How 'microresolutions' can transform your finances

'Small Move, Big Change' author Caroline Arnold reversed resolution failures


Caroline Arnold failed her New Year's resolution to be more organized, again, so she stepped back to see what was going wrong.

Q&A with Author Caroline Arnold

Small Move, Big Change

After repeatedly failing at her New Year's resolutions, Caroline Arnold took a step back to look at why she failed. She discovered that change is hard, but breaking things down into smaller pieces can actually affect long-lasting behavior. Her discovery led her to write a book on how "microresolutions" can change your life, break bad spending habits and more.

The "Small Move, Big Change" author wasn't used to failing in her personal and professional life. Arnold had been a technology leader on Wall Street for more than 10 years. She won awards and led teams with as many as 500 people. Yet she still had trouble with mundane areas of improvement, such as organizing her work space at home. Despite starting the New Year with new files and color-coded labels, she soon had to admit defeat.

We talked with Arnold to find out how she discovered why her resolutions failed, and how she learned to make better resolutions that work.

Q: What was your experience with resolutions before you started using "small moves?"  

A: I was very much in the 90 percent of people who fail in keeping their resolutions every year. I was not only frustrated, but somewhat mystified, because at work I make deadlines and do things. The one resolution I made for myself, I didn't have enough energy or will left over to be successful.

Q: How did you come up with the concept of "Small Move, Big Change?"

A: More than anything, I wanted to prove to myself that I can be successful. I thought, what's easier than losing weight? To be organized. Then I failed at that one.

I took a step back and said, "If I can't go to bed and wake up organized, there's got to be one thing I can do." I spent time examining my behavior, debugging it. I looked at my routine and saw where the bugs were, and I picked one bug to fix.

I decided to put all my notes in one notebook. I had notes everywhere. I had multiple notebooks, notes on agendas, notes on the backs on envelopes. The first couple of weeks I was practicing, that resolution was very difficult.

Q: What did you learn when you tried your first small move, or microresolution, as you call it?

A: My first revelation was that change is hard. You feel it. The notebook wasn't handy, I was in the middle of a conversation. I get a phone call and there's a pad by the phone.

After about four weeks the funniest thing happened. It wasn't hard anymore. It was far more useful than I ever thought it would be. Notes I thought were one-offs to throw away proved to be helpful. Sustaining my attention on long-term things was easier when I could find my notes.

I learned if I focus my attention on a narrow behavioral target, I can push through that uncomfortable phase. I found that the changes I had thought were too modest to be resolutions actually had very big benefits.

Q: What's an example of a microresolution vs. a typical New Year's resolution?

A: A New Year's resolution would be, "I'm going to spend less." Those are relative terms. How are you going to spend less? What will you do differently?

A microresolution might be that you're not going to withdraw money from an ATM that charges a fee. I was regularly taking out $100 and paying a $3 fee. I stopped using ATMs that charge me a fee.

Q: Any more examples of personal finance "small moves?"

A: Another one was to put aside a specific time each month to focus on one recurring bill and how I could get it down. One month it was energy -- how to get the bill down. Another month I consolidated all my phone bills.

One month I looked at all the services we spend money on, such as gardening, cleaning. We chose one we could do without.

Small moves are like an annuity. Once you figure out how to cut some spending from your life, you can save money the rest of your life. I didn't try to change everything at once. I made a significant change every month for a while.

Q: How else do you debug your spending habits?

A: It's important to look at what makes you overspend. Willpower is a limited resource. It runs out during the day. When you go shopping at the end of the day, you are much more likely to make impulse purchases. That's why they have things by the checkout line. They know you're been resisting purchases all through the store, and your willpower is lower. I don't buy extra things in the checkout line. If I want to buy them the next time I go through, I'll get them then.

Once a microresolution becomes automatic, it costs you nothing. It's like when you tie your shoes or you lock your front door. You never have to think about it again. It supports you the rest of your life.

Also, I don't shop on the Internet for personal things after 9:30 at night. I'm more likely to make an impulse purchase then, and before you know it, a box arrives and you're like, "What's that?"

If you get late fees, find out what is causing those late fees. To get on top of my bills, I picked a night when my husband was at a class. That worked for a long time, until my husband stopped taking that class! If you dig into paying bills on Friday night, it won't work. I do bills while I watch news on TV. I just grab the mail that's there and punch through it. I set anything aside that needs more attention.

Q: How many microresolutions should I do at once?

A: Two at a time. Any change in behavior takes focus and willpower. You probably have a job or family to take care of. A behavior change is a big deal. You have to give yourself credit for it.

Q: When can I take on more microresolutions?

A: If you take two at a time, and two more in a few weeks or a month, that's 20 or more behavior changes in a year. That's huge.

Q: You say to give it some spin -- what do you mean by that?

A: Make microresolutions that are succinct and resonate with you. When I feel pressured by a salesperson to spend more, my resolution is to say, "That's more than I'm planning to spend today." That works perfectly. It doesn't say it's too expensive or that I can't afford it.

Your financial goals are personal. The way you talk to yourself will be personal. When you give your self-talk some spin, you're saying, "I know why I'm doing that."

Q: How can you use cues to strengthen microresolutions?

A: A cue reminds you to do your microresolution. Part of defining a microresolution is defining the cue. Sometimes the cue is easy. If your resolution is to only use free ATMs, when you approach an ATM that charges a fee, that's your cue.

Other times it's the calendar. Pick the day per week and stick with it. You don't want to bargain with yourself. Measure success by doing it on the day and time you said you would do it. You don't get credit for doing it two days later.

Q: Test-driving a resolution was a new concept to me. I usually just crash and try again next year. How does test-driving resolutions work?

A: The test drive is the first two weeks. It will feel uncomfortable. That doesn't mean it's wrong. You may need to fine-tune it until it's something you can sustain forever. Change the language, the timing, fiddle with the cue, if you need to.

Once a microresolution becomes automatic, it costs you nothing. It's like when you tie your shoes or you lock your front door. You never have to think about it again. It supports you the rest of your life.

Q: How else can microresolutions help curb impulsive spending?

A: You have to think about what makes you spend impulsively. Is it when you've been out shopping a long time? Is it when you're with a particular person? Is it shopping late at night on the Internet or when you feel pressured by the salesperson?

If you make a resolution to think about a purchase for an hour, 90 percent of the time you'll never buy it. Get some distance. I say I'm going to walk for 15 minutes.

Q: What about price creep -- the tendency to spend just a little bit more than we planned?

A: When people plan something, like a vacation, it's easy to keep going up by notches. Each notch is a little bit more. They see something that's only $100 more, then another $80 more.

It's like being on eBay, I'll pay $1 more, and then another $1 more. You have to say, when I plan a vacation or when I'm going shopping, I set a limit and I don't go past that.

Q: What else would you like to tell people?

A: I don't preach to anyone about what they should do. People should do what they want. But if you're trying to reach a goal, people should know they can reach that goal with very little pain.

The main thing is: Don't tell yourself what you're doing is small. You'd be shocked to see the effect of small changes.

We tell ourselves that a daily effort is not enough, that we have to be a different person. But maybe you just have to do things a little bit differently. Being different comes after you do things differently. Instead of saying, "I'm going to wake up thrifty," make one of your behaviors thriftier. That's the key -- at least it was for me.

See related: How Cherie Lowe slew her debt dragon, 10 ways to make financial resolutions stick

Published: April 2, 2015

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