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Where Personal Breakthroughs Really Come From

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This article isn’t ultimately about money, but it does include a simple technique I can almost guarantee will save you tens of thousands of dollars, years of needless toil, and relieve you of an enormous amount of financial stress.

If you do this one thing, you’ll have a lot more money and a lot less worry, without any concerted efforts to earn more or restrict your spending. Probably the only way it won’t change your life is if you’re already doing it.

It isn’t difficult and it requires no new skills, only a few minutes here and there, and perhaps a daily alarm, or a strategically placed sticky-note, to remind you to do it.

Here it is: you ledger your income and expenses. Any money that enters or leaves your possession, you track in a spreadsheet or ledger by category. Then look at the totals at the end of the month. As a failsafe, sit down once a week for twenty minutes to make double-sure you did it.

That’s the entire commitment—just tracking the income and out-go. You’re free to buy whatever you want, as long as you track it. Go order $85 worth of tapas and wine, just make sure you ledger it. Go get a $350 handbag if you like, as long as you’re willing to type that “$350.00” into the “Clothing and accessories” column later that night.

Without any budgeting or self-imposed restrictions, you’ll automatically make far better use of your money, at least doubling or tripling the efficiency of your discretionary spending. You’ll gain a sense of control over your financial life and experience far less money anxiety, all without any conscious effort to spend less or make more.

It works because it’s impossible to be aware of the actual numbers behind your behavior without your priorities changing. It becomes easy to see where you’re getting value and where you’re not. A natural aversion to wastefulness emerges in your daily behaviors, with no self-scolding necessary.

In other words, the things that tempt you towards trouble become considerably less tempting, and that’s the vital point here—tracking your behavior, without striving to change it, gently reduces the amount of willpower and self-scolding required to do the right thing. 

The magic of tracking without striving

I’ve spent my entire adult life experimenting with self-improvement campaigns of all sorts, and nothing has worked better than tracking alone. Just recording the numbers—without striving to change anything about what you’re tracking—almost always creates a sustainable, healthy transition to a better way of doing things.

It sounds radical: let yourself do what you want as long as you track it. But it leads to lasting change far more quickly and painlessly than the conventional method: striving to meet arbitrary, self-imposed quotas, hoping it will one day stop being so painful.

Typically, we begin with a reasonable-sounding standard we’d like to meet—a certain budget for dollars spent, calories consumed, hours dedicated to whatever project—and then engage in a seemingly endless series of willpower battles, trying to stay on the right side of the line. We combine all of our tracking with striving, and striving sucks—particularly if we’re striving to change behaviors we don’t understand yet—so we soon quit both.

Exercising willpower is painful, and we can’t rely on having enough of it to sustain us for the months it takes for the new standard to become easy to meet. From the start, we can’t wait to be done with our campaign of self-restriction, so we fall (or dive) off the wagon, and maybe try again in a few months.

These abandoned trials leave us feeling guilty and powerless, and convinced that the high road is the harder one.

Occasionally we do succeed this way, and meeting our new standards eventually becomes easy. But that’s not because we finally became masters of self-control. It’s because, in the intervening time, what we want to do has changed.

Tracking without striving does this from the start. Keeping aware of dollars actually spent, hours actually worked, miles actually run—changes what you want to do. You can easily spot the places where it’s easy to make progress, and where it’s too difficult to force things right now. The high cost of certain habits becomes too obvious for them to remain very tempting.

Breakthroughs come from awareness, not from willpower or “grit”, or any other forceful qualities we never have enough of. They come from understanding our behavior, not from policing it.

Awareness makes stagnation impossible

When we don’t allow striving to undermine our tracking, the improvement comes from wisdom—a real-time understanding of the connectedness between our behaviors and the types ease and difficulty we keep experiencing in our lives. Doing the healthy or wholesome thing is always going to be a fight if it only comes from a dull, nagging sense that you “should” do it.

And the daily commitment is so small—writing a few digits on a chart, whatever they are that day, for whatever behavior is important to you—that you’re not tempted to quit. Yet this small act of accounting is enough to bring the consequences of your choices into the moments in which you make them.

Seeing, on your chart, that you only worked on your book for fourteen minutes this week makes it nearly impossible to continue in the same way—you will either change your routine right away, or consciously shelve the project, either of which might be appropriate.

If you’ve convinced yourself you deserve an indulgence, go ahead and eat a tub of Ben & Jerry’s at 3pm, as long as you write down the 1,330 calories. Tracking without striving allows us this vital freedom to overindulge sometimes, to give ourselves a break—to be human, in other words. But as long as you’re tracking the reality of your behavior, there’s no way you’ll do it every day.

