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Hack your brain to break your shopping habit

Hack your brain to break your shopping habit

Are you one of the multitudes of people in Australia to have read The Barefoot Investor? I am a huge fan of Scott Pape’s book, I have it sitting on my desk right now, actually, and I recommend it to people all the time. But I’ve been having a lot of conversations with people recently about how it just didn’t work for them – they have four shiny new ING accounts but still can’t seem to keep their balances much above zero. And I get it. While the principles in the book are based on sensible financial strategy, actually implementing them can be easier said than done – especially if you have a little bit of a shopping habit!

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if one day we just decided that we wanted to change a bad habit and then we just did it? How great would that be? We could just like that, start waking up early, stop biting our nails, and start running every day. That would be amazing! But expecting someone to instantaneously change their habits around money by reading The Barefoot Investor is like expecting a binge eater to eat moderately by reading a book on nutrition – it just ain’t going to happen. The problem with change is that we are emotional beings and our brains are actually hard-wired against making that change. But instead of berating yourself, or your brain, I want to share a bit more about WHY this is the case.

The power of our subconscious

One of the reasons that we, as humans, have been able to develop so much faster than other animals is that our brains are so efficient. In order for our brains to do the most amount of processing while expending the least amount of energy, our brain defers much of its activity to the subconscious mind (up to 95% in fact!).

The interesting thing is that in order to be so efficient the subconscious brain creates repeatable sequences, forming neural pathways which transport the data like a series of superhighways. The more we do something, the deeper and more efficient those highways become and the easier and faster those actions become. This is how we form habits, and interestingly, emotional responses can become habits too. If we start reacting to stress, sadness, or some other uncomfortable emotion by buying ourselves something new (come on, treat yo’self!) then eventually that becomes an emotional habit.

Re-training our brain

A lot of the time, those super-efficient neural pathways actually serve us really well. Having to consciously think about how to clean our teeth, drive a car, or do any of the multitudes of activities your subconscious is responsible for, would be exhausting! Trying to change a habit, especially a deeply ingrained emotional one, is a little like trying to build a road through the deep Amazonian jungle – it’s going to take a lot of time, focus and energy. It’s no wonder so many of us just give up and go back to that superfast highway.

Just because it’s hard though, doesn’t mean it’s impossible. I personally think that being aware of how amazing our brain is and understanding that there isn’t anything wrong with us because we find it difficult to change our habits, is a great first step to changing whatever habit you want to change. Compassion is always a good idea, especially self-compassion. But it doesn’t stop there. Here are a few more things that you can do to give yourself a better chance of changing your habits.

Recognize your trigger

One of the best books that I have read on changing habits is The Power of Habit, By Charles Duhigg. The most important piece of information I got from that book is the idea that all habits have three parts: a cue (or trigger), an action and a reward.  Understanding your trigger for a behaviour is the first step in being able to disrupt the usual sequence of events.

For example, say you have a shopping habit, what is it that triggers your urge to go shopping? Is it a certain stressful situation, boredom from your job, feeling lonely when you’re home alone on a Saturday night? Or is it something less emotional – a time of day, or seeing your pay go into your bank account? Everyone’s trigger is unique to them. If you can notice that trigger and bring awareness to your urge, then that gives you an opportunity to bring conscious thought to the behaviour.

Identify the positive intention

Most habits are formed with a positive intention, even if it doesn’t initially seem that way and they don’t always serve you in the long term. If you are aware of what is driving you towards that behaviour you may be able to resolve that in another, more healthy way. Going back to our shopping example, is your positive intention in maintaining your shopping habit to connect with the friend you always go shopping with? Or is it to buy something that will give you more confidence when you’re feeling insecure? Is it a way to distract yourself from a difficult emotion?

Create a healthier habit

Once you’ve identified the positive intention, you can more healthily deal with the issue. Creating a new habit and therefore forming new pathways in your brain is the easiest way of stopping a behaviour. For example, if you’ve identified that your shopping habit is something you use to wind down from a stressful week at work, are you able to find other ways to soothe yourself that don’t involve going shopping? Can you call a friend to discuss what’s going on? Can you go for a walk, take a bath or sip on your favourite cup of tea? I find journaling is also a really good way to work through your thoughts and settle your emotions. Often we use shopping, eating or drinking to avoid our feelings, when actually allowing them, feeling them and letting them pass through us can be a much healthier practice.

Be patient with yourself

Changing a habit takes time. Once you start becoming aware of your own thoughts, feelings and behaviours it’s going to take time, awareness and probably a fair amount of conscious brainpower to work through it. As with anything, practice and consistency is the most important thing. There are going to be periods of great progress but also moments of setbacks, and that is ok. Don’t expect your journey to be linear, and most of all, be patient and compassionate with yourself – remember that brain of yours is just doing what it does best. There is nothing wrong with you.

Get support

Never underestimate the power of support and accountability. Sometimes it can be really hard to work out your triggers and positive intentions on your own. Getting help is totally OK. Having someone to talk through the issues with and to flesh out a plan of attack is super valuable – whether that be a friend, coach or therapist.

So, get back to reading your copy of The Barefoot Investor and use the above strategy to try and kick your shopping habit. Step by step you can establish what you need to move you closer to a life of not only financial security but true financial freedom. Do you love shopping? Do you want to curb your shopping habit?

If your shopping habit is fuelled by credit cards, also check out this post.