Calorie Counting is for the Birds

2020, another year, another decade! No doubt, to be accompanied by a new set of resolutions and hopes for a “new me.” Habitually, I’ve had on my list: “get thinner” and “get richer,” among various other incidentals.

Curious also that I seem to have a blind spot in my ability to select the strategy that is likely to afford me the highest chances of success. Every year, I find myself trying harder to accomplish the very activities at which I had failed so miserably the year before. Was it Albert Einstein that said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”? Researchers say it’s unlikely,  but whoever said it, it really speaks straight to my gut.

My “getting thinner” gameplan feels like a fresh start every year. If I break it down though, it’s the same thing year on year – a tactical plan to consume less than I burn at every serving. Sure, there may be a new app that automates my daily deficit / surplus with a few cellphone snaps of my meals, but it’s still the same thing. Some apps even go a step further by making me feel bad about myself, but I still just can’t keep compliant. 

As hard as I try, life just seems to throw me curve balls. My life feels just too unpredictable for a programme that requires straight lines and repeat processes – day-after-day, month-after-month. It feels like there are just too many opportunities to be led astray, given the unpredictability of what life throws up at me. Every misstep feels like a failure, a reason to start again. Stack these up over a few weeks and I’ve resigned myself to, “I’ll give it up till next year.” There just don’t seem to be any programmes flexible enough to bottle up the variability that is my life. 

Money is no different. I’ve been through the calorie counting equivalent, too many times to think about. I’ve had excel spreadsheets, data aggregating apps, magnets on the fridge, you name it, I’ve tried it. My existence knows no boundaries. 

This gets me thinking about the strategies available to Financial Planners when giving advice to clients. How helpful is it to itemise their budgets to the decimal point, hoping upon hope that they will change their wicked ways? And if clients can’t stick to their budgets for a few months, what impact might their unpredictable behaviour have for all their other goals, projected in infinite detail, over a lifetime? 

If I can’t stick to a diet, it must follow that my long term commitments are equally vulnerable to my humanly flaws. The effect of our behaviour means that even the BIG numbers, the value of a pension fund, investment contributions, salaries, health bills, are simply hypothetical in the face of an existence, over decades, that is so fluid. 

I think we have the wrong approach. We have to focus on the behaviour, not the theory, not the detail. Whether we burn 1200 calories or 1500 calories, it doesn’t matter if we’ve lost the will to make any change at all.

I think Financial Planning often burdens clients with the detail to the extent that it makes their ability to stick to the next step too overwhelming. Instead, they fall off the wagon, and rather than climbing back up, they abandon it altogether, “till next year.” 

I think we need to move away from issuing a 3000 piece puzzle to achieving financial (and personal) well-being. Rather give me a simple rule of thumb to make better decisions every moment I shove something in my face. There’s too much anxiety hidden in the detail. We have to let go, even if it means introducing an anxiety all of it’s own – not though, for the client, but for the advisor!  

This has to filter into how we plan for clients. Getting all wound up about the numbers and the infinite detail is nothing but academic if the client is uncontrollably walking in any direction at every opportunity. Let’s make it easy for them – show them their big picture and give clear, simple instructions: “Sugar is bad. Equity is good.” 

Calorie counting is for the birds. 


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