Our habitual self-defeating behaviors—overspending, quitting early, skipping workouts—require a certain unawareness that they’re connected to anything real. We need to believe in some naïve way that the cost of a bad choice is not really ours to pay. Unfortunately, we do this easily—“Right Now You” gets the immediate benefit of the impulse purchase or the skipped workout, with a faint sense that “Later You” will always be there to pick up the pieces. We can operate this way throughout our lives, and still wonder why we always have the sense that we’re digging out from under something: debt, neglected health, messes of all kinds.

Creating an everyday habit isn’t quite trivially easy, but entering a number on a chart is about as easy as it gets. There’s something immediately satisfying about it, regardless of the numbers. It’s interesting, and often fun, to see what in your life affects your numbers, and what your numbers affect in your life.

Most importantly, it feels great knowing that you can act freely as long as you acknowledge, in writing, what you used that freedom for on this particular day. It forces you to recognize that you are free and have always been, but that you can’t escape responsibility for how you use that freedom, whether or not you choose to be aware of it.

You can always quit tracking, of course. But after doing it for even a short time, you can’t quit without knowing you’re choosing to live in the dark. It really feels like a conscious decision to be less happy. But in a few months, when you’re fed up with being less happy—again—you know what to do.

***

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Anne June 19, 2017 at 2:09 am

There’s something very profound about this and I need to go away and give it more thought. I’m very aware that in my problem areas – spending, food and drink – it’s almost as if a part of me hides the unhealthy behaviours from the more rational, clear-sighted part, if that makes amply sense at all. There’s a sort of denial of what I’m doing. Numbers written down would make the denial impossible to sustain. I like this very much.

David Cain June 19, 2017 at 8:54 am

Just pick one value — the least emotionally-fraught one maybe — and simply write it down, reminding yourself you’re free to spend, eat, or drink as much as you want, as long as you write it down. If nothing else, you’ll learn a lot. And if you’re not willing to write it down, you know the problem is quite serious.

Naomi June 19, 2017 at 3:40 am

Yep – this works. I did it in 2016 every time I bought any clothes or accessories (or even had my shoes re-heeled or bought some boot polish) – to see exactly how much I was spending – sartorially – and in which shops (charity shops don’t feel so bad as it’s recycling and donating) – it was very enlightening!

David Cain June 19, 2017 at 8:57 am

The values can be shocking once you see them on paper or on a screen. And that makes it easier than it’s ever been to change, because suddenly you *want* to do things differently, rather than “tighten the belt” or “cut back” or some other measure where your values don’t change but your behavior is somehow supposed to.

Jen June 19, 2017 at 3:49 am

I’ve been tracking too many things for about a year now, as I have a chronic illness and I’m trying to scientifically deduce what causes it to flare up or not. Diet, carbohydrates, calories, nutrients, supplements, medicines, digestion, energy rating, sickness rating, steps per day, resting heart rate, temperature, whether or not I do my ‘exercises’…. tell you what, I’m sick of it! I wish I could just live my life without plugging all these things into an app, or spreadsheet. But I haven’t found any patterns yet, and nor have I reached my tracking breaking point, so I’ll keep monitoring with hope I will find a clue to improving my health one day! Not sure I’ll last forever though…. thanks for your column :)

David Cain June 19, 2017 at 8:59 am

I can see how tracking too many things would drive you nuts. I guess I didn’t say so but I was referring to one thing at a time here.

lyn June 25, 2017 at 2:19 am

Sorry to bug in but I think it’s harder with health than finance or anything that is easily measured. Probably you should do one indicator at a time like David says, and see what changes when you tune that one thing.

Tobias June 19, 2017 at 4:38 am

This is a very powerful insight, David. Whenever it comes to making changes – whether that’s your business, friends and family, health and fitness, or other – I keep thinking in terms of orientation practice. You first have to decide on where you want to go, then determine where you are, before finally plotting the path between the two.

Tracking your progress on this path is the missing link. We’ll all keep wandering off the set course and back onto familiar roads. That doesn’t take us somewhere new though, so we need a constant reminder of what’s important to us.

Thanks for putting this into words!

David Cain June 19, 2017 at 9:07 am

You do have to understand where you are, yes, and we tend to skip that and go right to striving for some new standard. It is so revealing to see what you actually do, because often we’re nowhere near where we think. We think “Oh yeah I can reduce my discretionary spending to $300 a month, but you aren’t even aware that you’re currently spending $670 a month. So the project is doomed from the start, and it just makes you feel like you can’t get away from your habits.

