incorporating it. Try writing your to-dos right as you wake up. Put out an index card on your counter, next to your coffee pot, and try then. Finding the right cue, or way to train your brain to engage in the habit-forming behavior, is often the key that will help you implement lasting change.
A Little is Better than None
For many of my habits, I worked on them for one month then let them go. Or, in the case of some, like writing down our expenses by hand, I did practically nothing. Was the experiment a failure? No way! I learned something from each and every habit experiment. I learned what works for me and what doesn’t. Most of all, I became more aware of certain bad habits I had. Even if I wasn’t able to replace them with good habits, being aware of them is a start. Over time, I can work on finding ways to improve those parts of my life.
What if you adopt the habit of making your bed every day and then you don’t actually make your bed every day? So what? You’ve made it more than nothing, which is awesome! And the days that you make it, and that good feeling you have (when your brain’s reward centers light up and fill you with feel-good hormones) will encourage you to make it more days than not. Small changes in behavior lead to more small changes in behavior. There is no such thing as failure with habit adoption, unless you completely give up on yourself.
I’m so glad that I undertook A Year of Good Habits. I learned so much, challenged myself, and am better for it. I have another challenge for myself in 2018, which I’ll write about soon. In the meantime, thanks so much for reading, sharing, and commenting in 2017! Happy 2018!!!