OurNextLife.com // Early Retirement, Financial Independence, Adventure, Mountain Living, Simplicity

Leveraging Streaks to Supercharge Your Progress

It’s an embarrassment of riches on the milestone front for us these days. We recently hit a rather significant financial milestone. That was after we technically became FI earlier this year. And next Monday our mortgage will drop a digit. Unlike the 1500 Days family, we have not celebrated any of these milestones with a brownie sundae (D’oh! #doingitwrong), but we have used the excitement of the achievements to propel us forward toward our other goals, namely retiring early sometime next year.

While we’re making fast progress toward FIRE, it’s not because we are especially gifted in the discipline department. We still slip up and make occasional impulse purchases, even now, multiple years into our FIRE journey, and 150 posts into blogging about personal finance. (That’s another milestone — this makes 150 posts! Wohoo!) We still sometimes cave and get take-out because we’re feeling too lazy to cook dinner. I could give you more mundane examples, but it’s probably simpler just to say: discipline is not something that comes easily to us.

But, we’ve found a way to fake it.

Moderators and Abstainers… and Streakers?

The writer Gretchen Rubin, author of the Happiness Project and a series of books which are all about building habits that lead to happiness, writes often about the theory of moderators and abstainers. Basically, it’s the idea that some people can eat just a little ice cream and be good with that — these are the moderators. While other people need to eat ALL the ice cream, and therefore should avoid ice cream entirely if they don’t want to be miserable about the caloric and financial ramifications of said ice cream ingestion — these are the abstainers.

I’m a total abstainer, or at least I’m an abstainer when I’m actually abstaining from bad behaviors. I’m definitely not a moderator. To me, a moderator is someone with natural self-discipline. A person who can somehow, magically, take a single bite of cake, make yummy sounds, and then say, “I’m good.” (How do some people do this???) Someone who makes the bed every morning. Someone who procrastinates far less than either of us do.

I read Gretchen’s theory several years back, and wondered if there was a way to flip the abstainer concept from being about something negative — deciding not to do something — to something positive — deciding to do something. A more affirmative notion. And I realized that whether you’re deciding never to do something or to do something all the time, you’re still talking about the same thing: consistency.

And for undisciplined abstainers like us, consistency is way easier said than done. We’d need a way to force consistency, since it wouldn’t just come naturally to us. And I realized: the areas of my life in which I was most consistent and unerring were those in which I was maintaining a streak of some sort, and I felt powerfully motivated not to break the streak.

OurNextLife.com // Leveraging Streaks to Supercharge Your Progress -- early retirement, financial independence, personal finance, goals, progress

Not wanting to break the streak is why there has been a new post every single Monday of this blog’s life (except for last Memorial Day, when I posted Tuesday instead, and one random Sunday in October when I accidentally hit “publish” on Monday’s post instead of “schedule”).

blogging-streak-april-2016

Though I am not super disciplined about most things, I have forced myself to be disciplined about writing because I really, really, really want to keep this streak going here. I love this blog, I love everyone who reads and comments, and knowing that the streak is intact helps me maintain what could feel like a daunting posting schedule. (Though I really do believe that it’s easier to write two or three posts a week than one, because you stay in better practice, and get more used to generating ideas. Blogging tip of the day!) If I missed a Monday or Wednesday, then the streak would be broken, and it would be easy to justify letting more time pass between posts, or even fall off the wagon entirely. I don’t want to go there, so I’m actively focusing on keeping the streak alive as a way to force myself to stay disciplined. And in the end the result is the same as if I had been disciplined to begin with. Definitely a win in my book.

Creating Financial Streaks

Creating and maintaining streaks can be useful in all aspects of life, like maintaining a workout routine or sticking to other good habits — it’s why people recovering from drug and alcohol addictions keep track of their streak of days/weeks/months/years sober, because it has such a positive reinforcing effect. And you can use that same effect to accelerate your progress toward your financial goals. Best of all: this doesn’t require any lofty planning. You just do something, and then do it again, and do it again and again and again and again.

