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Money reset rituals: How to retrain your brain for a post pandemic world

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of first direct.

Author: Dr. Ash Ranpura

Dr. Ash Ranpura is a neuroscientist and clinical neurologist who has been active in brain research for over 25 years. Since achieving his degree at Yale University and an M.D. from the Medical College of Ohio, he has completed a residency in clinical neurology at Yale-New Haven Hospital and carried out Ph.D. research at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience in London. He is a sought-after public speaker and writer, and has previously hosted for BBC Radio 4, National Public Radio and Audible.com. Recently, he co-authored a book on mindfulness and neuroscience with Ruby Wax and Gelong Thubten entitled ‘How To Be Human: The Manual’.

Time to read: 9 minutes

Introduction

The snow was still falling and the roads had just re-opened that morning. I didn't know if we’d missed the bus or if it had never come, but either way my son and I weren't going to make it to the airport without spending several hundred pounds on a taxi and possibly hundreds more re-booking the flights. Our "cheap" weekend getaway had just turned into something much more extravagant.

However, an even greater crisis was happening back home. When I finally returned a growing number of missed calls from my wife, I found out she'd just been in a major car accident. Thankfully she was alright, but our car, an utterly unremarkable beast of burden that we never loved but absolutely relied upon, was not.

The cost of the bus debacle, at around £700, suddenly seemed pretty insignificant compared to the cost of buying a new car. And then the pandemic struck. Our job contracts started to get delayed or cancelled, and we didn't know when either of us would next get paid.

Financial stress affects all of us differently. Susan started reading books on self-sufficient living and began making her own moisturiser, whereas I started chasing her and my son around the house turning off the lights behind them. Initially they were understanding but eventually they got fed up. "I'm IN HERE!" my son would shout from the loo whose light switch is temptingly located in the corridor.

But eventually, something began to shift. As lockdown turned from weeks into months, we started feeling more optimistic about our finances. I dusted off my rarely used circular saw and built a loft bed for our son, saving myself some cash and a trip to a certain large, chain furniture store, also known as the ‘7th circle of hell'. We spent our weekends swimming in rivers and going for bicycle rides, and no longer had to listen to friends tell us about the incredible time they just had on a yoga retreat up a mountain in Thailand eating biodynamically-grown aubergines and drinking cruelty-free vegan cocktails. For the first time we could remember, we weren't worrying about money on a daily basis. We were definitely earning less, but we had what we needed to be happy. As summer turned into autumn we wondered, could we hold onto this new relationship to our finances after the lockdown ended?

 

Why Money is a Wellness Issue

The response to financial stress and anxiety is often just to think that you need to get a grip. Money is rational, right? Just earn more – or spend less.

But somehow these goals are harder than they sound. Real life gets in the way, our priorities keep shifting, and we just can't quite get into the healthy financial patterns we know would work. It's not because we're irrational; it’s because, like all wellness issues, there are internal and external barriers that prevent us from changing our behaviour.

First, money is deeply emotional. We may feel shame if we don't have enough, or shame if we have enough but aren't very clever at managing it. We may feel a constant low-level sense of anxiety that circumstances may suddenly change for the worse, possibly even catastrophically.

Second, we are herd animals and we compare our welfare to that of our tribe. More often than not, we compare upwards, with those who have more rather than those who have less. It’s a quirk of our biology that we tend to get more emotional charge from envy than we do from compassion; and, though we may not even notice it, envy can end up driving many of our financial decisions.

Finally, most of our financial decisions – like most of our decisions in general – are actually habits. It's rare that we engage in the difficult and painful process of rationality, weighing up the pros and cons and thinking through long-term consequences. Much more often we take the path of least resistance and just roll downhill, like those giant cheese wheels in Gloucester. It takes a brave person to stand in the path of a tumbling cheese wheel – and it takes quite a lot of determination to do the same with a well-established habit.

So our sense of financial wellbeing, like our sense of physical wellbeing, depends as much on our attitudes and our mindset as it does on our material circumstances. Clearly sometimes circumstances matter a lot; someone in the midst of a financial or health crisis is not going to get out of it just by having the right mental attitude. But in our normal day-to-day lives, what unhelpful attitudes could we re-examine? How do we start to lose our bad habits and replace them with good ones?

