Charged Up! podcast: Building better habits for financial success
Episode 61 with author and blogger Steve Scott
Steve Scott has written many books on building good habits and curates the blog developgoodhabits.com. Scott has mastered the art of developing habits to better his life and meet his financial and career goals, and he believes you only need small changes every day to make a big difference. You can start right now.
If you’re looking to better your financial, personal and professional life, get Charged Up! about mastering the art of habit stacking to make it happen!
Jenny Hoff: Steve thank you so much for joining me today.
Steve Scott: thanks for having me on Jenny.
Hoff: So, you’ve written a lot of books all centered around developing good habits. Organizing your brain and how small changes if practice daily can dramatically impact your life. Let’s first though talk about your background and how you became a habit guru of sorts.
Scott: I don’t know if I like the word guru but it’s just more of a fan of habits like a lot of entrepreneurs I kind of started out with a lot of just messy routines. Just trying to make things happen being pretty scrappy trying to build a business. So, it’s been almost 14 years now that along the way I would just start to get into certain routines that I would do every day. And I would notice that there are certain things I would do every single day that had the biggest benefit for my business, and what happened is I built up a self-publishing business. And around 2014 I was kind of just kicking around trying to find my new topic for books are write about. I did like the whole thing that you do when you’re trying to figure out exactly what you wanted, what you can market, what do you want to talk about. I made a list of everything that I’m interested in. So, I had different topics running - I’d like traveling that sort of thing and the one thing I kept on coming back to it’s like building habits every single day, which I’m pretty good at. I’m just doing the same thing over and over and I’m like you know what maybe I’ll just kind of talk about habits and just see what goes from there. So, I started writing blog posts and writing books about my passion for habits and things kind of seemed to have taken off ever since then.
Hoff: Absolutely and I really enjoyed looking through your book because it makes a lot of sense, right? Obviously developing a habit becomes something that you don’t think about you don’t have to convince yourself to do every day. It becomes just part of your routine like brushing your teeth in the morning or taking a shower. You just do it and you feel weird if you don’t do it and I think that’s kind of the goal that many of us have is that we want to be able to do these things that we kind of feel are difficult or just not that tempting right now. We want to just do it and that become a part of our life. I do want to focus a little bit of in your book habit stacking because I think it’s very relevant to our lives. Now let’s say I make a to-do list every day. What’s the difference between that and habit stacking? Tell us what habits stacking is and how can it be more beneficial than let’s say a to-do list that you wake up you write down what you need to get done and you check it off.
Scott: I think for half a second just the concept is you want to group a bunch of habits together that go off at the same time every day. Whereas a to-do list is kind of just your running tally of all the things you need to do. I need to go to the bank. I need to do this, I need to do that. A lot of times the items on your to-do list are they just vary from day to day. But with the concept of just building a routine into your day, you repeat the same things over and over. The way I kind of describe it is you just remove willpower from the equation. I try to actually get like 5,000 steps every day as a bare minimum, and there are a lot of times like lately especially with the winter that we’re going through that I’m just not in the mood but like I know that ‘hey this is just part of my day I usually do it at this time.’ So, it’s almost part of my identity where I have to do it. Now, with the concept of habit stacking is you try to find a lot of the small habits, you know you should do every single day and just put them into routine. So, for financial habits, it would be reviewing your budget every single day and maybe going over your credit card statements at least once a week, that sort of thing where you try to find the stuff that you know you should be doing and just schedule it into your day. There’s pretty much no way you could say no, you have to do it because it’s on the schedule and it sounds pretty brutal but when you kind of make that yes or no binary decision. It is easy to build these sorts of habits.
Hoff: How do you stack then these habits let’s say I say OK I need to check my finances every day. I want to check my credit score that’s free with my credit card. I want to keep a budget and keep a log of what I do. How do I start stacking this so that I can get it all done in one timeframe it doesn’t take too much time and it doesn’t become a chore? It’s something that I just know that I do every day.