Let’s say you know you need to save more, but the idea of saving some huge amount for a down payment or early retirement or any other big goal feels too daunting to process. Maybe you’ve tried to save in the past, but you couldn’t get in the habit, and you feel discouraged now. The good news is you don’t have to think about that stuff, or at least not right away. Just save a little today. Then save a little next week, or from your next paycheck. Then do it again the following week or paycheck. Now, all of a sudden, you’ve got yourself a streak.

Over time, that streak can lead to bigger and better things, like optimizing your spending, increasing your saving even more, and aiming higher with your goals. Our entire FIRE journey started simply by saving $250 out of every paycheck, and watching as the amount in our savings account started to grow. Though we would have preferred to spend that money frivolously at the time, we didn’t want to break the streak of growing that amount every month.

And now, we have a whole bunch of streaks going, and despite our nature, we’re crazy motivated to keep the streaks going, including:

  • Eleven years in a row of putting $250 from every one of my paychecks into savings (that’s now up to $66,000 saved just from that!)
  • Eight years in a row of hitting our annual savings targets
  • Five years in a row of banking our year-end bonuses instead of spending them
  • 30+ months of putting almost our entire second paychecks of the month into our Vanguard account

All of that started from one little streak, and kept building from there.

You Have to Know It’s a Streak

Of course, for a streak to be a streak, you have to know it’s a streak. And that usually requires keeping track in some way. While great, free tools like Personal Capital and Mint will track your net worth over time, nothing replaces a journal, a spreadsheet or a note-taking app like Evernote for keeping a tally of a streak. Maybe it’s a chart on the wall, a la Your Money Or Your Life. Or maybe you just keep track in your head. Whatever helps you stay motivated.

Cut Yourself Some Slack

The moderator versus abstainer model suggests that abstainers and the discipline-challenged need to practice total consistency to be successful. And that’s just not realistic. Even Cait at Blonde on a Budget, creator of her famous multi-year shopping ban (and “ban” is an awfully abstemious word with no gray area), makes exceptions here and there. If you don’t allow yourself a little slack, one slip-up could feel like the end of the streak and the end of whatever you’re working toward. That’s silly. Just accept the blip and keep going.

Automate As Much As Possible

You’ll notice that our first positive financial streak wasn’t something we manually did every paycheck. I filled out a form with HR, and they deposited part of every paycheck into my savings account. All we had to do was not spend that money, which was now easier because the money wasn’t “visible” in the checking account. We still considered the not spending the money part to be a success, but we were helped enormously by the automation factor, which helped take the willpower and decision fatigue out of the equation.

Related post: How We Pay Ourselves First // Advice for Money-Conscious Non-Budgeters

Having your paycheck automatically split between different accounts, doing automatic investments every month or every payday or scheduling extra mortgage principle payments — all of these can get you going on a powerful financial streak that can change everything.

What’s Your Take?

Any other streakers out there, who use the power of streaks to keep your motivation running high? Can you see areas in your own life or finances where the power of a streak could motivate you to reach bigger and higher goals? Tell us all about it in the comments. :-)

P.S. That vibrant red sunset in the header photo has zero filter of any kind applied. Shout out to the Oregon coast for making such picturesque scenes! We’re such suckers for that kind of thing.

 

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54 thoughts on “Leveraging Streaks to Supercharge Your Progress

  1. I’m a huge believer in streaks. Moderation tends to require so much decision making that for most it’s unsustainable long term. On the other hand abstinence is a bore.

    I use streaks for working out and avoiding deserts. This is the first time we’ve used streaks in our finances. Our balls to the wall savings goal motivates us to save and invest like crazy, but we have an end in sight after which we won’t have our foot on the gas for income earning.

    1. I know we’ve talked about decision fatigue before, and I think you’re totally right that streaks take some of that decision-making out of it. I am also just glad for your sake that your “balls to the wall” goal DOES have that end in sight, so you’re not trying to sprint indefinitely!

