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Where Personal Breakthroughs Really Come From


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.
I'm David, I write about what school never taught us: how to improve your quality of life in real-time.

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