Jess June 19, 2017 at 5:16 am

Excellent idea! I work for myself and money is really inconsistent, some months I’m doing really well and others are I’m just scraping by. I need to get used to adjusting my spending accordingly and also not spending it all when it floods in!

Does anyone have an excel template that they would be willing to email to me?

Thanks!

David Cain June 19, 2017 at 9:08 am

You can just google “excel monthly spending template” or something similar and find lots. I use YNAB, an excellent piece of software, with a really easy app for entering purchases right when you make them, and it is life changing.

Alaina Raychel June 20, 2017 at 9:09 pm

I love YNAB, it *is* life-changing. Thank you Jesse Mecham!

Priscilla June 19, 2017 at 5:16 am

This technique is exactly what I did when I decided I wanted to start acting like an adult. I think I was about 17 when I began tracking money in and out. That led to being INTERESTED in my personal finances, and then creating a budget because I wanted to, not because it was another adult chore to check off. Good technique, good post!

David Cain June 19, 2017 at 9:11 am

Interest is what makes this work, for the most part. It is really interesting to see where you’re allocating things currently, and there are always *really* obvious places where you can score some easy savings. And then it becomes kind of fun, because you realize that you get to decide where things go. It completely reorients the money/spending issue, from an ongoing fight against impulses, to an interesting and empowered exercise in allocating resources.

Mickey June 19, 2017 at 5:24 am

I have tracked my finances for years with sub-tracks for certain categories. It helps me meet goals, simplifies annual tax filing, and balance my check book on an almost daily basis. It’s a good feeling to start the day knowing that at least one area of my life is under control!

David Cain June 19, 2017 at 9:12 am

Totally, and if you’re going to have one area completely visible and manageable, money is a pretty good one!

Rob June 19, 2017 at 6:18 am

This article is excellent. This is a very important insight which I’ve recently started to glimpse (after installing an app for building new habits that basically only provides checkboxes for me to tick – or not – each day). Even though I hadn’t had the generalized insight laid out in this article yet, it is clear as day to me that it’s true. It’s probably very easy to underestimate the value of this insight, but this might just have suddenly become the most important, most practically applicable, and therefore most impacting article for me on this blog.

David Cain June 19, 2017 at 9:13 am

Good, I’m glad! Best of luck with it and I hope it helps a lot of people.

Aaron June 19, 2017 at 7:15 am

Spot on, David. Tracking my meditating helped me become a daily practitioner. It started with your “Seinfeldian” worksheet from Calm Calm with a beautiful chain of X marks. I soon found an app where I can track time spent in session, average session length, number of sessions, consecutive days, etc. I find it satisfying, easy, and extremely effective.

David Cain June 19, 2017 at 9:15 am

Ah that makes me so happy. I use Insight Timer for tracking meditation and occasionally check “time per week” and stats like that, and it’s impossible to see that and not evaluate whether you think you’re on track or not.

Dollar Flipper June 19, 2017 at 7:42 am

We’ve been using YNAB (You Need A Budget) for over 4 years now. It’s life changing. We wouldn’t know how to do budgeting otherwise.

The biggest mind shift for us was to track credit card expenses just like we would with cash. When I spend $10 at the grocery store, it doesn’t matter if we use cash/check/credit. All of it is treated the same. This helps us two ways – first, we know exactly how much money we have in total and what’s already planned to be gone (i.e. we used a CC). Second – when a credit card bill comes, we just transfer the money over to the CC account from our checking. Credit card statements aren’t a bill like they used to be. We just see it as a transfer of funds from a positive account (checking) to a negative balance account (CC).

I can go on and on about the wonders of budgeting ahead too. We never stress about money anymore.

David Cain June 19, 2017 at 9:17 am

YNAB is fantastic, and yeah it totally changes everything. Money no longer seems like some leaky bucket I’m frantically trying to get everywhere it needs to be before it runs out, it’s more like a pile of bricks I can build what I want with. Totally different mentality, once you know where they are all going. I love YNAB.

Johan June 19, 2017 at 10:30 pm

I’ve also been using YNAB for 4+ years and even as someone who was always conscious of money I was able to find leaks in my spending. Not only that, but it allowed me to allocate money to categories that I really value and bring me joy in life rather than always being afraid of spending money. Best part of finding YNAB was it led me to discovering MMM/FIRE community and eventually this blog that’s helped me tremendously. The domino effect :)

Mrs. Picky Pincher June 19, 2017 at 7:55 am

Love it! Staying aware of our thoughts and actions is the best way to push through any boundaries, whether they’re personal or financial.

