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Getting Out of H.A.R.M.'s Way: Habits that Hinder - Part 2

We can use decision-making to choose the habits we want to form, use willpower to get the habit started, then - and this is the best part - we can allow the extraordinary power of habit to take over. At that point, we're free from the need to decide and the need to use willpower.

~Gretchen Rubin

We begin our series of Getting Out of H.A.R.M.’s Way, by getting an understanding of how habits can insidiously keep us stuck in a holding pattern and prevent us from making economic progress.

If we mindfully reflect on some of our financial frustrations, we would likely see ways in which our behavioral patterns may influence our financial outcomes. Even if we recognize the patterns, making changes may present challenges. Behavioral economics and neuroeconomics, which are based on research in psychology and neuroscience, explain the many reasons that our economic choices commonly don’t serve our best interests.

A common belief is that our behaviors mostly reflect our decisions. Habits, however, are a mental process in which you are not actually making decisions. They are repeated behaviors done without thought or mental awareness. Habit-making behaviors form in a different part of the brain than the brain region where decisions are made. Once a behavior becomes automatic, a behavioral pattern literally becomes etched into our brain’s neural pathways, and associated actions are switched to autopilot. Think about all the actions required to drive a car that you are not conscious of. You do them automatically because they have become habitual.

Research shows that making and breaking habits is a different mental process than improving decision making skills. People often apply the wrong strategies to deal with the problems affecting their finances. For example, emphasizing the mechanics of a budget will often do nothing to remedy financial problems resulting from influences that are organically habitual.

Take the techie, who enjoys acquiring the latest version of the newest electronic device whenever it comes out. If this reduces his resource so that he is unable to achieve his broader economic goals, he may have a habit that needs to be dealt with. Focusing on numbers in a budget won’t curb his urges, and the excitement of discovering and engaging the new features of his equipment. Similarly, a person who finds that dining out is an unnecessary drain on resources has to form a habit of shopping for groceries, cooking, and eating meals at home.

Both the underlying causes of financial challenges, and the right approaches to fix the problems must be identified. One-size-fits-all approaches to financial challenges are ineffective because of the multidimensional influences on our economic lives. Consider this insightful quote:

If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.

~ Abraham Maslow

Over the last decade, technological advances in neuroscience have provided understanding of the habit formation process. If you’ve given up on your efforts after realizing that the notion of “21-days to form a habit”, is a myth, or you’ve been unsuccessful with New Year’s resolutions, or learned that willpower isn’t enough, this might be encouraging. Having some insight about your habits can help your involvement in the neural process of change.

So what’s behind your habits? There are three parts of a habit, which form what is called a “habit loop”. There’s a cue, a routine, and a reward. Your cue is a trigger like a time or place. For example, ‘when you wake up’, or ‘every Friday after work’, or ‘just before bedtime’. A trigger sets your brain in motion to go into automatic mode and drive a behavior. The routine is the behavior itself. The reward is the benefit you get from doing the behavior. This benefit is what entices the brain to determine that the pattern is useful enough to remember for the future. Whenever there’s a trigger, an automatic behavior proceeds to obtain the beneficial result. For example, once a person is in the grocery store, it triggers an impulse to pick up a favorite foods, even though their intention was only to pick up a couple of specific items.

The golden rule of habit change says that the most effective way to change is to keep your current cue and reward, and change only the routine. Changing habits is rarely easy, and having some insight about its complexity could even lead our minds to come up with rationalizations about why it’s too hard to change. The intent for sharing this is empowerment, not excuses. It is to help you become more self-aware of the normal things about your behaviors that can be limiting your economic progress. Becoming conscious about the unique nuances underlying your personal behaviors and having a science-backed approach to aid your efforts towards change can exponentially increase the potential for your success.


In the first blog in our Getting Out of H.A.R.M.’s Way series, you were encouraged to reflect on habits that you felt needed your attention. Look back on what you journaled then, and reflect now on any other habit changes that might have a positive influence on your economic affairs.

  • What behaviors, related to habits, do you recognize need to change so that you can see positive shifts and transformed outcomes in your economic life or finances?

  • Of the behaviors you identified, consider at least one habit that you feel you may mentally be ready to address. Start small if you need to. It takes mental effort to establish new habits. It’s recommended that you pray about how God would have you to move forward.

  • Cue - For a habit you want to break (replace), take time to diagnose the cue that triggers the current behavior. Think about what your intentioned actions will be to replace your old behavior when that cue triggers your normal automatic response. If creating a new habit, what will the new routine be? What will be the cue that triggers the new behavior that you want to establish? Common triggers are often a time of day, location, other people, an emotional state, or a preceding action, but they can also be anything.

  • Reward – Rewards are the satisfaction derived from the behavior. They can also be anything. It might be tangible (e.g. food) or intangible (e.g. social interaction, stress escape, avoiding boredom). However, it is something that is craved then satisfied.

  • Breaking a Habit - Think about what satisfaction or benefit you’re getting from your habit. Ask yourself, “What craving/urge is being satisfied?” What substitute actions or behaviors can provide this reward? The reward is something that your brain likes and the reason that it decided the behavior was worth remembering for the future. Your brain is programmed to automatically respond to your current triggers, so expect resistance and prepare yourself to push through the urge to revert to your former actions and your former non-actions.

  • Creating a Habit – What reward will you have or will you give yourself for creating a new behavior? Start with the new behavior. Stay focused on the reward you crave and press through the process of your brain forming new neural pathways that will make the behavior eventually become automatic and instinctive.


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