Four Psychological Barriers to Long-Term Change
The concept of success means different things to different people. Ten years ago, my vision of long-term career success would have been getting a job in a great school district as a teacher, teaching for many years, and having a positive effect on the lives of the students who pass through my doors. Financial success would probably have been staying out of unmanageable debt. My career aspirations changed, and financial success looks much different to me now.
Go back a few more years, and I was in financial trouble. Nothing too devastating, but I had debt, and it was increasing each month due to very little income and moderate expenses. Once that lightbulb goes off and someone who’s in a difficult situation realizes there’s a possibility of life being better must make behavioral changes towards that goal. Whether it’s health, money, personal relationships, or any aspect of life, change can be difficult to accept, start, and maintain.
Psychological barriers get in the way of meaningful behavioral change. At various points in this process of change, people mentally hold themselves back. A recent article by James M. Olson, PhD, published in the Canadian Family Physician, discusses these psychological barriers. While Dr. Olson approaches the topic from a health perspective, they correlate nicely with financial change.
Recognizing those barriers helps overcome them, so this article may help people who want to change the course of their lives from a financial perspective. Cognizance might not be enough on its own, so I have some suggestions for dealing with each psychological barrier.
Cognitive and motivational drift.
Change can be hard work. Maintaining good financial habits may not be as fun as continuing damaging behaviors, like spending more than you can afford, showing off among your friends, or just trying to keep your appearances up with other people’s appearances. Even some well-marketed methods of getting out of debt, like Dave Ramsey’s Debt Snowball, don’t do enough to address the root causes, and many adherents fall back into debt, sticking to a mindset than never really changed.
One solution is to talk with someone who can be your financial mentor. He or she can take an objective approach to helping you succeed with long-term change. Check in with your mentor once a month to make sure you’re heading in the right direction. This is one reason I love the Naked With Cash series here on Consumerism Commentary. Once a month, the seven participants looking to improve their finances for the long-term check in, reporting their progress, challenges and successes. The experts in the series help them stay on track.
Self-motivation seems to come naturally for some people. When I’m passionate about something, I move. I get things done. It’s not easy to get passionate about personal finances, but perhaps keeping an end-goal in mind, a real goal, not a target net worth, those desiring change can stay focused on making the choices that move them in the right direction.
On the topic of staying focused, everyone who wishes to succeed with behavioral change should write and memorize a mission statement. Non-profit organizations use mission statements to determine what activities to pursue. People can use mission statements as a guideline for decision-making: “How does buying a new car and taking out a brand-new loan fit with my mission of achieving financial independence within five years?”
Lack of perceived improvement.
I’ve been working with a personal trainer now for about three and a half months. Aside from some travel that prevented me from going to the gym on just several occasions, I’ve been working out with an expert three times each week. I expected to see some better results by now. I thought I’d be in great shape and look it, too.
My expectations probably weren’t realistic based on my level of workout. I was starting pretty far from in-shape initially, and my workouts are only thirty minutes. These unrealistic expectations were probably formed by late-night commercials in which those starting a new path towards fitness seem to be successful immediately. My process and my starting point mean that progress for me will be slower.
And although yesterday’s sprints wore me out more than usual, if I can step back, I can see I’m moving in the right direction. I’m stronger and in better shape than I’ve been since college. Having realistic expectations is the first way to battle the lack of perceived improvement.
On the surface, being out of debt looks a lot like being in debt. In order to see the effects of change, especially at the beginning of the process, is to look for it specifically. If I had been taking photographs of myself once a week during the course of my workouts, I’d likely have seen progress in my physical appearance. Physical evidence makes progress more apparent. Likewise, tracking your finances is the best way to see your improvement from month to month or paycheck to paycheck.
Lack of social support.
Don’t keep your goals to change your financial behavior a secret. Money isn’t exactly a fun topic to talk about with family and friends, but you don’t really have to talk that much about it. When faced with a spending decision in front of others who you may feel want to see you make a decision you know isn’t helpful, let them know that you’re on a quest to make some changes. Good friends will be your supporters. Family will understand.
Look for people willing to be on your “team.” You can find social encouragement anywhere. I found some for my quest to improve my finances by starting Consumerism Commentary. I had now idea the site would grow into such a great place for people to motivate me along my path to financial stability. When I checked in with my net worth updates every month from July 2003 to December 2011, I felt like I had a community of friends who were interested in my success.
When my family became aware of my goals, they were all very supportive. So don’t keep your intentions a secret.
It’s natural to slip. There’s nothing bad about giving into the temptation to falling back into old behaviors. If that behavior is a drug habit, well, that can be a problem, and that’s how people die of drug overdoses. Thankfully, people very rarely die of a brief return to overspending. The stakes aren’t that high here — but that’s why people often think it’s not a problem to slip occasionally.
Lapses can be intentional or not. If you’re going to fall back into a bad financial behavior, if you do it knowingly, and you can do it while maintaining control over your financial situation, that’s alright. Rewarding yourself for your financial progress with a vacation on the credit card is an acceptable if not good way to continue your motivation — so that’s not really a lapse. Forgetting to update your financial records can be a dangerous lapse because it wasn’t intentional and shows that the most important feature of improving your finances is not that important to you.
The best way to counter lapses is to be prepared for them, recognize them when they occur, and recover very quickly. This will help create a pattern of dealing with lapses that you will soon be able to do before the lapse even occurs. And document them. For a lapse that consists of a single decision, write down what happened, what you were thinking and feeling when the lapse occurred, and how you solved the problem.
If the lapse was more continual, like gradually falling back into an old habit, reset from the beginning, monitor your decisions closely, and watch for the early warning signs of falling back into that habit.
Maintaining behavioral change with money is a life-long quest. Your finances aren’t something you can just fix one day and forget about it for the rest of your life. Behavioral change continues, but it gets easier to maintain with time. Addressing these psychological barriers can help you move forward towards your life-long goals, live your mission statement, and achieve financial independence.