  2. Beautiful picture! I am a moderator by nature, and so is Neil. There are upsides and downsides to this. But I agree wholeheartedly with your point that lapses in a streak shouldn’t be a huge deal; just get back to it! Realizing and practicing that is huge. Certain financial habits seem daunting and so we don’t try to avoid failure. But saving money (or investing, or giving) sometimes is so much better than never taking that step. And sometimes it becomes a streak and builds its own momentum. Great post!

    1. That pic is one of my faves, and I only found the file yesterday — I thought we’d somehow lost it! I’m not surprised to know that you guys are moderators — you seem very measured in all things. :-) I know that not seeing lapses as failures is easier said than done, but as you said, it gets easier with practice.

  3. THIS IS BRILLIANT! I have never thought about it this way, and its really turned on a light bulb for me. Saving is actually not a problem for us, we’ve never really been “ballers” (though we’ve done a few pretty expensive things), but defeating procrastination and building good habits is something I just haven’t been able to do in other areas. So many places to try this, where do I start?

    Also super helpful for raising kids, I think. I’m big on building good habits (they are better about flossing their teeth than I am!) but giving them a challenge is better than dictating rules.

    1. I didn’t even think of how this could apply to kids (probably because we don’t have them) ;-), but that makes total sense! How incredible that they are good flossers — you’re clearly do plenty of things right for that to be true!

  4. Got me thinking about a few things in our lives and streaks in general.
    We have thought of these as habits more than streaks:
    1. Never ever in our lives carried a monthly credit card balance over
    2. Funded 529 plans for both boys since the day they entered this world
    3. Contributed to pension/. 401k every paycheck for > 20 years maxing out for > 15 of the 401k years
    4. Took 1-2 vacations every year for the last 18 years. It’s the fun and laughter that sustains us.

    Some other streaks that I admire ( you can tell where Mr.PIE interests and allegiances lie)

    1. Cal Ripken Jr. 2632 consecutive starts in baseball. He did not make 2633 as he retired. Mind blowing. Mental and physical toughness.
    2. New England Patriots 21 straight wins over 2003-2004 seasons
    3. Boston Celtics 8 straight NBA championships
    4. Ted Williams 84 consecutive games getting on base
    5. I won’t mention the Cubs streak….they will break it soon….
    6. Dick Hoyt pushing his disabled son Rick through 32 consecutive Boston Marathons. A story of great love.

    And another one in our times that really speaks to survival and resilience – Salvador Alvarenga 438 days adrift at sea on a tiny boat with no supplies.

    It’s amazing what humans can do as part of teams and as individuals.

    Loved the post.

    1. I’m seriously impressed that you guys have never carried a credit card balance EVER. Wow. And it’s funny that you mentioned so many sports streaks — that does seem to be where our society talks about streaks the most. Of course, streaks in sports are also in some ways the least significant (and memorable for being so rare — basically statistical anomalies), given that research has debunked the idea of “momentum” in sports. But it’s widely believed to be a thing, and so maybe it’s a little bit of the Dumbo’s feather effect?

  5. We have automated deductions setup to various investment/savings accounts and even when I want to try something new I won’t stop what is already in place, I feel to guilty and find another way to try my new venture.

    The blogging streak is impressive! I found when I decided what days to post i was a lot more motivated to hit them.

    Outside of my automatic withdrawal streaks (which are very easy to maintain) I use yearly goals to make sure we continuously improve.

  6. I’ve never been a streaker because…well it’s not my style. I’m curious about the moderator versus abstainer thing because I’m a good moderator in some areas (like alcohol), but stick chocolate chip cookies (especially if they are fresh out of the oven) in front of me and I’ll eat them till I’m sick. Can you be both? I can respect a streak for sure, but what if there is one day where you are so sick you can’t get out of bed? If you missed a post how would that feel? I would hate to put that kind of pressure on myself that I “had” to do something just because it was a streak.

    1. I think you can definitely be both a moderator and an abstainer. I’m an abstainer in the food realm, but better at moderation with more sinful activities. :-) And the pressure argument is a good one. I guess for me it doesn’t feel like pressure, it feels like momentum, and I feel jazzed to keep the streak going… so I do!

