Getting into a habit and reaching your goals

Forty-seven days into the new year, you may have made a new year resolution and may be finding it hard to stick to it. Your new year goal may have been to get more exercise and eat healthier. Or it may have been to spend less and save more money. But it’s been an uphill task over the Lunar New Year.

It takes less than a minute to eat a pineapple tart, but much more time and effort to burn all that energy off — 50 floors for each tart to be exact. Bak kwa can be savoured for a wee bit longer, but not as long as the time it’ll take to climb 40 floors for each coin devoured over the weekend (calorie counts for all the various goodies here). Meeting up with friends over brunch, mall and warehouse sales, red packets and late-night games played with square tiles are the highlights of the festive occasion. It’s hard to get away with spending very little or nothing at all.

Our ultimate aim may be to lose weight or to have a healthier bank balance to make the downpayment on a property. But it’s only within reach when we articulate a goal that is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. We make it possible for us to keep our new year resolution when we set a SMART goal.

Rather than saying we’ll eat healthy, we’re setting ourselves up for success if our plan is to “eat a serving of leafy vegetables at lunch and dinner” and “a serving of fruit with breakfast and at tea-time” by the end of the year. Rather than saying we’ll exercise more, we’re much more likely to implement an exercise habit if we were to aim to “do a physical activity for an hour twice a week” by the end of the year. Because really, who has time to exercise every day? Even carving time out to exercise every other day can be a challenge. Instead of saying we’ll spend less and save more, it’s be more effective to “set a monthly budget for dining and entertainment” by the end of the year.

But articulating a concrete goal which you can see yourself marking on your monthly calendar is only the first step. We’re more likely to succeed in achieving our goal when we form habits. Instead of saying we’ll sleep more, we’ll get more and better sleep if we were to cultivate a sleep habit each month. The goal of setting a budget for specific expenses would be within reach if we were first to develop a weekly habit of recording our expenses at the same time each week, say Sunday evening. Similarly, getting into the habit of eating fruits and veggies daily and exercising on specific days in the week makes it that much easier to achieve the goal of losing weight (How do fruits and veggies help? Here’s how), particularly when we’re preoccupied with life (I mean, problems, difficulties, challenges, sources of stress…that sort of thing).

Research reveals that doing a behaviour for the first time requires our attention. If our typical lunch and dinner are wonton mee and fish noodle soup, we engage the part of our brain which is responsible for decisions to add a portion of veggies to our meal. We intentionally seek out places which serve a generous portion of green veggies with our char kway teow and select foods which already have veggies built into the dish like yong tau foo. As we repeat this behaviour, our actions are stored in the area of the brain responsible for memory. Eventually, the mere action of getting lunch or dinner will automatically cue us into ordering a portion of veggies with our meal. And acquiring the habit of daily veggies and fruit makes our goal attainable.

But there are a few more tricks that will help jump-start your habit formation…

1. “Eating healthy” 
A 2013 study found that acquiring both exercise and diet habits simultaneously was more effective than acquiring them sequentially. People who tackled both exercise and diet habits were more successful in achieving their goals than those who changed their diet habits first and then acquired exercise habits.

So, it’s a good idea to implement both exercise and diet habits at the same time rather than one after the other.

2. “Getting exercise”
A 2015 study found that habits which prompted people to exercise were more important than the habit of exercising itself. Setting an alarm which cues us to go for gym class after work makes it more likely that we’ll actually go to the gym. Likewise, setting an appointment in the calendar to cue us to go on a nature walk or bike ride on the weekend, be it with friends or on our own, makes it more likely that we’ll realise our exercise goals. The study found that it could take a month or longer to develop the habits which prompt us to exercise.

Cues, such as having dinner with friends after attending a free mall Kpop fitness or Zumba class, can help you achieve your exercise goals.

3. “Spending less and saving more”
Because we may choose to shop and spend in order to make ourselves feel better (so say most the 700 women polled in a 2009 study), having a budget can help keep us in check.

But we’re more likely to stick to our budget if we also keep in mind the why of our goal, and if we focus on one goal. A 2010 study found that compared to people who listed 4 ways to save money, those who wrote down why they wanted to save money, actually spent less money when given the opportunity to do so, while a 2011 study observed that people were more successful at saving money when they focused on one goal (e.g., to gain financial independence) rather than multiple goals (e.g., for children’s education, a rainy day, retirement).

So, the first step in financial planningmaking a list of why you want to save money — is far more important than you think. That together with your newly minted habit of tracking monthly expenditure, you’ll be able to set a budget for all the categories of spending (e.g., mortgage repayments, insurance plans, transport, utilities, groceries, phone and internet subscriptions, dining out, clothes, entertainment), bringing you closer to your goal of “spending less and saving more”. To make it even easier, you can take advantage of this budget calculator which will do all the work for you.

 

Financial planning: Making a start

Cost of living is an evergreen issue for individuals working in Singapore. Given that stress from managing personal and household finances not only impacts employee productivity but also one’s health (Garman, Leech, & Grable, 1996), it makes sense (and cents!) to make time for financial planning.

Here are three things you can do:

1. Select your goals
Are you aiming to be debt free, planning on purchasing a new place, putting aside money for your children’s education, building your retirement funds?

2. Review your financial needs
Creating a balance sheet will help you assess the areas of expenses and savings/investment that you may want to work on. Moneysense has a template for both planning a family budget and assessing your assets and liabilities.

3. Find ways to optimize your resources
Creating a budget will help with you track both the expenses and savings/investments that you envisage making. A family budget excel spreadsheet can be downloaded from SME toolkit.

It’s never too late to start!