Scott: I would suggest that you want to start out pretty slow, pretty easy so something that takes maybe five minutes. So maybe two habits a day right first thing in the morning so there’s no way that you can put it off every single day. So that would be like you said - check your credit score and then maybe go over your budget. You would want to start out something super simple like that. And there’s been a lot of talk about how long it takes a bill to happen and I feel that it really depends on how it’s else like some habits are just super easy to build and within a couple of days you’re just into a routine. Whereas they say it takes upward of 66 days to develop other habits. So, what I would kind of recommend is you want to get to a point where you’re getting up in the morning. You’re these habits without even having to force yourself it’s almost like you’re running on autopilot. Let’s just say you go downstairs, I say go downstairs because I have a two-floor house but my trigger tends to be go downstairs walk into my kitchen and I just almost use that as a visual cue to go through a couple of morning routines. So, you’d go through the five minutes of your morning routine and then once you’ve completely do that on autopilot then you want to start adding a couple of more habits. But the point is to see you want to make sure that this is to the point where it’s not like stressing out that if you wake up the morning, and it’s like ‘oh man have to do this like one hour of habit.’ Then it’s almost like you’re kind of losing the value and you overwhelm yourself. So, it really is a delicate balance at the end of the day
Hoff: Absolutely and I do want to give some examples, so people can actually visualize themselves doing it and in your book, you give examples of how you go about your day. And the habits that you do and how long it takes and at what area of your life it serves whether it’s financial, relationship, health etc. But first you’re a pretty prolific writer. You’ve written a lot of stuff. You’ve written a lot of books. You keep your blog you have a lot of information out there. How did you develop the habits to stay on track and do this because most people I know cannot even finish one book even though they’ve been working on it for years. How did you develop that regimen so you would get it done and no matter what?
Scott: I know myself I tend to put off hard things like writing and other difficult stuff like that. It takes a lot of brain power for me to do so what I want to do. First thing in the morning is I’ll go through my habit stack and routine and then I pretty much follow the Brian Tracy eat the Frog. So, right after I complete my habit stack I’ll go right into at least 30 minutes to 60 minutes of writing and that’s just like I know that no matter what happens the rest day at least I eliminated my biggest task. Now to write at the pace I tend to write, sometimes I have to do more than just 30-60 minutes of writing. So, I also try to include a block of time in the afternoon but at the very least something just write and I’ve come up with my day I know that at least I’ll achieved a little bit of writing every single day. Now to kind of manage this whole process I use an app called ‘to-do list.’ And this is your run-of-the-mail to-do list app. That’s kind of cool about that app is you can upload a project and I have a project for every one of my books and I just simply open that up every single day and just start working on the next step. And I try to put in a step-by-step format where I’m not necessarily telling myself every single day I have to go out and write a book or write a bunch of blog posts, just what is the next absolute step that I need to achieve.
Hoff: Absolutely and I’ve heard that from a few different strategists and about just having that next step as your goal. Otherwise if you if you try to think too big or you try to make too many steps it’s going to be daunting and you’re going to find something to get you out of that situation. Let’s go through your morning routine. What’s your morning habit stack and so we can get an idea of how we could configure our mornings.
Scott: I’ll actually start by saying that I have a stack, but it kind of changes all the time so what I wrote in the book is slightly even changed nowadays. As an example, I realized like because I’ve been getting injured a lot from running that I have to introduce stretching at least twice a day. So, my habit stack is pretty much I get up in the morning, I weigh myself, I go downstairs. I drink 32 ounces of water and actually spend about 20 minutes stretching. I drink organic green juice just to make sure I get a little bit of vegetables in my day. It’s not necessarily as good as eating vegetables, but at least it’s something. I review my goals, do a little bit journaling, read 10 minutes of nonfiction. Identify the kind of top three tasks that I have to do that day and usually one of them is writing and that’s usually around like 30 to 40 minutes and by the time that’s done, I dive right into my workday and that’s three days of the week. And then twice a week I actually have my son till 11 o’clock in the morning. I try to do like a half day or at least I’m spending a good amount of time with him, so I play with him in the morning and then I’ll drop him off at day care. In the afternoon I’ll start my writing routine, but I do try to do have a stack every single morning and then just the writing, which happens three days a week.