  7. Terrific post! I’m trying to leverage my money streak (for me so far it’s just been a) shoveling an extra $500 toward cc debt every month since October and b) spending (far) less then I make every month since October) into a health streak as of last Friday. Usually focusing intensely on one goal causes me to slip off the wagon on pretty much every other goal … so instead of letting my financial goal derail my health goal, I’m trying to let it inspire me.

    New streak: 30 min of sweat-inducing exercise every single day, since last Friday!

    Gotta start somewhere, right? :)

  8. Absolutely true about keeping streaks. We have many of the same streaks going in our household that you mentioned. The one I struggle with the most is exercising though. It is just too easy for that to be thrown off (i.e. a vacation, traveling for business, parents visiting for a week etc.). Once we get thrown off, it usually takes a month or so to get back into a rhythm and schedule.

    I like to remind myself of the phrase “breaking the rock”. It is motivation for me to keep pounding the rock, or chipping away at it routinely. Eventually it breaks. Whatever your goal is, keep pounding the rock until you reach it.

    Thanks for the post!

    The Green Swan

    1. That’s awesome that you guys have lots of good financial streaks going! And yeah, totally same boat on exercise! The work travel is the worst for that (written from the lobby of an office building, while on work travel!). :-) But that’s awesome that you get yourself back into the groove quickly when you break the streak.

  9. I maxed out my 401k, Roth IRA, and HSA in 2015 for the first time. I definitely plan on that being a streak until I quit the rat race. Personally I’m extremely consistent which I think helps my finances. I cook the same stuff, go to the gym regularly, keep the same schedule, etc. This consistently also crosses over into my personal finance life the way I manage my money the same way, day in and day out.

  10. Oregon looks like a place to visit. great picture.

    With streaks, in some areas I can be a total abstainer. In other areas I am a moderator.
    Financial wise, I believe in the power if automation. As example: I have missed no tax advantage pension investment since 1998…! Now that all is automated, I expect to keep it till 2043… Woohoo!

    I am not proud on myself for missing some monthly index investments. I learned a few things from those and should do better going forward.

    On the blog level, I am like you. I decided on a posting schedule and have the intention to stick to it.

    Let’s see

    1. The Oregon coast is pretty amazing! I’m in the same boat — a moderator in some things, but mostly an abstainer. :-) Your streak on pensions is super impressive! And blogging, too!

  11. Absolutely!
    So many things in life from diets to finances to going to the gym are all about creating new habits. I’m also a great believer in small steps being good enough to get a new habit started. $100 a month saved is better than zero. A 10 minute work out is better than none. Anything to get a streak started!

    1. It’s funny — the idea of “creating a new habit” often feels so daunting, like this giant hill to climb. Whereas “doing what we did yesterday” feels easier. So for the habit-challenged (like us!), thinking of exactly the same thing a little differently, as a streak instead of a habit, has been super powerful.

  12. Lots of streaks for us (we’re pretty solid streakers), but the two that stand out most in my mind currently are 1) no use of credit cards for any purpose, including so called emergencies, and 2) staying on a low carb lifestyle for the past 5+ years. Streaks build momentum for me, hold me accountable and give me attainable goals. I’ve had trouble with the saving streak, I get a few good months and then something happens, but at least whatever happens doesn’t go on a credit card! My next streak attempt will be to log two consecutive months of doubling our car payment. I’ve said I’m going to do it since January of this year and haven’t made it even once, but as soon as I start I’m hoping it will streak into a habit. Even at zero interest I just don’t like carrying the debt and I don’t want to deplete an income earning asset to retire it, so I need to do this! Thanks for the great post, great brain food.

    1. Ooh, those are good streaks! Nice work! And yeah, I agree on the car payment. It’s easy to hang onto a zero interest loan, but I’m sure it’s weighing on you at least a little bit to have that debt, and you’ll feel so much better when it’s gone! :-)

  13. Yeah… not a person that can take one bite of cake either. And I NEVER understood making your bed… I’m just going to get back in it! But you’re right. J. Money talked about this streak thing about how he never missed a day because he didn’t want to “accidentally quit.” That’s my style. Also, on my YMOYL chart, I added “amount saved” so I can see how that is trending as well and it’s very motivating!

