This week I’m farewelling a close friend of mine, so in his honour I thought I’d write about habits. If you’ve ever lost family or friends, you’ll know it gets you thinking about the arc of someone’s life and how they managed to accomplish all they did.

My friend, who died of cancer at 63, certainly had good routines in his life. He was able to kick a smoking habit that had begun way too early in his teens. Then there were other habits that he decided were worthwhile keeping, like heading to the gym all the time. Some were just plain fun, like his decades-long dedication to the Hawthorn Hawks in Melbourne, who did him the favour of winning the AFL Grand Final the day before he passed.

He was also in the habit of making sure money flowed where it needed to. He would have approved of Sorted’s advice to grow savings regularly – both saving to spend (which is cheapest) and saving for the future (and all those unexpected events along the way).

What a savings habit does – and you can see this even by just setting aside 1% of what you earn – is put you on your way to sorting out your entire financial situation. It’s a habit that can trigger many other positive ones.

Recognising the bad ones

‘I feel some retail therapy coming on,’ my ex-boss would say when things got rough at one of my previous jobs. This was her way of coping – buying something not because she needed it, or even wanted it, but to feel better. I never knew whether her retail therapy got her in financial trouble, but I’m sure that can happen to people.

Which negative habits are setting you back financially from reaching your goals? Are you dragging along dumb debt? Do you dig yourself deeper into overdraft? Or do you simply fritter away cash here and there without really making sure its flowing where you want it or need it to?

The other day I was discussing with a friend how to ditch their family’s routine overdraft. ‘How do you do it?’ she wondered aloud.

How habits work

There have been huge strides forward in recent years of people’s understanding of how habits work. We now have some powerful ideas on how to tweak these routines that we fall into. If you’d like to get more into it, Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit gives a helpful tour.

Habits follow a familiar pattern. First off there is a cue – sort of a trigger – that starts the habit off. (Though sometimes it is challenging to figure out exactly what triggers certain habits.) Secondly, there is the routine itself – the action we take when the cue presents itself. Finally, there is the reward we get in the end, which in turn reinforces the habit.

So with my boss’s retail therapy, the cue was probably a rough meeting (or three) with her own boss at the time; the routine was hitting a handful of shops and buying a new outfit (or two); and the reward was the relief and compensation that came with those purchases.

The cycle of cues, routines and rewards repeats itself over and over. And what propels the cycle forward is a craving for that reward at the end. Once we’re craving that reward, we are basically programmed to go through that routine every time the cue presents itself.

Habits are not destiny

The good news, as Duhigg points out, is that habits are not our destiny. They may seem inescapable at first, and our brains do in fact store them away permanently so that they can resurface at any time. However, they can be adjusted or even replaced by other routines.

We can find out what triggers our habits, examine what we’re really craving, and find new routines that give us the same rewards. After all, with retail therapy for example, we’re not really craving that new outfit, we’re craving that compensation (above our salary) for being abused at work by a bully boss. If the shopping is breaking our budget, there should be other things we can find to make us feel better.

These days I’ve been wondering a lot about which habits are worth picking up – before I end up with some more I really could do without.

With the right ones in place, a lot can be accomplished in life, no matter how long – or in my friend’s case, short – it may be. He certainly did.

 

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