Hoff: All right so it doesn’t take tons of time - 30 to 40 minutes - but you have this routine of what you do every day. I love that you have it even down to the ounces of how much water you drink. But you have it, so you don’t have to think right it’s just on autopilot and I think when you have to think about it and decide to make those decisions is when you can fall off track and start doing things that you’re going to regret later. Let’s go into some of the terminology in your book and start with the three types of habits that you outline and what are they and then how do we have to view them. The Keystone, the Supporting and the Elephant habits
Scott: Okay so the Keystone is the big rock of your life these little things that really matter. So, for your job let’s just say that you’re in a sales job, a keystone habit would be maybe prospecting or making cold calls X amount of times to a day or X number of hours per day. So, this is something that’s just really truly like has a huge impact in your life and I would include in that exercising and eating well. That sort of thing that these are just major habits. Now Supporting habit is just something that helps with the Keystone. So, as an example, I know I’m going to the gym to go running on the treadmill every single day. A simple supporting habit would be just to pack my gym bag first thing in the morning and actually have it in the trunk. This is how anal-retentive I might be – I have a backup gym bag in the trunk of my car just in case I miss a particular item. In that case, you’re eliminating the excuse that most people have to not exercise. So, another supporting habit would be if you’re someone who likes exercise outdoors just simply get up in the morning and check the weather for that day and plan accordingly. If you know it’s going to rain outside then you would perhaps pack for a gym workout instead so those are kind of examples but just anything to help you achieve a Keystone habit. Elephant habit is just it’s part of like a larger project and it’s like you chip away at this project a little bit at a time like that old adage “how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” So as an example, this is actually what I’m doing right now for me being self-employed, I’ve got like three different businesses and it’s pretty intensive for tax seasons. So, my Elephant habit is 10 to 15 minutes every single night I start to put together the paperwork for tax season because it’s a lot of different accounts and this just takes forever to do. I know that if I put it off too much I’ll probably just like want to kill myself because I have so much to do so I just try to chunk it down into small little doses that’s not too bad.
Hoff: So, you’re doing a lot of thinking ahead and breaking things down and structuring your habits and structuring your day in a way that you know you’ll be grateful for later. And I don’t remember if you know these off the top of your head, but can you talk about the nine rules to creating a habit stacking routine? For the ones that you can remember, can you kind of go through those because some of us might be like OK these are all great ideas.
Scott: I would say the first one that doesn’t want to mention before is that you want to make sure that you go easy on yourself don’t create a schedule that’s an hour long because the first day that you’re overwhelmed by work or you just you get an argument spouse and stuff like that. So, my first rule would be just try to keep it as simple as possible at first so it’s more important to keep consecutive days and that’s kind of another role. It’s just five minutes and make sure you’re just doing it every single day and that’s the whole Seinfeld kind of the story they that he talked about. Someone went up to Jerry Seinfeld and asked, “how do you write jokes on a continual basis?” He said, “you just get out a giant calendar and if I write one joke a day I just do a giant X on the calendar” and that’s really just what he calls keeping the streak alive. So, it’s more important to have consecutive days than it is to have one great day where you do 10 habits in a row and then just get two days in row because you’re not really building a habit. I would also say that you want to have a particular time, or do you do with this habit and also trigger. So, for me my morning routine here is just go downstairs and when I actually walk into my kitchen area that’s my trigger for starting a habit stack. Your trigger could be like you decide to floss your teeth right after you brush your teeth or right before you brush your teeth like whatever. You want to do it, but you want to actually use something that you do every single day, an already pre-established habit and attach a habit stack to that. And there’s also just other things like if you want to keep track of your habit stacks I would recommend some sort of app or tool. I used to use an app called “coach,” and I’ve actually switched over to an app called “strides.” I think it’s just stridesapp.com and that’s just simply just you log in every single day and then after like a five-day streak you get like a little bit a little like fireworks go off. It’s totally lame, but that’s the point. It’s just something that you are checking every single day and also you want to keep a checklist nearby. So, I tend to keep my checklist in the Evernote app and also my to-do app so the advantage is seriously you’re not relying on a piece of paper that you could leave at home. You have it digitally that you can access on your phone, tablet or desktop computer. So those are just a couple of the rules.