    1. Who are these mythical creatures who can just take one bite of the cake?! I’m super jealous of them, wherever they came from. :-) I didn’t see J$’s post, but that totally rings true for me. I don’t want to accidentally quit things that are important. That’s why I try to build all these systems around myself to keep things going even if I am lazy, which is like always. :-) Or, maybe not lazy exactly, maybe just too decision-fatigued by work! And I love that you added an “amount saved” line to your chart! That’s something I wish we’d started long ago. We know how our net worth has gone up, but a lot of that is market gains, so we actually have very little idea of how much of that we contributed!

  14. I’ll admit that I’m somewhat of a quitter — I want to try everything but rarely stick to anything — so I’m not too concerned with keeping a streak going.

    But I agree that automation is key if you want to start a good habit and stick with it. The less thinking and work involved, the better. The only caveat to this is keeping a spreadsheet of expenses. I, too, am a proponent of this over Mint or Personal Capital and I track all my savings/investments, expenses, and income using Excel. I’m an accountant and I play in Excel all day anyway so it’s second nature :)

    1. Oh, I’m totally the same way! Rather than thinking of it as being a quitter, though, maybe it’s being an explorer or experimenter. :-) And yeah, love Excel. I don’t use it all that much for work, but I practically always have it open for our financial stuff!

  15. I’ve definitely seen how creating a streak has helped me build a better habit. For me, it’s all about toughing it out until I get so used to something that it’s just a habit…unfortunately I’m also that person who totally caves once I break the streak and then takes forever to build myself back up to starting a streak again. I might just fall right into the abstainer camp…proven by my increased un-ironic use of YOLO :P

    1. I’m the same way with plenty of streaks… for some reason the financial ones work better than the ones for healthy eating and exercise. Probably because all the work travel totally interferes with the health stuff, while it doesn’t really effect how we spend or save our money. :-) It’s been helpful to me to not worry about little deviations from the streak, and convincing myself that it’s still a streak even if I miss a day or two. :-)

  16. I am with you on the Abstainer side. I’m envious, but just cannot understand how the Moderators function.

    And I can see how the streak approach would fit nicely into that mindset. Unfortunately, I’m not great with streaks either. I tend to rebel against them as soon as I create them.

    I have found spreadsheets to work for me. I track everything capturing the data from one source and manually entering it into a spreadsheet. That manual process forces me to look at whatever it is I’m tracking. And I really do love working with numbers – analyzing them, trending them, looking at them in all different sorts of ways.

    1. If you’re tracking everything so diligently, then you’ve probably got some streaks going that you just don’t think of as streaks. If you know you’ll just rebel from anything too formalized, then don’t call ’em streaks. Just go with what’s working for you! :-)

  17. Totally awesome, I’ve a true believer in streaks and love creating them in my life. Streaks are great motivation tool to keep you going when things are tough. Streaks also allow you to look at the bigger pictures. Cutting yourself some slack from time to time is definitely important.

  18. From stok’n to streak’n … Love it.
    So nice to hear that you started saving just $250 and built up other streaks. There is hope for us all!
    Congrats on all those milestones – so impressive.
    I’m an annoying Upholder which does sometimes drives my wonderful husband crazy.
    Our steaks are:
    – paying more than double the minimum on our mortgage for 2 years (we’ve paid extra ever since we’ve had it but this higher rate when we didn’t have to pay daycare/preschool fees anymore)
    – passive income from our investment property for 7 years
    – sticking to our budget for over 10 years
    – being with our kids before and after school and school holidays since they started preschool
    – reading to our kids every day for 7+ years
    – running/walking 10000+ steps per day
    Keep on streak ‘n …

    1. Of course “streaking” means something different, too, and that’s NOT what we’re talking about. :-D And your list of streaks is awesome! I especially love your dedication to spending time with and reading to your kids! Plus that walking/running habit — impressive!