David Cain June 19, 2017 at 1:28 pm

Logging certain numbers sheds a lot of light on what causes what, including how we think about things. You might think you overspend generally, but when you look at the numbers, it becomes obvious that most of it has to do with entertainment, or food, or some other singular area. Then it’s a no brainer to look closer at why.

David Stucker June 19, 2017 at 8:31 am

David,
If you haven’t read Gandhi’s autobiography, mostly about his exhaustive experiments in become a better human being, you should! He spends a few pages to address this very topic. Something about the facts helps us keep perspective and naturally able to exercise restraint! I appreciate your take on this subject, and look forward to future articles as well!

David Cain June 19, 2017 at 1:28 pm

Will investigate, thanks David.

Jay Shah June 22, 2017 at 8:36 pm

And don’t forget the Autobiography of Ben Franklin where he did the tracking of his habits/virtues etc. An excellent reading too.

I used Quicken for ages before it was known as Quicken until Intuit bought it out (just like Turbo Tax). I will share the habit that we instilled in the kids.

When my son was in 3rd grade he complained about 25 cents weekly allowance while others got 50 cents. I offered him $5/week (his eyes popped out of sockets) with few conditions:

1) Half of the amount has to go in the savings – it became a weekly visit to the bank on Saturday for a candy and passbook update!

2) $2 can be saved in the bank or can be spent on anything as long as we approved. Wel..l, it became a competition between the brother and sister as to who has more money in the bank anyway!

3) Rest of the 50 cents can be spent on anything without or permission as long as it was not on candy only And

4) Most importantly, accounts have to be entered in the Quicken!

Today age 35 they thank me for the frugality and savings habits when they see their friends still in school and credit card debts while they have 600K+ in the savings and are on track to have more than $9 M on their retirement on a teacher’s salary of $90K!

They could have earned easily $300K-$400K with their IVY league graduate degrees but they chose to be math and science teachers and help make lives. They are very happy with that. My son got Best Math teacher award from North Western Uni in front of 40,000 students and parents and sat next to chairman of IBM and Noble Laureates. He declined more money to be on the admin side vs. being a teacher. My daughter just became Academic Dean at a high school in Asheville, NC.

When he was in 4th grade he won raffle tickets to the famous WGN Bozo Show where the wait for the ticket was 6 plus years. He ended up giving it to needy children in the hospital.

They learned the value of life – human side and financial side from the childhood.

Small things can make a huge difference – discipline is the key thing.

The Tepid Tamale June 19, 2017 at 8:47 am

“Breakthroughs come from awareness, not from willpower or “grit”, or any other forceful qualities we never have enough of. They come from understanding our behavior, not from policing it”. I have been working tirelessly for the last 5+ years on proving that willpower and grit don’t really produce any breakthroughs. So, if you think that is enough time to prove your paragraph, I will happily move on to understanding my behavior. (Yes, I am being sarcastic. Your post is awesome, and just what I needed, THANKS!)

David Cain June 19, 2017 at 1:31 pm

Yeah, I had a sense that grit/determination was not what I was missing but I didn’t know what it was. It turns out that actually *knowing* the behavior I was trying to change was more important than whatever new standard I could think up.

Ashley Kung June 19, 2017 at 9:09 am

I did this with food. I tracked only calories at first. Then added protein, then fiber. Then calcium and iron. At the time I wasn’t striving for anything. But wow, what an eye opener. I learned a lot of different things that improved my diet. But the biggest revelation for me was actually seeing the abysmal amount of calcium I was getting each day (I don’t like milk). So I started eating yogurt, but through my tracking, I also learned about lots of non-dairy foods that are rich in calcium (kale, broccoli, bread, beans, almonds!) which is amazing. Now I’m able to get enough calcium, without having to drink three glasses of milk every day.

I don’t track these things anymore. Tracking all five at once was a lot and is what made me quit – I already see in one of your comments above that you recommend tracking one thing at a time. I agree. Though I learned valuable things from tracking all five, I know I would have learned more and stuck with it longer by focusing on one at a time.

Your post showed me that food and money aren’t the only things I can track – thanks for that. I’m really looking forward to reading other comments for additional ideas.

David Cain June 19, 2017 at 1:26 pm

You make a really good point here — after a while you don’t need to track certain things anymore, and that’s because your values change as you get a better sense of what life is like when you’re on track with your goals. I tracked calories and macros in MyFitnessPal long enough that I knew what a reasonable portion was and what was unnecessary, and I just gravitated towards the reasonable.