Hoff: And you recommend just starting out with one or two habits and then you can add to that.
Scott: Yeah, absolutely.
Hoff: Okay and so I do want to talk about like let’s say if I wanted to develop some good routines for my finances. We kind of talked about that, but let’s say I want to save for retirement. I want to better my credit score. I want to save more money. I want to check my spending and I want to make sure I’m kicking butt at my career so that I can get more money. What are some habits that I could develop to get these goals going?
Scott: I would say you want to kind of break it down into specific daily habits or weekly habits. I would say maybe once a week check your credit score but tracking your spending for me that would be absolutely a daily habit. So maybe wake up first thing in the morning or at the end of every single day and just track everything you spent that day. The only apps I know they can do stuff like this mint but I’m sure there’s a bunch of other ones but the idea there is like you’re writing down all of your expenditures and maybe once a day just check your budget. For me for career goals I would say make it a point of identifying your 80/20. So, the 80/20 rule is 80 percent of results come from 20 percent of your effort so sit down one day identify what are those one or two tasks that really make a huge difference in your job. And my opinion is you should go in every single day and work on those one or two things before anything else. Don’t check email, don’t socialize with your friends. Sit your butt in the chair and just work on those one or two things for the first couple of hours of the day and the tendency of people is it kind of just ease into their day but they if you start our day with the most important things you’ll really achieve a lot of results with your life. And I guess a final thing if for example, I’m starting to get into real estate investments. So, one thing I do every single day, is there’s a couple of websites I used to kind of evaluate properties. I turn a habit of 30 minutes every single day I would look at one or two deals and to see if it’s if it’s worth my time and even when I know I can’t buy a house, I would just kind of sit down as build that muscle memory of just going through a list thing and looking for those key indicators of what would make me want to invest in the property. So, I guess the point is just break down what you need to do on a regular basis and just schedule into your day.
Hoff: Okay what if we’re not as organized as you? What if somebody just does not feel like they’re organized enough to accomplish this. How can they kind of start off small or get into being more organized so they can accomplish this.
Scott: I guess I would just go back to the streak thing so if you know that you’re not the most organized person it just sounds stupid but just make it a habit of every single day just open up your bank account and looking at your expenditures or open up your credit card, or just something that you know it takes less than one minute. But what you’re doing there is you are building that consistency of habit and then once you get that set you can add something else to this day. So, it’s really just about slowly building on top of each other once you kind of get into the practice so you’ll find there’s actually not too hard to add habits to the to your day.
Hoff: And I love… you have like more than 100 habits in your book and you talk about what the goal fulfilled was - whether it’s career or relationship. And you know, from putting on a pot of tea to for your loved one in the morning. Bam! Okay that took a minute and that’s a relationship goal to show that person that I love them. So how did you kind of come up with these habits that you write about in your book and why do you think they were kind of the most important ones in your life?
Scott: I would say it all started from dating someone around 2013. I was dating a girl who is actually now on my wife and we lived about an hour and a half away from each other. So, we would only see each other on the weekends and we tended to bicker a lot back then just because we didn’t see eachother and she would just like not really talk to me all that much during the week. And like we would have the occasional phone call but she didn’t feel like I was really connected with her, and just during the course of this, she mentions “I just don’t think you ever think about me on a regular basis.” So, I thought I’m going to prove her wrong, so every single day I’d wake up and I actually had an alarm on my phone, just send her something really nice a text message and I would call every single day. So, I just created a habit stack around reinforcing the relationship. And I know I sound so robotic with my relationship, but needing a schedule is just the way I operate. After that, I’m like all right “what else can I add to my day?” So, I just started to incorporate other kind of self-improvement things into my day and, I kind of get into this in the book but most people slide with the relationships not because of the big things, but because of the little things. Is just they tend to let the little things go like you don’t tell your loved one that you think about her every single day or him and you just it just slowly erodes over time. And I believe that if you just kind of reinforce that how much you think of them how much you care for them you do the little things for them that it just builds the positivity. I really do believe that it’s like if you’re getting to the practice of doing something positive every day for someone you care about you can stand the test of time. And I guess just like kind of getting back to your question I just over like the course of a couple of years I just started adding incorporate more habits into my day. I just kind of fell in love with the idea that no matter what your goal is you can break it down into easy to do steps.
