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How Automation And Habit Combine To Produce Amazing Results

Recently I made a small change in my diet that had a big impact on my weight and overall health.  At breakfast every day I would eat a whole bagel with peanut butter or cream cheese.  The meal came to about 450 calories.

A few months ago I cut that portion in half, eliminating 225 calories from my diet every day without doing anything extra.  By adding in a mix of daily exercise to complement the reduction in calories I’ve managed to lose eight pounds in two months.

Related: Breaking your subconscious money habits

The fact that it has become habit should ensure that I keep the weight off for good.

Small changes, big results

We all know about the latte factor and how our habits, even those small daily purchases, can have a profound impact on our savings.  We also know that something as simple as making and consuming your morning coffee at home can be a pain and so we’d rather spend 15 minutes and $1.80 in the Tim Hortons drive-thru to get our daily fix.

Years ago I figured out that automation and habit combine to produce powerful results.  Take our morning coffee routine.  My coffee maker has a programmable feature so I can make my coffee before I go to bed at night and have it freshly brewed and ready when I wake up in the morning.

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The simple habit of preparing my coffee in advance plus the automation of the delayed brewing feature shaves 15 minutes off my morning routine and likely saves me from spending $500 a year on coffee at Tim’s.

The same rules of combining habit and automation can apply to your savings and debt repayment plans.

Make it automatic

Imagine if, instead of having income tax, CPP, and EI automatically deducted off your paycheque each month, you were required to pay the government a lump sum at the end of the year.  How many of us would have the discipline to set aside enough to pay the amount in full and not have to borrow every year when that big tax bill came due?

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The government is smart and makes sure to pay itself first.  Why should it be any different when it comes to our personal savings habits?

By deducting $400 per month off your paycheque and putting into a balanced fund inside your TFSA that earns 6 percent a year, in 20 years you’ll end up with $185,000.

Hey, it’s not easy to find $400 in your monthly budget to allocate toward savings.  If you earn $40,000 per year, that’s 12 percent of your gross income.  But it’s a heck of a lot easier if it’s not there to spend in the first place.

Related: A simple way to boost your retirement savings

That’s the power of automatic deductions – studies show that you barely notice it’s gone and so you adjust your budget accordingly.

Final thoughts

One last note about habits and behaviour.  On average, it takes over two months before a new behaviour becomes automatic.

That may sound daunting, but when you commit to small incremental changes it can be easier to manage your expectations and embrace the process.

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13 Comments

  1. Kapitalust on July 27, 2014 at 11:05 am

    I’m endlessly striving for optimization and efficiency in life. It’s hard sometimes: the simplest, quick changes that optimize one’s lifestyle sometimes take glacial speeds to actually fully realize.

    It can be hard with financial aspects of efficiency, like using Mint or other online tools that automate and categorize spending and saving if one is a little old school and doesn’t want to divulge that much information online.

    Sigh, hence why I still spend more time than necessary crunching numbers manually in an excel spreadsheet…

    • Echo on July 29, 2014 at 9:21 am

      That’s true about the delayed payoff making it more difficult to encourage change. Unfortunately, when it comes to finances or health, there are rarely any quick fixes that work over the long term.

  2. Dan @ Our Big Fat Wallet on July 27, 2014 at 4:22 pm

    I have a simple routine that saves me thousands every year – making my own lunches and bringing them to work. I do most of the prep work on Sunday nights and it makes it easy for the rest of the week. Ive found that when I have something already prepared, I’m 90% less likely to buy a more expensive meal at a restaurant or cafeteria. All the small things really do add up over time

    • Echo on July 29, 2014 at 9:22 am

      Good call, Dan! When I worked in the hotel industry we got to eat lunch there for free. The price was paid in other ways, as it took its toll on my weight and health.

      Now I live 5 minutes from work and actually have time to go home for lunch, which saves me money and I get to see the family for an extra 45 minutes a day.

  3. Rosemary on July 28, 2014 at 6:49 am

    Another idea is to divert any pay increases directly to savings….you lived without it before so it should be painless to continue living without it.

    • Echo on July 29, 2014 at 9:24 am

      Great idea, Rosemary! Rather than letting lifestyle inflation creep in, find a way to funnel your extra pay into savings.

      This year we got a raise at work (finally) and so I need to find a way to divert a whole $77/month into savings 🙂

  4. Anne @ Money Propeller on July 28, 2014 at 1:14 pm

    Congratulations on the weight loss! I have been toying around with changing some of my habits, especially what I am eating for breakfast, and when, for the benefit of my health. There’s still some tinkering to do, but hopefully they all stick!

    • Echo on July 29, 2014 at 9:25 am

      Thanks Anne! I find I can get into a routine and stick with it for years, which is good if the routine is healthy but troubling if it isn’t in my best interests.

  5. Lawrence on July 28, 2014 at 10:21 pm

    Really Anne, would you take financial advice from your Dietitian?
    I think Robb was simply using this as an example of how small changes in lifestyle choices can make a big difference to our bottom line in the long term.
    Oh and another point…my shares in Mont Royal Bagels dropped 20% the day after Robb posted this.
    Thanks Robb. 😉

    • Echo on July 29, 2014 at 9:26 am

      Hi Lawrence, sorry to hear about your investment. I’m sure it was just coincidence 🙂

  6. Tawcan on July 28, 2014 at 11:08 pm

    I’m with Dan on this one, bringing my own lunch to work. We usually make enough for dinner and I’d bring the leftover for lunch. At $10 or so a meal, 5 days a week, that amount quickly adds up.

    • Echo on July 29, 2014 at 9:27 am

      @Tawcan – We always try to make a bit extra so that we can have leftovers the next night or else there’s something to eat for lunch. Big time savings for very little extra effort.

  7. Dean S on August 29, 2014 at 1:41 pm

    I have asked Payroll at work to automatically deduct extra money from my pay and forward to my group plan as voluntary RRSP deposit. This effectively allows me to deposit more into my RRSP than I would if I used my take-home to make a contribution at a bank. For example, if my working home budget allowed me $200 extra per month, by deducting at source, I could contribute $250 (assume 20% overall tax rate)and still only feel $200 difference in my take-home pay.

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