First Steps to Habit Change

The human brain can be an extremely annoying device. For a start, it tends to be lazy. Also it fixates on things that attract its attention and ignores important things that don't. Somehow it keeps remembering that time you were six years old and didn't get picked for a team, yet somehow fails to remember the name of your business partner's brother whom you've met at every Christmas party for the last 10 years.

And it's these quirks of the brain that can make it difficult to achieve a stable sense of financial wellbeing. We hope that our thinking process is rational, but like a duck floating in a current, the calm and still that we see above the water hides a furiously paddling emotional brain under the surface. We are driven by envy, we get tricked by sales tactics, when we're financially down we're sure it will get better and when we're up we're sure it will never end. Rational doesn't even get a look-in.

The good news is the same biological eccentricities that can make a brain hard to live with also make it extremely good at learning and changing. Research into the science of behaviour change suggests that we can use our biological quirks to improve our habits and our feeling of money wellness. Here are four brain-based tips to help you lay the foundations of a new relationship with money.

(1) Pick a starting line. The human brain tends to pick actions based on context. That's what makes habits so sticky - if you always have a glass of wine with dinner, you might be resolutely teetotal at lunch but by evening you'll really be craving that Chablis. We can flip that script by setting an artificial context for ourselves.

In her 2014 "Fresh Start" study, Professor Katherine Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania demonstrated that when people were given an artificial starting line for a new habit, the change was much more likely to stick. The starting line can be any day that has some meaning for you - New Year's Day, a birthday, or even payday. On that day, try starting a new budget or changing an aspect of your spending. Maybe set yourself a spring cleaning day to review your recurring subscriptions for entertainment services and magazines. These first steps should be small and manageable, and you should only look forwards - don't let anxiety about your past habits get in the way of new good ones.

(2) Break the task up into smaller pieces. Often large projects comprise many smaller projects. While the whole may seem overwhelming, the individual steps are in themselves perfectly manageable and maybe even enjoyable. Author Nir Eyal calls this the MEA approach, or "minimal enjoyable activity." Eyal suggests that in order to adopt a new habit, we find the smallest part we can do that we would enjoy, and at first that's all we do. So instead of re-organising your spending from top to bottom, start small. Maybe download your bank's app on your phone, or find a podcast about good financial habits. If you allow your brain to enjoy what you're doing, your new habits are far more likely to take hold than if you fight your brain at every step.

(3) Be your own secretary. Two of the real barriers that prevent us from changing bad habits into good ones are guilt and shame. After all, in order to get rid of a bad habit we have to admit we had a bad habit in the first place, right? That's a painful admission, and our brains don't readily want to do things that cause us pain.

One way around those barriers is to imagine that you aren't personally invested in either the problems or the solutions. So if you're not on top of your credit card debt or you're not sure whether to re-mortgage, instead of beating yourself up about it just imagine that you are your own secretary. Your job is to make progress on these financial errands and you need to do a good job, but at 5PM you're going to clock out and leave it alone for the day.

Putting this distance between yourself and your errands takes both your ego and the attached emotions out of it. That enables your brain to focus on the action itself, not its meaning. This dramatically reduces anxiety and the friction to act.

(4) Use heuristics. A heuristic is a decision rule, or a rule of thumb. It's a way to allow yourself to make complex decisions rarely and simple decisions often.  For example, you might have a rule that every single time you get some income you'll put a percentage of it in a savings account. You can figure out how to manage your savings later, the purpose of the simple heuristic is so that you don't have to think about savings all the time. Heuristics work extremely well with the brain's natural laziness, because they minimise the energy required to make better decisions.

Achieving Money Wellness

The most important step is to realise that money is, in fact, a wellness issue. Your feelings about money matter, they have an effect on your financial decisions and on your overall health. So the first thing on the agenda is to take stock of how you feel about your financial life, to articulate any emotional blocks or anxieties you might have, and to allow yourself to feel optimistic about the future.

And, let’s start treating our financial health in the same way we would treat our mental or physical health; consider which current habits may need improving or building on, don’t introduce too much too soon, stop comparing yourself to others, and most importantly be kind and celebrate the small achievements.

Dealing with finance may cause anxiety but retraining the brain and gaining a new sense of perspective is the most powerful thing you can do in order to feel financially healthy. 

 

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