Hoff: Absolutely and I think that is a really profound thought which is it doesn’t need to take major grand gestures. The time you spend bickering with your loved one over you are doing more you more, you could instead be showing them you love them in little ways. And I think that you do that also with your health and your exercise and you talk a lot about all of those things in your book about how to accomplish your health goals and how to accomplish your career goals, etc. Also, in your website: developgoodhabits.com, you talked about things like understanding the psychological principles behind willpower. Can you talk a little bit about that the psychological principles behind willpower and how this helps overcome kind of the blockades to that?
Scott: Sure. So, with willpower and actually I’m just literally standing on the shoulders of giants of people who’ve done the actual research behind this and they found so amazing things. But the one thing they found is that something it’s a principle called energy depletion. And that’s basically that you have a reservoir of willpower and we all only have a certain amount of willpower being able to make decisions and just force ourselves to go to work every single day. And as the day goes on and we have to rely on willpower more and more that reservoir empties. So that’s why a lot of times at the end of the day if you’re good with your diet, at 9 o’clock at night you said, “All right, it’s been a long day let me go have those cookies I’ve been denying myself all day.” It’s because you’ve actually been just taken away from your willpower. You didn’t snap at your co-worker you were driving from work, and you’re stressed out from having worked hard for eight hours and maybe you exercised. So, the idea behind habits is that you don’t ever rely on motivation or willpower and actually the older I get the more I realize that motivation really doesn’t work at all when it comes to doing stuff like. I am not motivated a lot of time to write but I write because it’s part of my routine and that’s just how the human nature works. A lot of times you don’t feel like going your job, but you go to your job because it’s how you that’s how you feed your families and how you get a paycheck. So, if you can just start to build habits into your day you don’t necessarily always have to rely on willpower.
Hoff: And again, so you’re taking it just one at a time, you’re kind of building it up until it becomes a habit and you’ll know when it’s a habit when you just start not thinking about it, but you do it automatically. And some might take longer to develop into a habit than others how many habits do you follow in a day.
Scott: I would say in the neighborhood of 20 to 30 at this point, but some of them are literally a one-minute habit so it’s not as daunting as it sounds. I run my entire life through the app and as part of the to do is I have just a checklist of different things that I have to do every single day. A lot of times it’s like all right review my goals just check it off and it takes like half a minute.
Hoff: Absolutely what if somebody isn’t sure which habits they need to develop. How do they figure out which ones are right for them and that will get them on the track to achieve you their goals?
Scott: For me I’m a firm believer in self-education. So, whatever you’re trying to achieve I’ll listen to a podcast, I’m kind of preaching to the choir right now. So, listen to a podcast on financial education, read books on it. YouTube I found is like suddenly just an amazing resource for all this information that I need for my stretching routine the morning. I have all my favorite business- related programs to financial education, that sort of thing. So, when I’m stretching I just pop on a different video and just watch it while I’m stretching so there are these little pockets of time that you have during the day where you can listen to a podcast or read a book. Or just do something to improve your mind and for me that it’s the best way that I learn whenever a good idea comes up I’ll just write it down in the document related to that particular area of my life. Let’s say you want financial education, so you figure out how to improve your credit score. You just create a project for that and you try to chip away at it and if you can identify something that can be turned into a habit then you know that that should be part of your regular habit stack.
