The definition of insanity? Or are you just human?

human behavior

What is the definition of “insanity?”

I have been locked in a lifelong battle with personal finances that I have been losing over and over and over.

I CAN NOT seem to implement and maintain responsible behavior when it comes to managing my money.

I feel like a failure. I feel defeated. I feel hopeless.

I have friends for whom financial management seems second nature. They are sitting on piles of money and never stress out about it. And they don’t make any more money than I do, they just behave like responsible adults.

My wife and I make a good living. We’ll never be rich, but we do okay. Yet I should have a LOT more saved away for retirement by now. I should have a LOT more equity in my house by now. I’m almost 50.

I’m not a “stuff” guy. I don’t buy expensive cars, clothes, things. Where the hell is my money going and why can’t I seem to control it???

This is the conversation that has been going on my entire life.

Until recently.

Fiscal responsibility is my Waterloo.

I have my health habits dialed in, but when it comes to managing money I can’t seem to get my act together and it leaves me feeling defeated.

Periodically, I will flirt with change, but it never sticks, it never lasts, and I end up in the emotional basement again, repeating the same ineffective behavior.

I’m tired of feeling powerless to change. There is nothing quite as self-reducing as feeling powerless.

Have I lost my mind? Am I insane?

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, right?

Right?

Wrong.

Don’t believe everything you hear!

The definition of insanity is NOT “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” This cultural belief belongs in the bucket of popular wisdom that includes gems like:

  • It takes 21 days to form a habit (it doesn’t).
  • If you want to lose weight you should stick to 1,200 calories per day (nope).
  • Weight loss is all about calories in vs. calories out (it’s not).
  • Never eat after 6pm (why?).
  • Skipping breakfast leads to weight gain (not true).

It sure SEEMS like insanity, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. But it’s not. As a matter of fact, it’s quite natural and normal.

And it’s known as status quo bias.

I was first introduced to status quo bias my junior year of high school, but I didn’t realize it. I was required to memorize and recite the opening to the Declaration of Independence (I still remember it, feel free to test me).

Recently, a portion of it jumped out at me:

“…and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. “

Let’s unpack that. What Thomas Jefferson was saying is that humans are more likely to put up with things that suck, as long as they’re survivable, than they are to change.

What he was describing, without even knowing it, is status quo bias.

Status quo bias is the human tendency to repeat the same behavior and decision-making over and over.

Why do we do it? For many reasons, but basically because it’s safe and familiar.

In a way, this approach makes sense evolutionarily. When we evolved in a natural, danger-filled environment it made sense to repeat behavior that resulted in survival. We adapted to protect ourselves.

In my case, I continued to repeat my approach to personal finances because it was familiar to me, required less energy than behavior change, and, while it wasn’t leading to the result that I really wanted, it wasn’t driving me to bankruptcy, either.

It was, as Thomas Jefferson said, “sufferable.” As long as it was “sufferable,” why change it?

Our brains and behavior

Our brains don’t really discern between healthy and unhealthy. They discern between “survival” and “threat to survival.” So, while my behavior was making me frustrated, while it was making me feel like a failure, it wasn’t threatening my survival, so I continued.

Maybe you’ve experienced this with exercise, nutrition and weight loss.

You WANT to change. You WANT a different result. But you keep doing the same things over and over and getting a result you DON’T WANT and that makes you feel powerless and demoralized.

It’s really not your fault. It’s your brain at work, protecting you from the unknown.

So, if it’s human nature, and it’s a real thing, what the hell do we do to change?

The key is in the definition.

Status quo bias is also known, in behavioral economics, as “inertia,” and the definition of inertia is:

A property of matter by which it remains at rest or in uniform motion in the same straight line unless acted upon by some external force.

In other words, you are going to do the same thing over and over unless acted upon by some external force.

How can you be YOURSELF, moving in a straight line, and an EXTERNAL FORCE pushing you OFF of that straight line at the same time? It’s tough.

So, the best way to be acted upon by an external force is to find an external force.

  • A coach
  • A friend
  • A therapist
  • A teacher
  • A support group
  • A trainer

That’s what I did. I found an “external force,” otherwise known as a FINANCIAL COACH.

I finally had to admit to myself that, not only was I incapable (as history had shown) of maintaining behavior change in the area of personal finances, but it would be so much more effective to have an unbiased, outside perspective, knowledge, and a proven plan for success.

An outside force to push me off of the straight line of ineffectiveness I had been locked into.

The result? A big shift in 6 months.

With the help of our external force, our financial coach, my wife and I were able to get on and maintain a budget, set up and stick to monthly budget meetings, save a bunch of money, create an emergency reserve and much more.

But the biggest result was that I didn’t feel like a failure anymore. I didn’t feel powerless. I realized that, with help, I could actually make progress in an area that has been defeating me my entire life. And that was the biggest benefit.

I felt good about myself.

My wife and I, like most people, have not been perfect. But, with the help of our coach, we are able to find our way back to the plan whenever we veer off course. We will continue with our coach until we lock in our habits, even if this means sticking with her forever.

I would rather have a coach forever than to ever feel like a failure again. I’ve had enough.

Here’s the straight truth…

If you have been struggling with health habits like exercise, nutrition, sleep, if you have been struggling with losing weight and maintaining weight loss, you’re not a failure.

You’re just caught in the tractor beam of inertia and it’s a brain thing, it’s not a “you’re a loser” thing.

You just need help. You need an outside force, and chances are you’re not the right force for the job.

We all need help. I have my health habits dialed in like clockwork but I struggle with finances and in other areas of my life.

You have certain areas of your life dialed in but maybe you struggle with exercise, nutrition and weight loss.

Find your external force so that you don’t have to continue on that straight line that feels like insanity.

There’s nothing quite as liberating as realizing the straight jacket you’ve been wearing doesn’t have to be a permanent garment. You just need an outside force to help loosen the buckles.

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Jonathan Aluzas is co-owner of Arena Fitness, a fitness center that offers group training in Encino as well as personal training in Northridge.