how to identify vital behaviors

How to Identify Vital Behaviors for Your Finances

How do you identify the behaviors that have the biggest impact on your results?

In my last two posts on Winning in 2020 and Your Financial Game Plan, I looked at the most effective way to accomplish your financial goals, based on research presented in the books Atomic Habits and Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change.

It all boils down to focusing on consistent, incremental improvements and identifying two key behaviors – called vital behaviors by the authors of Influencer ; that is, behaviors that have a disproportionate effect on your outcomes.

How do you do that?

How do you ensure that you’re changing the right behaviors instead of wasting time on actions that won’t work? I give you the details, and an example from my life, in today’s video.

Prefer to read? Scroll below the video.

Four Steps to Identify Vital Behaviors

In order to create lasting change, you need to ensure that you’re focusing on the right behaviors. Otherwise, you face a lot of frustration and wasted time.

The authors of Influencer tell a great story about a researcher who wanted to help alcoholics kick their addiction. He thought that teaching them to relax would be a key behavior to helping them reduce their drinking. What he found, after teaching them relaxation techniques, is that they became relaxed drunks! The techniques helped the alcoholics to feel better, but it didn’t have any effect whatsoever on their drinking.

Learning to relax is not a vital behavior when it comes to reducing the amount alcoholics drink.

What can you do to ensure you don’t waste time, as the researcher did, on techniques and behaviors that don’t get you any closer to your goals?

According to the authors of Influencer, you follow these four steps:

#1 – Notice Obvious and Underused Behaviors

Think about a financial goal you want to achieve this year. Ask yourself the following question: “What are the most obvious behaviors that would lead to success with this goal?”

If you want to pay off your debt, the single most obvious behavior would be to stop spending. Since that’s not realistic – everyone needs to spend some money on essentials, like a roof over your head and food on the table – the next most obvious behavior would be to spend less than you earn.

Are you having a “Well, duh!” reaction yet? Good. That’s precisely the kind of reaction you should have when you identity the glaringly obvious behaviors that would lead to success.

In fact, these behaviors are so obvious, in retrospect, that most experts would agree on them. If the experts agree, you know you’ve got a vital behavior.

The irony, though, is that sometimes the most obvious things in life are invisible to us. We’re so busy looking for a more complex response that we miss the the elephant in the room, as it were. That’s also why the authors ask us to look for underused behaviors; they may be obvious, but if they were easy to pull off, they wouldn’t be underused.

In Influencer, we learn of an example from researchers in the US who identified three vital behaviors that lead to lower drop-out rates by first-year college students:

  1. Go to class.
  2. Do the assignments.
  3. Make friends.

When I read that list, I thought, “Well, of course those are vital.” You’re not going to be inclined to continue if you get terrible marks because you didn’t go to class or do the work. If you don’t have friends, you’re less likely to feel attached to the institution. Doesn’t seem like rocket science.

And yet that’s precisely the kinds of no-brainer behaviors that are essential to success.

Let’s say you’re an under-earner. What two behaviors might play a vital role in helping you to grow your income to the level you want? Here are some possibilities:

  • Focus most of your time on money-making activities.
  • Ask for more money (e.g. raise, increase your rates).
  • Develop more valuable skills (i.e. desirable and valuable in the marketplace).
  • Solve the right problems for your clients, boss, teams.

Everyone of the above passes the “Well, duh!” test. You’d also be hard-pressed to find an expert who wouldn’t agree that these are important behaviors.

#2 – Look for Crucial Moments

These are the moments where things typically go south; the moments of failure. When looking for behaviors to change, this is the moment that will have a big impact on your results.

For people who are struggling with debt, a crucial moment may be when they’re feeling low; they go shopping to lift their mood. Or when they’re hungry and tired; it may be tempting to make an impulse purchase. Next thing you know, the credit card balance is up.

Pay attention to the details when these particular failures happen. Are they more likely to happen on a specific day or time? Who are you with? How are you feeling? What’s going on at that moment?

