I started 2019 hot out of the gate. Like most people every January, I was motivated by post-December bloat — too many unread emails, so much pie, all that money spent on random last-minute gifts and bottles of wine and end-of-year sales. But I also felt focused and clear-headed, excited about work projects and just terrified enough of my deadlines to know I couldn’t mess around. I knew what I wanted: a tighter ship, a sense of control. I was ready to crack open a fresh calendar, wake up early, make a budget and a schedule, and stick to my plans. You know, the usual New Year’s stuff.
Of course, I also knew my urge to buckle down wouldn’t last, but I wanted to make the most of it while it was there. Financial psychologist Brad Klontz once told me that people cycle through phases of motivation, and it’s best to harness these bursts of can-do energy whenever they appear. “That New Year’s resolution phase, or the ‘action phase,’ is when you’re highly motivated for change,” he explained. “Even though it’s temporary, it can be incredibly useful to set things in motion. You also want to use it to automate as much as you can to maintain the changes you’ve made.” (For instance, put your bills on autopay, start using a savings app like Digit, and cut out any subscriptions you don’t really need but have been putting off canceling.)
These automation steps will be especially helpful once the New Year’s glow has worn off. “After one, two, or three months, that action phase will end,” says Klontz. “And if you don’t have a plan for the ‘maintenance phase,’ which ideally lasts forever, then you’re going to stop doing whatever it is you promised to do.”
My action phase was great while it lasted. I hit all my terrifying deadlines and even meditated every morning for four whole months. To force myself to stick to a budget, I wrote down everything I spent, added it up at the end of every week, and submitted a report to a website called StickK.com that’s designed to hold people accountable to their goals (which was admittedly pretty masochistic, but suited my bout of obsessiveness at the time).
Then, like clockwork, something changed around April. It felt rewarding to be disciplined and productive, but all that effort was also exhausting. I finished up a big work project and figured I’d take a week or two off from my strict routine, go to a friend’s wedding and relax, and then get back onboard. The break was part of my “maintenance phase,” I decided.
But once I was off the wagon — even though it was a voluntary dismount — I couldn’t bring myself to get back on it again. Suddenly, writing down all my expenses just seemed absurd. I returned to mindless shopping on Instagram and forgetting what I’d bought at Duane Reade. Whatever had gotten me fired up to follow my original plan was gone, and in its place was guilt that I’d lost my momentum, plus the general unease of not really knowing where my money was going. My finances seemed like a swishy force that I couldn’t pin down.
In the midst of this, I moved apartments, which is always more expensive than you think it will be, and bought some new furniture. Part of it was fun, in a reckless sort of way, but I wish I could have found a more flexible system that didn’t fall apart as soon as things got out of whack.
Now, looking back on this year and planning for the next one, I’m still sorting out what happened. Initially, I thought allowing myself to take a break from my straight-and-narrow routine was to blame for my downfall. But I’ve since revised that theory. According to a large body of research on motivation and behavioral change, maintaining new habits isn’t just about avoiding the bad ones at all cost. In fact, it’s normal to “relapse” and slide back into our old patterns, sometimes even quite often. These slip-ups can even be helpful, if you pay attention to the factors that might have triggered them and try to cope better next time.
My real mistake, it seems, was taking an all-or-nothing approach. It’s not surprising that extreme or rigid goals can lead to burnout, but my bigger problem was that I couldn’t be flexible with my infractions. I was either doing it right or doing it wrong, and once I went wrong, it was over. This phenomenon is known as the “abstinence-violation effect” (or, more informally, the “eff-it effect”) — the belief that any mistake signals total defeat and negation of progress. The term was coined in the 1980s by clinical psychologist G. Alan Marlatt, who originally used it in the context of treating various types of addiction, but research has since shown that it’s applicable to a wide range of problems ranging from compulsive eating to garden-variety New Year’s resolutions. And so, here we are.
Avoiding the eff-it effect isn’t about taking your goals less seriously. Nor should it be conflated with the ubiquitous “embrace failure” rallying cry. Instead, it’s about keeping track of when and where you backslide so that you can be aware enough to nip it in the bud next time, according to Marlatt. Ideally, if you have a good understanding of what makes you likely to lose motivation (in my case, being tired and feeling overdue for a reward), then you can build safety nets around yourself so that you don’t spiral. (For instance, I probably should have structured my “break” more carefully, and imposed less draconian rules on myself to begin with.)
Coping with relapses is also an important component of the “phases” Klontz mentioned. In the 1980s, a team of psychologists developed a theory about how humans change called the transtheoretical model. It posits that all of us, at any given time, are in one of five stages of change: precontemplation (not even thinking about changing or quitting a problematic behavior), contemplation (thinking about it), preparation (deciding to do it and creating systems that will make it happen), action (change!), and maintenance. While relapses can occur during any step, they can be particularly dangerous during the maintenance phase, once the initial blush of success has worn off or you’ve gotten cocky about your willpower.
After a bunch of half-hearted attempts last summer, I finally got back on the budgeting wagon in September. I haven’t been nearly as stringent as I was last January, but I told myself at first that all I had to do was write down where my money was going, just like I did at the beginning of the year, but without any specific targets in mind. (Psychologists have found that keeping a written record of the behavior you want to change, in as close to real time as possible, can be highly effective in breaking certain behavioral cycles and stopping relapses before they get worse.) Once I took the pressure off, it wasn’t so hard to resume my old habit of logging my spending, tallying up the numbers, and staying within a weekly maximum amount — for the most part. It’s not for everyone, but I’ve found it helpful to work within a weekly cap on my spending, using it as a guideline to give me peace of mind that I’m staying within my financial bounds. I also think this system is pretty easily translatable to whatever your income allows.
Heading into 2020, my only resolution is to keep this up, and not freak out when a week goes badly. Obviously, I still don’t want to fail at all. But isn’t that what New Year’s resolutions are about, anyway? Suspending reality for a minute, thinking about what you really want, and then going for the next best thing?