Hoff: Fantastic and yeah, even from personal experience say that I remember there was a time in my life where I just followed the exact same routine every morning. You know I get up I would have the same thing for breakfast. I would go for a run, I would come back take a shower. If I watch some news in the morning, I would do more exercises and I felt fantastic because I felt like every minute of my day was a little bit being accounted for. And it wasn’t in being a stickler necessarily, but it is making you feel like I’m on track to accomplish the things that I know are making me happy. What can building these habits due for ultimate happiness?
Scott: Actually, I think it makes me a happier person. I don’t know if it makes everyone a happy person, but it’s kind of that emotional momentum. And I know I just talked about how you don’t need to rely on motivation. But when you do 10 things that are positive for your life and you do it first thing in the morning you feel just kind of good like, “All right. I’ve checked a bunch of things off that I need to do.” And then you just carry that over into your workday and the best analogy I heard is there is an admiral who talked about how if you get out of bed first thing in the morning you just make your bed that’s already one positive thing that you’ve done for the rest of your day. And that’s kind of something that he instilled in his troops and it’s kind of the same mindset that if you can just start your day by just completing a bunch of small wins then that will carry over into everything else that you have to do to turn that day.
Hoff: Absolutely. So you do recommend concentrating your habit stacking in the morning if possible?
Scott: Yeah, I would say start out with the morning. I just find that in the evening, just stuff comes up in life and your kids sick or something you have to go like just drop everything that you have and just go do that a lot of times. But if you wake up before the rest of your family for 30 minutes and do this right away, you pretty much remove any sort of excuse you have for not completing it that day.
Hoff: What are three things that somebody could do right now to get started on habit stacking effectively to meet their goals?
Scott: I would say try to find one since it’s a financial audience, try to find one thing related to your finances. Either write down every expenditure you have for the previous day or review your budget, that sort of thing. For me a big one is kind of write down your three M-I-T’s your most important tasks. So just sit down think about what are the three things that really will have an amazing impact on your career. And just write those three down that you need to get done that day and then also like just try to have one related to your health. So just eat a piece of fruit if you’re someone who just doesn’t get enough fruits and vegetables, try to commit to eating one piece of fruit in one serving of vegetables every single day. Or get 5,000 steps like I think the reason these sound like really lowball goals is because they are kind of lowball goals. There’s something that you know you can do no matter what happens during the day. If you say I’m going to eat five servings of vegetables a meal, if you don’t and eat only three then you don’t get the points for that day. It’s kind of almost demotivating so you want to have something you know that you can do without fail.
Hoff: That’s a good point and I think that’s a really important point when somebody’s listening to this and thinking OK that’s it I’m going to develop some tasks for myself some habits that I’m going to develop. Keep them easy to achieve but it’s still important to your life because then you once you do achieve them you feel good. It’s like paying off that lowest credit card bill first you know it’s a small win you might have thousands more to pay off but you feel good because one you don’t have to worry about it anymore and it’s kind of like starting that way, so that you can feel good about yourself and not be down on yourself the minute you don’t achieve those goals. And, finally, what gets you charged up about finding and developing new habits?
Scott: For me it’s optimizing my life so pretty much I work about 20 to 30 hours a week which is pretty good for running a couple of businesses. So, it’s like I can just go through everything I need to get done for my business and it just frees up a lot of the rest of my life where I can spend you know half the day a couple of times a week with my son and weekends with my wife and son. And evenings with my wife so I’m able to enjoy a pretty high quality of life and also have time for friends and exercise and that sort of thing. So, the reason I’m so optimistic with my business and kind of my personal life is the fact that I can use the rest of my time to enjoy the small things.
Hoff: That sounds great and I think a lot of people here would love to kind of get to that area of their lives and so I really like the idea of just thinking of it as a habit like brushing your teeth. You do it every day. You don’t think about it and that’s what these habits need to become too. So, it’s not taking willpower out of your day and you don’t crash at the end of the day and just eat a pint of ice cream.
Steve, thank you so much for joining me today this is a fascinating discussion. I could have talked to you for a lot longer. I definitely recommend people check out your books check out your website there’s a lot of great advice in there. I was excited to read your book and I’m going to challenge myself to get started on this too. So, thank you so much Steve.
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