I can’t explain it. For the longest time my wife and I would look occasionally at our credit card debt and say, “Yep, we should really start working on getting the balances down”. I won’t say how much we had but it was plenty. With good intentions, we would agree to work them down. But that didn’t happen. The balances stayed the same for a long time and even started going up. How could this be? We were trying to pay them down! An amazing thing happened after this that we cannot explain. We began to specifically track our use of the cards and knew where balances were at any given time. We met monthly to look at this and see where the balances were on the cards. After starting this, the balances came down consistently and significantly. By paying attention, we wiped out our credit card debt in less than 2 years.
This experience of being mindful of a behavior (and taking it out of the mindless/automatic pilot realm) reminded me of a self-monitoring technique used by psychiatrist David Burns to help clients deal with repetitious negative thoughts and anxiety provoking fantasies. His suggestion was to simply count the times a negative thought or fantasy occurred and record it in some way, like making a mark on paper or clicking on a wrist counter like golfers use to keep score. I imagine there are probably phone apps for this now since I first heard of the technique years ago. An example of the use of this technique would be a person that frequently has thoughts of being weak, inadequate, inferior, worthless, etc. Initially, the person’s negative thoughts are automatic and accepted without question.
By counting the thoughts, the person is practicing noticing the thought right away and the act of counting it is breaking the cycle that would lead to the thoughts turning into negative feelings. By consciously paying attention and noticing when the unwanted thinking happens, the person is effectively breaking the habit of negative thinking. I have used this technique myself and have recommended it to clients, so I know it can work. So, looking again at our negative thinker that begins counting every negative thought; let’s say the first day they rack up 835 negative thoughts. The person then continues to count and record the results. The next day they are at 650, then 600, then 540, until eventually the number is quite small. Of course there may be other techniques or approaches used for one with such poor self-esteem, but you get the point. By taking something automatic and largely sub-conscious, and intentionally increasing your awareness, you now have the power to decide and take actions with eyes wide open.1
Increasing awareness of current behaviors is a first step in doing more of what you want (e.g. improving relationships, getting healthier financially, eating healthy), or less of what you don’t want (e.g. smoking, fighting with your spouse, negative or anxious thinking). The second step is to get a clear vision of what you would like as an outcome, then make the conscious decision to take steps to get there.
Now, back to where we began, the tracking of our credit card debt. Some years ago I worked at an agency that had a team of financial counselors. I often referred clients to these folks and had a chance to learn important financial concepts from them (an interesting aside; one conversation I remember having with one of the financial counselors took place in 2005 where they shared their theory that with housing prices gaining much faster than wages, the housing market was doomed to crash). When making a referral to a financial counselor, I would send the client worksheets to fill out with financial information and begin tracking their spending. The financial counselors always had clients track spending and in fact many clients only needed to do this part.
By simply getting to know their income, debts, and spending, they solved the problem themselves. And let me be clear, these were not folks that contacted us because they had minor financial issues; there were significant problems and with a portion of these clients, simply tracking things led to effective resolution. By deciding to intentionally be mindful of our behaviors, it is then possible to make the changes. I can think of a few psychological reasons why this approach worked for us, but it still seems like magic to me. It simply worked and I must say burying that debt felt pretty darn good.
If you have yet to track your spending, the following articles will be helpful:
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1Burns, David D. Feeling Good. New York: William Morrow, 2002. Print.