Jay Shah June 22, 2017 at 8:49 pm

There was an excellent book by Dr. Harry Roberts (I think that is the name) a University of Chicago Professor and Illinois Bell VP Sergesketter called “Quality is Personal” based on Ben Franklin’s idea of a tracking list.

The excerpt from the book is at:https://www.chicagobooth.edu/~/media/0F4AC7A4E56A4F2A8994D46D5B964A4A.pdf and the used book can be gotten from – https://www.thriftbooks.com/w/quality-is-personal–a-foundation-for-total-quality-management_harry-roberts/429284/?mkwid=s0GErMpGO%7cdc&pcrid=70112878392&pkw=&pmt=&plc=&gclid=CjwKEAjw1a3KBRCY9cfsmdmWgQ0SJAATUZ8bhQR2K-ryyGmClW2AGSTNgtV2Nu5wrd7gdDJRpMLSqBoCFfbw_wcB#isbn=0029266254&idiq=300285

One of the reviews of the book says very nicely “It starts with the “Personal Quality Checklist”, an idea that goes back at least as far as Benjamin Franklin. The goal is to eliminate defects and reduce cycle times on repetitive personal processes. The means is systematic record-keeping. The personal processes could be brushing one’s teeth, being on-time for appointments, maintenance of an exercise program. In other cases, the focus might be on defects, such as saying “like” as an interjection in speech (as in, “I was, like, soooo bored, dude.”) or fidgeting in class or at a meeting. The book takes various ideas from the quality movement in industry and illustrates or suggests their application in personal processes. I am sure that the very idea of this will upset some folks. They probably aren’t going to be persuaded. But, if, like me, you are skeptical of most over-blown self-help books and courses, this modest, semi-scientific approach may be just the ticket for demonstrable, lasting self-improvement. If it was good enough for Ben Franklin, ….”

Again Discipline is the key – that is why the book camp in the armed forces to turn a boy into a man. And one can develop the discipline by tracking!

Jay Shah June 22, 2017 at 8:57 pm

There is a 1993 book “Quality is Personal” by Uni of Chicago Professor Harry Roberts and Illinois Bell V Bernie Sergesketter.

One the reviews put is nice:
“….It starts with the “Personal Quality Checklist”, an idea that goes back at least as far as Benjamin Franklin. The goal is to eliminate defects and reduce cycle times on repetitive personal processes. The means is systematic record-keeping. The personal processes could be brushing one’s teeth, being on-time for appointments, maintenance of an exercise program. In other cases the focus might be on defects, such as saying “like” as an interjection in speech (as in, “I was, like, soooo bored, dude.”) or fidgeting in class or at a meeting. The book takes various ideas from the quality movement in industry and illustrates or suggests their application in personal processes. I am sure that the very idea of this will upset some folks. They probably aren’t going to be persuaded. But, if, like me, you are skeptical of most over-blown self-help books and courses, this modest, semi-scientific approach may be just the ticket for demonstrable, lasting self-improvement. If it was good enough for Ben Franklin, ….”

You can get the PDF excerpt at https://www.chicagobooth.edu/~/media/0F4AC7A4E56A4F2A8994D46D5B964A4A.pdf
and used book for $3.79 at https://www.thriftbooks.com/w/quality-is-personal–a-foundation-for-total-quality-management_harry-roberts/429284/?mkwid=s0GErMpGO%7cdc&pcrid=70112878392&pkw=&pmt=&plc=&gclid=CjwKEAjw1a3KBRCY9cfsmdmWgQ0SJAATUZ8bhQR2K-ryyGmClW2AGSTNgtV2Nu5wrd7gdDJRpMLSqBoCFfbw_wcB#isbn=0029266254&idiq=300285

Once a given defect is no longer a defect (became an unconscious/involuntary habit then no need to track!

Curtis M Michaels June 19, 2017 at 10:10 am

A generally effective tool I use for personal growth is simple acceptance of what is, and of exactly who I am being in the face of that. From that space I find it easier to make new and better choices. So often your blogs work perfectly with this practice, and this is one of those times.

Thank you for exactly what you’re doing.

David Cain June 19, 2017 at 1:26 pm

Thanks Curtis

Carolyn Hilles June 19, 2017 at 10:14 am

My husband and I tracked our expenses, grouped in evolving categories, for years after reading “Your Money or Your Life”. It’s a basic piece of their program for transforming your relationship with money. What a powerful mirror, and what an incredible tool for retiring early, which we did.

I was a group leader and lecturer for the nonprofit New American Dream, funded by the earnings of “Your Money or Your Life”. I learned so much from seeing others’ spending habits notated. Experimenting with categorizing your spending tailors the exercise to hep you focus on what you want to see, and to help you align your spending with your values.