  19. This is part of why I like focusing on one financial goal at a time and why I generally prefer to not multi task wherever possible. It just gets me more excited about that one goal and helps me be motivated to do it faster! Unfortunately it isn’t always possible to avoid multitasking…

    1. I totally see the logic in that! I wonder what our retirement timeline would have been like if we’d just focused on one thing at a time (investments, paying off house, tax-deferred)… that’s an interesting hypothetical on whether it would have sped us up or slowed us down. Though now I’m in the mode of liking to see all the numbers go in the right direction, so I don’t know if I’d want to switch to single-tasking at this point! :-D

  20. Moderation is key, without it I would probably drive my family crazy! I am an all-in kind of person, but to maintain healthy relationships I have found a way to compromise with my family (100% abstainers…except for the actual abstaining part). I admit, I do get a little tense when they want to spend on something I consider frivolous. Although now that I write this, I realize I am the moderator for my family keeping everything in balance. But, the streaks keep me motivated too!

    1. I didn’t think about how different it would feel if Mr. ONL and I were different “types,” like you and your family — that sounds like it makes things interesting! And the frivolous spending thing…. we’ve definitely learned that that’s all relative. One day something I think is a frivolous buy will become the thing Mr. ONL thinks is frivolous the next day. Ha!

  21. “We’re going streaking through the quad and into the gymnasium! C’mon everybody!”

    This year makes 11 straight years of maximizing tax deferred space, 9 straight years of a happy marriage, and close to 20 years of always paying the full balance on credit cards every month.

    Cheers!
    -PoF

  22. I do like saying/thinking that I’m on a streak of tracking every expense down to the penny since January 1st, 2015. (I mean, I’m not just saying/thinking it: I have really done this consistently for 16 months.)

    But regarding spending and saving and that sort of thing, I think I’m in a place right now where I’m just trying to do the best I can. I suspect that if I forced myself to be uber frugal and save every possible penny, I would lose a sizable chunk of my sanity in the process. Is the “I’m just going to do the best I can” mindset mutually exclusive with the streak mindset? I’m not sure, actually. Maybe I’m on a streak of just doing the best I can, haha.

    Regarding blog posting, I have just broken my streak of posting at least once per week! Ah well. Life goes on. As does my blog. :)

    1. I don’t think streaks have to apply to everything — that would be too high a bar, and so much pressure! As you said, doing that without losing your sanity would be tough. And there are TONS of areas of our lives where we are not on a streak, or at least not on a GOOD streak. (Currently I’m on a streak of eating too much airport junk food while traveling for work — yay!) I think “doing the best you can,” which is our current approach to sleep and healthy eating, is completely acceptable. Same for blogging when you can! I just know that I am bad at picking something up once I let off the gas, and I’m afraid of “accidentally quitting” (to use J$’s words, per Maggie’s comment). I’m excited to read your post this week! ;-)

  23. Your financial streaks are impressive! I have to confess that I’m one of those people who love cake (desserts in general) but can say “I’m good” after a couple of bites. I guess I’m a moderator when it comes to food, but an abstainer when it comes to other things. We also make our bed every single morning, but this is more of my partner’s streak than mine. His philosophy is that it’s so much nicer to come home to a made bed than a messy one and it relaxes him after a long day at work. Some of my other streaks include 1) bringing lunch and snack to work at least 4/5 days since 2006; 2) auto transferring a chunk of salary to savings account for more than two years; 3) tracking expenses since January 2015; 4) paying credit card bills on time, in full since signing up for the accounts.

    1. I’m SO JEALOUS that you can push away cake! :-) I have to just not start at all. But you have so many great habits, so it shouldn’t be a surprise. Nice work on those great streaks! I’m especially impressed by you bringing your lunch so consistently just because that takes work every day, instead of something like automated savings that you don’t have to think about. And I agree on the made bed, but that doesn’t mean I actually muster up the will to do it. :-)

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