Home > Managing Debt > Want to Get Out of Debt? Exercise… and Make Your Bed!

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Working OutCan exercising – even just once a week – help you get out of debt? How about making your bed every morning? The connection between these very different habits may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. In his new book, The Power of Habit, New York Times writer Charles Duhigg sheds light on how habits help shape our lives, health and success (or lack thereof) and serves up convincing evidence that changing seemingly unrelated habits can help improve your life in many ways – including your finances.

“When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly,” he writes, “They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed.”

Later, Duhigg also points out that making your bed every morning is correlated with better productivity and “stronger skills at sticking with a budget.”

If you are looking to change your life, Duhigg says there are certain “keystone habits” that, if you can identify them, spill over to other habits. Changing or cultivating keystone habits “help other habits to flourish by creating new structures, and they establish cultures where change becomes contagious,” he writes. In an interview with Duhigg on my radio show, he elaborated:

What’s totally fascinating to me about this is that when you start exercising in the morning you stop using your credit card quite as frequently. And the question would be ‘Why?’ And the reason why is because what we’ve learned from laboratory experiments is some habits are known as keystone habits. They have this kind of disproportionate influence where once you start changing that pattern, it makes all the other behaviors in someone’s life more open to change.

The Power of Habit reads like a book of stories, with results from numerous scientific studies and insights from neuroscience thrown in. The very first story in the book is about a woman whose life was a financial and emotional wreck. Once she made the decision to stop smoking, however, her life began to change for the better. Among other things, she started saving money and eventually bought a house.

And Be Sure To Take Notes

You’ve no doubt heard the advice that if you want to get out of debt or save more money, you should write down everything you spend. (I’ve dished up that advice myself on more than one occasion). The idea is to observe where you are spending your money and then to decide if you could be using it in better ways. But there’s more to it than that.

Duhigg talks about this research in his book, and shares the results of a study in which 29 people participated in a four-month money management program in which they wrote down everything they spent. While participants’ financial habits improved over the course of the study, there were other benefits as well. Participants ate less junk food, drank less caffeine and alcohol, were more productive at home or school, and even smoked fewer cigarettes, if they were smokers.


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In the interview, we talked about why taking notes about behaviors you want to change can be so helpful. He said, “There’s something important about creating a new habit that suddenly makes other habits more obvious and then you know how to change them.”

The Habit Loop

Throughout the book, Duhigg describes the “habit loop” behind so many of the activities in which we routinely engage. While it takes more than a paragraph to fully explain it, the basic premise is habits are made up of three parts: “cue, routine and reward.” Identifying and modifying this loop can help you change even longstanding habits. If you find yourself hitting the store for some “retail therapy” after an especially stressful day or week at work, for example, then a new routine may be in order. The trick is to identify the triggers that cause you to break your budget or reach for the credit card even though it’s nearly maxxed out, and to create an equally rewarding routine to replace your usual shopping trip.

Easy? Not always. In addition to the habits we’ve developed, often unconsciously, the retail industry is also trying hard to shape our spending habits. In a fascinating chapter titled, How Target Knows What You Want Before You Do, Duhigg delves into the ways stores like Target are using data mining and extremely targeted marketing to try to get shoppers to change their habits – and buy more stuff from them. It’s nothing new. Early in the book you’ll read the story of how one marketer made a fortune in toothpaste in the early 1900’s by changing consumer’s dental hygiene routines. But it may make you think twice about those coupons that seem to randomly spit out of the cash register after you make a purchase.

When I interviewed Duhigg on my show, I offered to give away a copy of The Power of Habit to a caller, as I do with all the review copies of books I receive from authors. But in this case, I’ll be ordering the winner his own copy of the book so I can keep mine. If I really apply what he says, perhaps I can finally stick to my exercise program.

And from there, who knows what else I can change?

To listen to my interview with Charles Duhigg about his book, The Power of Habit, simply right click on the link below to open and play it on your computer, or to download it to your computer or mp3 player. It is also available on iTunes.

Listen to the Podcast with Charles Duhigg

Photo: Spirit-Fire, via Flickr 

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