It’s counterintuitive, but sometimes you get the picture that you need to spend more, not less in a category. If you value the joys of live music, and see that you almost never spend the money on a concert, that’s something to pay attention to. As is the mindless spending you see adding up elsewhere on your spreadsheet. Gradually you learn to recognize what enoughness is in your spending choices. It’s liberating.

Sometimes the numbers are startling. For example, as part of overall spending, we tracked the expenses related to our beloved dog for fourteen years. We wouldn’t have done it differently, but it’s sobering to note that had we applied all of those expenses directly to our mortgage over those years, we would have paid it off years earlier. We all make what seem like small financial decisions (“a puppy!”) without having the picture of what the lost opportunity costs are long-term. It’s all good data for decision-making.

David Cain June 19, 2017 at 1:37 pm

>It’s counterintuitive, but sometimes you get the picture that you need to spend more, not less in a category.

Yes, totally. That has been an unexpected result of really looking at my expenditures. I spend more on food than I used to, because I want to eat better stuff and give my money to better companies. For a long time I skimped on it because I was trying to lower spending generally and it’s a big budget category. But with tracking it was obvious there were better places to eliminate costs.

Chris Gammell June 19, 2017 at 10:18 am

Have you ever run across the X effect? Basically another take on the same idea, but something very satisfying by the big red X’s:

https://www.reddit.com/r/theXeffect/

David Cain June 19, 2017 at 1:37 pm

I will take a look

David Cain June 19, 2017 at 1:38 pm

Oh yes, I have. I always called it a “Seinfeldian calendar” because I learned this practice from what Jerry Seinfeld said about writing. He used a calendar of X’s to make sure he sat down to write jokes every day.

Paul J Longo June 19, 2017 at 10:45 am

I hadn’t ever connected the dots; but, now that you’ve pointed out how this kind of tracking of expenses, which I’ve been doing since 1991 – based on the advice of a financial planner, his only sound advice – I can see that it has helped me become a more mindful and engaged steward of all limited and precious resources. What a significant return on investment! Thank you, David!

David Cain June 19, 2017 at 1:40 pm

Yeah, as far as “ROI” goes, tracking expenditures is one of the most valuable practices I can think of. It can literally save you years of your life, and make those years a lot better.

Michael June 19, 2017 at 12:23 pm

Hi David, great article as usual, some stuff in there I can really relate to. I’ve been tracking my expenses in various ways for 3 years now and it’s completely transformed my finances and approach to handling money.

Tracking time is something I’ve tried on occasions but never managed to find anything that felt right, I’d almost like a ‘time budgeting’ app, that shows you the ‘free’ time you had, and then you allocate how you used it. Don’t suppose you’ve come across anything like that?

Thanks

Mike

David Cain June 19, 2017 at 1:42 pm

I’ve tried tracking time usage in general (experiment no 5 I think?) and it’s a neat thing to do for a week but it’s just too cumbersome to be “easy” in the sense I describe in this post. I think it makes sense to track time spent on particular projects though, like working on your book, or website, or practicing guitar, etc.

Mrs. Grumby June 19, 2017 at 1:28 pm

This look into the psychology of tracking is very helpful. Thank you!

I’ve been an expense tracking junkie for a few years now and it’s been a transformative experience. The resulting behavior shifts are a significant part of why my husband and I will be able to retire early. :o)

Now … since I sit next to the snack drawer at work I might just start documenting both my temptations and my consumption of the contents. I do know that ‘Friday Fatigue’ often leads to regrettable behavior …

David Cain June 19, 2017 at 1:44 pm

It would be a fun thing to track — feel free to consume anything you want from the snack drawer, just write it down, then look at your “snack calendar” in a month and I guarantee you’ll see some pretty obvious (and easy) changes you can make to limit the trouble it causes.

Jeanette Metz June 19, 2017 at 4:36 pm

This is so true and helpful. It is almost like when you start a food journal and you second think everything you eat that is unhealthy because you don’t want to journal it down later that day. I think this is so helpful and can create a real change in behavior when it comes to spending. I am going to start this today in hopes of becoming more mindful with my spending! Thank you for sharing this great idea.

David Cain June 20, 2017 at 10:58 am

Yes, exactly — just knowing that you’ve agreed just to the small task of record-keeping makes you aware in those “moments of choice” that there are costs to what you’re doing that you may or may not want to pay. But when we bring moralizing and self-policing into it, we rebel, and often will make the costly choice just because we hate feeling controlled or deprived, even by ourselves.

