You’ve decided to take control of your money and your life. You’ve done a spending analysis and made a budget you know will work. Now all you have to do is stick to it. That’s all.
It’s human nature to believe, once we have made up our minds that “things have to change”, that the changes we want to see happen will proceed on a measurable schedule. But sticking to a new process may be easier said than done. It’s often harder to change how we deal with money than we expect. Change, unlike the steps in building a bookcase or baking a cake, skitters and dashes, sometimes in leaps and bounds, and sometimes in teeny tiny steps.
If you have unrealistic expectations about how long it may take to make your new focus on financial stability into something you do automatically – a habit – you may be setting yourself up for disappointment. Change, it turns out, takes much longer than most of us think it will. There is no “all better” that arrives on a galloping steed. Instead, change comes in tiny teaspoonsful, and each time you fail, it is your opportunity to try again. Failing isn’t the end. It’s the new beginning.
It’s long been said that it takes anywhere from 21 days to 28 days to form a new habit. I actually haven’t believed that for quite some time – ever since I tried a new workout program for 60 days and then dropped it like a hot potato. (I hate exercising. I guess I haven’t found MY exercise yet.) Anyhoo, when I’d done the exercise thing more than long enough for it to be a habit and it wasn’t, I knew the habit number must be wrong. And when, after 50 years of never looking back in the morning, I formed the habit of making my bed in a nanosecond, that confirmed it for me.
I think the whole 21-28 day myth has been quoted so many times that we just all assumed there must be something to it. But really, forming a habit is much more complex.
According to a paper published in the European Journal of Social Psychology there’s a curved relationship between practice and making a behaviour automatic – forming a habit. Psychologists from University College London found that on average it takes about 66 days for a habit to stick. And while the average was 66 days, there was huge variation in how long habits took to form: 18 days up to 254 days. So some habits are easy to form, others not so much.
Some people may be habit-resistant since it took a sub-group in the study much longer than the others to form their habits. Sometimes it’s the type of habit itself since some habits seem to be easier to form than others. Missing a day doesn’t end the creation of a habit. So if you miss a day tracking your expenses, you haven’t actually fallen off the wagon. You can just keep on and you’ll successfully instill the new behaviour. But it’s worthwhile to note that early repetitions give us the biggest boost in our habit formations.
So what does all this mean if you’re trying to create some new positive habits around how you handle your money?
Give yourself more time for the habit to take hold. It may take you just a few days or it may take you months before what you’re trying to do feels like a natural part of your life.
Practice intensely in the early days since it is those early repetitions that will help to make your habit stick. So set aside 5 minutes each day to do something on your Money To-Do List.
If you miss a day, don’t beat yourself up or think you’re back to square one. Just pick up the reins and keep going the next day.
If it still feels really hard after you’ve been doing it for a long time, you may simply be habit-resistant. Don’t stop. If this is important to you – if you want to be in charge of your money and making it work for you – you will persist.