Doris vs the alarm clock

I recently used this strategy to figure out why it seemed impossible for me to get up at 5 am.

I’ve always been an early-riser, but for me that meant 6:15 am. Recently, I decided that I wanted to get more productive time out of my day to make up for the fact that so many factors chew into the time I need to work on my business – my husband’s travel schedule, my daughter-the-competitive swimmer and her seven practices per week, for which I am the main driver, and so on.

It didn’t matter how hard I tried, though, I would rarely get out of bed when the alarm went off.

This was a crucial moment of failure for me.

As I thought about it, it occurred to me that I was doing two things wrong. First, I failed to make getting out of bed easy. Who wants to get out of a warm bed into a cold, dark room and go stumbling around for clothes?

Second, I had a lousy attitude about it. My thoughts kept revolving around the fact that it’s a drag to get up that early and I didn’t want to do it. How on earth could I be successful when my brain was dead set against the idea?

So I did two things. First, I set out a pile of warm, comfy clothes right next to the bed in the order in which I get dressed. Second, I gave myself an attitude adjustment, focusing on all of the benefits that come with a 5 am wake up – I get time to myself when the house is quiet, I can start my day with a cup of tea, which I love, and I can get close to two solid hours of work done before the house turns into a bee hive of activity.

By changing those two behaviors, I succeeded. I now no longer need an alarm clock to wake me at 5. I usually wake up a few minutes before or after and pop out of bed within five seconds.

Problem solved!

#3 – Look for Positive Deviants

Positive Deviants are the people who face the same challenges you do; they should have the same problem, yet they manage to succeed. What are they doing differently?

You’re looking for the answer to this question: What are they doing that you’re not?

Let’s flip back to our example of someone in debt. She could look around and identify someone who earns a similar amount of money and who has roughly equivalent responsibilities, but who manages to stay out of debt. What is she doing differently? Perhaps the list could look something like this:

  • She drives an older car and carpools whenever she can.
  • She brings her lunch to work every day.
  • She earns income on the side.
  • She doesn’t go shopping for entertainment; she only goes with a list when she needs something and has looked around for the best price.
  • She automates her savings
  • She reviews her credit card spending weekly

By making a list of the debt-free person’s behavior, a women struggling with debt might be able to spot key behaviors that would make a difference in her world, too.

#4 – Test Your Results

We are all researchers in our own lives, figuring out what works best to allow us to live the best life we can and to share our gifts with the world. As good researchers, we know that we can’t assume the behavioral changes we undertake will have the outcome we’re looking for. We need to test our assumptions!

When you identify actions that you think represent vital behaviors, implement them and test, test, test!

If you take your lunch to work every day, does your debt go down as a result? If so, brilliant! If not, then that action alone isn’t the key behavior.

It may be a necessary, but not sufficient behavior to get the job done. Perhaps, your focus needs to be on a higher level of action such as only spending money when you’ve analyzed your finances and you know you have the money for the purchase. One of the key behaviors to help you accomplish that would be to regularly review your spending.

The bottom line is that if something isn’t working, you don’t give up. That’s not how research works! You keep digging for the vital behaviors. Make changes, test, adapt.

You absolutely can achieve your goals with the right behaviors.

Next Steps

Next, I’m going to show you how to tie this information into budgeting.

You know the problem with budgeting? It doesn’t work for many people. It’s so easy to hate budgeting because it’s a pain in the backside and it can lead to a scarcity mentality.

By the way, if you’re one of the few who loves budgeting and who finds that it works well for you, terrific! Don’t change your system if it’s working for you.

If, however, you’re one of the many who haven’t had good results with budgeting, I’m going to show you how to do it effectively in a way that is easy to maintain and congruent with your values. And, I’m going to tie in the concept of vital behaviors into the process to ensure that you meet your goals this year.

Deal? Stay tuned for my next post.

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We’ll chat again soon.

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