Adam June 19, 2017 at 5:14 pm

I started doing this years ago, first with Gnucash and now with YNAB (although the old desktop version that syncs with Dropbox, not the monthly fee web version where they own your data). The next step after getting expenses under control is to allocate a huge portion of regular income to savings that only ever gets used to buy freedom an independence. Depending on your position it can be a debt repayment fund, cover for emergency fund, quit job fund, insurance from getting fired fund, move house fund, start a business fund, and ultimately a retirement investment fund. I think the peace of mind over having this is difficult to put into words. The concept of always growing it for retirement is also a nice one but difficult to convince people of because unlike simply logging expenses this does require conscious opportunity cost.

I’ve been good a tracking finances but although have dabbled with diet and fitness have never managed to keep it as consistent and eventually fall off the rails. I’ll have today give it another go and try to do it in a way that makes it simple enough that I don’t stop doing it.

David Cain June 20, 2017 at 11:08 am

YNAB is great. I use the one-time fee / dropbox version, I didn’t know there was a pay monthly version. Anyway, that feeling of freedom you get once you are actually on the path of long-terms savings is so life-changing, but people don’t talk much about it. Retirement savings always seemed like depriving yourself now so that your older self will enjoy a lot of freedom later. But the freedom happens immediately. It slackens the dependence between you and your income source, it gives you a sense of security and freedom now, even before a penny of that money is spent.

Alaina Raychel June 20, 2017 at 9:21 pm

That perspective is very helpful!

Andrea June 19, 2017 at 5:58 pm

Bullseye! This is how I achieved fiscal/physical fitness… by living in reality.

David Cain June 20, 2017 at 11:09 am

That’s really what it amounts to. The numbers make it pretty clear what you’re actually living in and what the costs of your current patterns actually are. There is this incredible sense of autonomy you gain once you see the numbers and understand that you are ultimately deciding what they are.

Brady Faught June 20, 2017 at 1:31 pm

I’m going to start this for food. I think I’m a healthy eater, but I know that in between the salads and smoothies I eat a lot of breads and chips and snacks. i.e. I’m a worse eater than what I convince myself of. I highly recommend Evernote as you can have it on your phone and computer so you always have access to your journals and lists.
I just wrote a post on how little life costs can add up in a big way. But this is the enforcement and quantifying aspect that my post is missing.
http://www.treadinglight.ca/2017/06/16/beware-little-life-costs-add-like-crazy/

David Cain June 23, 2017 at 11:20 am

For food, MyFitnessPal is much better than Evernote. You can just scan the upc of the package, enter the amount and it tracks everything about it, right down to micronutrient intake. It’s the gold standard for tracking food intake.

Ursula in Cádiz June 20, 2017 at 6:30 pm

I don’t comment enough on your amazing posts, David, but this was one of those which really made me think (most of them do, but maybe not quite to this extent). I don’t know where you get such insight from, but please know that it is incredibly helpful stuff, and written so well that this particular reader always goes away feeling richer. Thank you!

David Cain June 23, 2017 at 11:21 am

Good to hear! I hope you can find a place to put it to use :)

Abhijeet Kumar June 21, 2017 at 6:32 pm

I was on the other end of the spectrum. Hyper conscious about everything I did. Do you think there is a middle ground?

I see awareness can be really useful in learning and making little changes whenever we can. I would actually put a limit. If the limit gets breached, something alarms. Every alarm is like an awareness bell, and you learn on the fly. You might even adjust the threshold based on reality.

David Cain June 23, 2017 at 11:19 am

I don’t think hyper-consciousness and tracking are the same thing. Keep it simple: buy what you like, or eat what you like, or work as much or as little on your important project as you like, as long as you agree to track it. Whether you are ruminating or obsessing over it is something else entirely.

Abhijeet Kumar June 23, 2017 at 5:44 pm

Makes sense.

Chris June 21, 2017 at 9:17 pm

Thanks, David. I continue to get a lot of value out of your articles. You seem to alway be thinking one step ahead of me and shedding great insights into some of the topics and logic that I need most to hear/read at the time of your postings. Sincerely, Chris

Chris June 21, 2017 at 9:49 pm

Thank you very much, David. I’ve been keeping a ledger for about two years but has not been able completely describe what it’s for as eloquently as you have done here.

Chris June 22, 2017 at 8:34 pm

I really and truthfully appreciate this article.

Samantha June 22, 2017 at 10:45 pm

Hi David. I really enjoyed this post and it reminded me of a YT video on actualized.org called “awareness alone is curative”. My question is: how long do you track for? Do you track for a few weeks or months, or indefinitely?

