Improving My Habits

Dana Ferris

THE PROLIFIC MR. QUINN recently wrote that people who were irresponsible in one area of their life, such as failing to return shopping carts, also tend to be irresponsible in other areas, like managing their finances. He’s probably right. Still, I’ve had times when, even though I’m a “responsible person”—I’ve had a successful career, my kids lived to grow up, and so forth—I nonetheless had pockets of disorder in my life.

For me, the two biggest areas of chaos were managing money and maintaining a healthy diet and exercise regimen. I’m embarrassed to think back on the bounced checks, late fees, and even the checks I accidentally threw away because I was distracted and disorganized. I’m even more horrified to think about how many fast food and vending machine “meals” I ate because I hadn’t been to the store or found time to eat a proper breakfast or pack a lunch. There was even the gym membership that I had for seven years, which I paid for—but never once used.

These unacceptable patterns needed to be changed. Responsibly managing one’s finances is important. Ditto for attending to one’s health, as Rick Connor has written in several pieces. Thus, I’m happy to report that I have restored order in both of these important areas.

Our bills are paid on time, our credit scores are pristine, we have no debt beyond our mortgage, and we have savings, insurance and an estate plan. As for health and fitness, I’ve lost nearly 60 pounds since 2020, I’m absolutely devoted to working out and I’m now at a healthy weight for my height. When I had recent lab work, my doctor told me everything looked great, and “just keep up the good work.”

How did I do it? The short answer is habit formation—James Clear’s Atomic Habits was very helpful to me—with an assist from automation. My personal finance transformation happened some years before my success with diet and exercise. To improve my health, I applied many of the “automation” lessons that worked with our finances. Still, the real key is that I’ve made decisions and built habits that have helped me reach my financial and health goals.

Automating our finances. It was around the mid-2000s when I started using the online bill-paying service that our credit union offers. Since then, I’ve moved to setting up automatic payments directly with vendors, including the utility, phone and insurance company, rather than having checks sent from the bank.

Every time I get a new credit card, I set up my online account with automatic payments on the statement due date. Our retirement contributions and health insurance payments come straight out of our directly deposited paychecks. I opened a donor-advised fund with Fidelity Investments so our charitable contributions would be automated, and I set up an online account to make automatic quarterly tax payments to the IRS.

Now, it’s rare that I ever write a check or pay cash for anything and, on the infrequent occasions that I do need to pay a bill myself, I just go online and take care of it promptly. Because most of the task is automated, I have the time to attend to the parts that still need my attention, such as checking our bank accounts and credit card statements to make sure there’s nothing amiss.

Automating weight loss and fitness. Slowly but surely, I’ve learned what works for me. Where does automation fit in? It’s helped me stay on top of a sometimes mentally challenging process.

Specifically, an online calculator that considers age, gender, height, current weight and activity level provides me with recommended daily and weekly calorie ranges for losing or maintaining weight. I also rely on an online calorie-tracking website and app called MyFitnessPal. I have the tracker set to a lower calorie goal for workdays and another, higher one for weekends. In addition, I use an app called Happy Scale to enter and track my weigh-ins.

Using MyFitnessPal, I enter upcoming meals and snacks for the day ahead, inputting the information either the night before or first thing in the morning. Taking five to 10 minutes to plan reduces decision fatigue throughout the day, especially if I’m hungry, tired or stressed. I can just work the plan I’ve made rather than relying on willpower when the flesh is weak.

Since I like to cook, and meal planning is crucial to my success, I use an online recipe organizer called Copy Me That to collect and edit recipes that I’ve tried and decided were keepers. I also have themed Pinterest and Facebook folders to save new recipes I want to try. When it’s time to plan dinners and make my grocery list for the coming week, I consult these sources.

My fitness and exercise goals are tracked on my Apple Watch and on the Peloton app. I always “stack” my workout on the Peloton app—meaning I pick out and bookmark the classes I’ll do the next day—so that the decisions have already been made. The app also keeps track of my metrics in the Peloton classes. Meanwhile, the watch tracks my steps and my non-Peloton activity.

As with my financial management tools, I do have to get involved. I have to plan and cook the meals, pick out and do my workouts, and stick to the plan. But having all these tools reduces cognitive overload, and makes it more likely I’ll stick to the plan (well, most days) and make progress toward my health goals.

Dana Ferris and her husband live in Davis, California. She’s a professor in the writing program at the University of California, Davis, and is the author or co-author of nine books on teaching writing and reading to second language learners. Dana is a huge baseball fan and writes a weekly column for a San Francisco Giants fan blog under the nom de plume DrLefty. When not working, she also loves cooking, traveling and working out. Follow Dana on Twitter @LeftyDana. Her previous articles were Buying Time and A Better Plan.

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