I keep setting budgets. Why can't I actually follow one?!

By Stephanie BankIllustration of Stephanie Bank

The simple answer? Self-control. You probably know by now that self-control is really important, but it’s also really hard to use. As I explained in a previous column, psychologists have found that self-control is like a muscle — it gets fatigued when exercised in the short-term but also gets stronger with activity over time. This explains why getting started on a new habit is so hard. Whether you're quitting smoking, starting a new diet or working on a daily spending habit, the first few days are always the hardest but not impossible. There are a handful of ways to strengthen your self-control and avoid those impulse spends.

The first piece of advice is probably the most counter-intuitive: Stop making resolutions. You read that correctly. No more laundry lists of things you need to accomplish before your next birthday, holiday or season. More often than not these lists will result in wasted gym memberships, unused lawn mowers and never-been-listened to Italian audio lessons. Instead, start with a single, bite-sized goal: say, bringing lunch from home for one work week. Being depleted in one area reduces willpower in another. Once you’ve nailed a good routine, you’ll no longer need to work so hard to maintain that behaviour.

How can you get into a new routine? You’ve probably already heard the obvious ones: avoid temptation, keep things “out of sight” and set concrete goals. We know those tactics work, but researchers at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania have examined how to take it one step further. They've been exploring the concept of “emergency reserves” or adding some “just-in-case” flexibility when setting goals. The idea was to find out if it’s more effective to set easier goals with no slack or difficult goals with a bit of slack. Here’s an example of what I mean:

Option A: Bring your lunch four days a week

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Option B: Bring your lunch five days a week

Option C: Bring your lunch five days a week, but give yourself an emergency cheat day

Which do you think would be the most successful? The Wharton researchers found that people not only preferred having reserve goals, they were also more successful in achieving their goals when they had some wiggle room. This is because the emergency reserve resembles a sort of “rainy day fund” where people set aside a buffer of sorts — something you can resist using, but not beat yourself up for dipping into when you really need it. In this way, the psychological cost of using the emergency reserve leads to greater goal persistence.

The same thinking can be applied to any difficult long-term goal, such as saving money. So here's my advice: Set a goal (just one) and make it hard. But buffer in some added flexibility in case of an emergency and your self-control should be in fighting shape in no time.

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