David Cain June 23, 2017 at 11:17 am

It depends… tracking something for just 30 days can teach you a lot about your habits and behaviors, that’s a good place to start, committing to 30 days. But there are some things I will never stop tracking, like money, because it only makes sense to know where your money is going. When you stop tracking you lose that awareness.

Pipsterate June 23, 2017 at 3:15 am

My budget is under control these days, but I wonder if this method could help me make better use of my time. I’d probably be appalled if I tracked how much time I wasted on reddit and other websites over the course of a typical day.

David Cain June 23, 2017 at 11:13 am

Tracking time is much more cumbersome than other things, but you sure do learn a lot quickly. I did this as an experiment for a week: http://www.raptitude.com/2010/04/where-does-the-time-go-experiment-no-6/

What I would suggest is tracking time spent on just one important thing (like working on some big project) and really seeing how you are prioritizing it with your current habits.

franklin bach June 23, 2017 at 7:40 am

The personal breakthrough of tracking spending is suggest a simple concept that has a long term payoff. Changing behaviour is difficult if one does not recognize that a particular behavior could be the root cause. There’s a saying in sales that applies to behavior changes. A customer won’t make a purchase until the cost of the problem outweighs the cost of the solution. The same principle applies to breakthroughs that create behavior changes.
Thanks for posting this as you nailed the concept far better than I did in my recent blog.

Nathan June 23, 2017 at 6:37 pm

I’ve been doing a version of this (just tracking my spending to the penny) on and off for the last four years and have noticed the months I’ve been 100% faithful to it I spend about $500 less than the months where I let my discipline slide and don’t meticulously track my spending.

The one thing I do a little bit differently is record the expense immediately after the purchase. Be it $1.93 for some gum at Walgreens or $21.82 for a taxi ride.

I think the knowledge that I have to record a purchase makes me re-assess whether it is even worth the trouble of pulling out my phone and entering it in. Sometimes it is and other times it isn’t. Apparently that is a $500 difference over the course of a month.

Chaitanya June 24, 2017 at 7:46 pm

Thanks for this article. This article came at a time I am pondering to stop tracking every coin using https://trackeverycoin.com; something I have been doing since 2011 March soon after I migrated to New Zealand.

But now I won’t.

I think it is Robin Sharma who said, “With better awareness we make better choices. With better choices we get better results.”

Your article echoed and elaborated that idea. Thanks once again :)

Chris Durheim June 25, 2017 at 5:15 pm

Wonderful article!

In particular, I think that it can be really important to *manually* record your spending. I know many people out there use Mint or Personal Capital, which link to your bank account and track automatically.

There’s a big benefit that comes from tracking manually – an acute awareness in the moment rather than just looking back once a month.

Automated tracking is better than nothing, but manual takes the cake in my book!

Don Karp July 10, 2017 at 11:45 am

Good article!

I encountered this idea of tracking many years ago in “Your Money Our Your Life,” by Vicki Robin. I tracked both income/expenditures and time for a month. Very revealing.

For example, I learned how much my real salary was, after deducting all of the work-related expenses.

The advice given is to work to earn the highest possible salary you can get, even if you’re not overjoyed with the work. Save money and retire early. Then enjoy life. Not sure I agree with this.

I live in an area of Mexico where it’s sometimes difficult and relatively expensive to get a line installed for internet. So I went to town to internet cafes (yes, they still exist here). I learned that whenever I went to town I’d spend money on all sorts of things. But if I stay home, I don’t spend any money. Guess what? I got that hook up for the internet.

Angus Maiden July 10, 2017 at 5:18 pm

Yes! I started budgeting with the YNAB app recently, and one of the four rules of accompanying program, or suggested method of budgeting, is all about this: tracking income and expenses. I find I don’t even look at the charts and reports than can be generated from the data. I use the budget categories and other features of the app, which helps my life as well, but I think the main thing that’s helped me is that it started me being aware of every dollar I spend. It’s mindfulness in money. People that think this way tend to “Get” a whole lot of other stuff about desires, spirituality, mindfulness, and living a peaceful and good life, for example like the app developer Jesse Meecham – I think you guys would connect well.

Ah yes, just scrolling up into the comments I see some other readers, and yourself, have the same experience.

I really like your articles David, they are such an inspiration. I am going to try to start tracking time spent doing things. Do you know any good apps to quickly jot things for access in a database later? I want to start tracking the time I spend practicing music, and maybe some other things – I have noticed I have poor time management skills, which I’ve just realised is because I’m not very frugal with how I “Spend” my time, which is exactly the same thing as tracking income and expenses, just a different data type.

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