There is a common phenomenon in the world of personal finance called “lifestyle creep”. It describes our tendency to buy bigger, better, and nicer things as our income rises. What if we adapted this concept to the rest of our lives in a beneficial way?
For example, say that you receive a promotion at work and suddenly you have $10,000 more of income each year. Rather than save the extra money and continue living as normal, you’re more likely to upgrade to a bigger TV or stay at better hotels or buy designer clothes. Your normal lifestyle will creep up slowly and goods that were once seen as a luxury will gradually become a necessity. What was once out of reach will become your new normal.
Changing human behaviour is often considered to be one of the hardest things to do in business and in life. Yet, lifestyle creep describes a very reliable way that human behaviour changes over the long-term. Maybe there’s a way to adapt this concept to the rest of our lives.
Changing Your Normal
Let's list some typical financial goals.
- I want to own designer jeans.
- I want to have a bigger house.
- I want to drive a faster car.
Here's the interesting thing: These big goals naturally happen as a side effect when we have the means to make them happen. When our purchasing power goes up, our purchases tend to go up too. That's lifestyle creep. What if similar side effects could happen in other areas of life?
Consider these goals:
- I want to add 4kg of muscle.
- I want to find a partner and get married.
- I want to earn six figures per year.
- I want to get a higher score on my test.
- I want to own a successful business.
What if we trusted that adding more muscle or earning more money or getting better grades would come as a natural side effect of improving our normal routines? In other words, as our normal habits improved, so would our results. This idea of slightly adjusting your habits until behaviours and results that were once out of reach become your new normal is a concept I like to call "habit creep".
How to Practice Habit Creep
If you buy more things than your bank account can sustain, that's not lifestyle creep. That's called debt. Similarly, if you adopt a bunch of new behaviours you can't sustain, that's not habit creep. In other words, the key is to avoid the trap of trying to grow too fast. Lifestyle creep happens so slowly that it is almost imperceptible. Habit creep should be the same way. Your goal is to nudge your behaviours along in very small ways.
In my experience, there are two primary ways to change long-term behaviours and improve performance for good.
- Increase your performance by a little bit each day. (Most people take this to the extreme.)
- Change your environment to remove small distractions and barriers. (Most people never think about this.)
Here are some thoughts on each one:
Increasing your performance. You have a normal way of living. For example, your current level of physical fitness is generally a reflection of how much activity you get on a normal day. Let's say that your standard day requires you walk 8000 steps. If you want to get in better shape, the standard approach would be to start training for a race or exercise more. But the habit creep approach would be to add a very small amount to your standard behaviour. Say, 8100 steps per day rather than 8000 steps.
You can apply this logic to nearly any area of life. You have a normal amount of sales calls you make at work each day, a normal amount of "Thank You" notes you write each year, a normal amount of books you read each month. If you want to become more successful, more grateful, or more intelligent, then you can use the idea of habit creep to slowly improve those areas simply by improving the way you live your normal day.
Changing your environment. There are all sorts of things we do each day that are a response to the environment we live in. We eat cookies because they are on the counter. We pick up our phones because someone sends us a text. We turn on TV because it's the first thing we look at when we sit on the couch. If you change your environment in small ways (hide the cookies in the pantry, leave the phone in another room while you work, place the TV inside a cabinet), then your actions change as well.
Imagine if you made one positive environment change each week. Where would your life creep to by the end of the year? The results you enjoy on your best day are typically a reflection of how you spend your normal day.
Everyone gets obsessed with achieving their very best day -- pulling the best score on their test, running their fastest race ever, making the most sales in the department.
I say forget that stuff. Just improve your normal day and the results will take care of themselves. We naturally make long-term changes in our lives by slowly and slightly adjusting our normal everyday habits and behaviours.
James Clear writes about science-based ideas for building habits that stick and mastering your craft. If you enjoyed this article, then join his free newsletter.