We knew what to do. Debt was bad. No debt was good.
Yet, we were socking away money in a 1% money market account rather than paying off the 6% student loans or the 7% mortgage.
In our minds, my wife and I had the book knowledge. We’d read Clark Howard and Suze Orman and pretty much any other personal finance book we could get our hands on.
But we still weren’t acting on what we knew was right. We were treading water, running through quicksand, and not making the progress we wanted.
Why? We weren’t short circuiting Monkey Brain to make personal finance stick. We weren’t turning ideas into behaviors.
Have you ever felt this? You know you should be doing better with your money, but at the end of the month or the end of the year, you’re stuck in the same place you started?
Beat Monkey Brain: The Shower and the Shovel
I’m going to describe two familiar situations to you that occur when you’re thinking.
First, have you ever been in the shower or been on a long walk in the woods and had an “a-ha” moment? You’d been trying to figure out a puzzle or a problem and can’t come to an answer. Then, that night, when you’re in the shower, your inner voice blurts out the answer. “Eureka!” you cry as you discover the lever.
What’s happened? Your right anterior superior temporal gyrus has kicked in, allowing you to have that insight.
As experiments from Drexel University and Northwestern University show, those “a-ha!” insights are usually generated from that part of the brain, which occurs when you’re not trying to think about the answer.
Now for the second mental situation.
Have you been watching Jeopardy!, seen the answer, and knew you knew the answer, but couldn’t quite think of it? The reality is that you probably did know the answer, and when Ken Jennings buzzes in with yet another correct answer, you say to yourself “See, I really did know that answer.” You just couldn’t think of it.
As studies from Indiana University and the University of British Columbia show, you’re amazingly accurate at knowing when you know an answer. Furthermore, you also have a pretty good idea at how close you are to figuring out the answer even before you arrive at the answer.
Applying the Lessons of How the Mind Solves Problems to Personal Finance: The Shower and the Shovel
“I just need to figure this out.”
That’s the mantra of many of you who struggle with mastering personal finance.
If you’re at the point where you think that thinking harder or thinking more is going to solve the problem, you’re at the wrong point. You need to change your approach. I’m going to describe two different scenarios below and tell you the steps you need to take for each scenario to get the outcome you want.
Situation 1: This all sounds Greek to me
Answer: The Shower Solution
Step 1: Tell your subconscious to work on the issue. When you do this, you are engaging a part of the brain called the reticular activation system, which makes all of the decisions about what the brain works on and what it allows you to become aware of.
Step 2: Sleep on it. This gives the rest of your brain, particularly the right anterior superior temporal gyrus, time to work on it without the pressures of your conscious thinking telling it to hurry up. It’s similar to having your boss standing over your shoulder and telling you that he wants that report now. You’re much less likely to perform when there’s pressure like that. The same thing works for the rest of your brain.
Step 3: Engage in relaxing, distracting activities. The reason that people have so many ideas in the shower is because they’re not thinking about whatever the problem at hand might be. They’re thinking about making sure the pits, parts, and privates are getting enough soap and that they don’t get shampoo in the eyes. It’s distracted times like these which enable the right anterior superior temporal gyrus to work its magic.
Step 4: Be patient. You have to have faith that your brain will work things out for you. Wanting the solution to come, getting antsy, and starting to interrogate your subconscious “WHERE’S MY REPORT?!?!?” will only increase stress and decrease alpha waves, which makes nobody happy, except, of course, Monkey Brain, as he’ll get what he wants.
When the answer comes, you’ll know it’s right. As the previously cited Drexel and Northwestern study shows, the brain has the ability to recognize when the pieces are properly put in place and to tell the conscious portion of the brain that the answer is right. We often call it a hunch, but it works for insights too, and you’ll know when you have the right answer.
Even after that moment of insight, there’s still work to do. You have to make that insight stick. That’s when you start engaging a different part of the mind and doing the hard work to embed the answer into your everyday life in the steps I show below in Situation 2.
So, what if you feel like you know the answer, but you just can’t reach the right filing cabinet in your mind to get there?
Situation 2: I know I know the answer, if I can only figure it out!
Answer: The Shovel Solution
Step 1: Keep digging. This is where you want to engage your grit and tenacity and single-mindedness and focus on the answer. “Why shouldn’t I invest all of my money in variable life annuities?” you ask yourself. You know you know the answer, but you can’t quite think of the reasoning. This is when you should keep thinking of it, as it will probably come to you.
Step 2: Be aware of the progress you’re making. This mental measurement is the key to understanding if you need to keep digging. As shown in the Indiana and UBC study, the brain has a highly calibrated measurement of the progress it’s making in finding that right filing cabinet where the answer is hidden. As long as the progress meter is ticking, then it’s valuable to keep going.
Step 3: Be aware of when you stop making progress. After steps 1 and 2, you’re going to have two outcomes. Either you’re going to arrive at the answer or eventually your brain’s going to measure no incremental advancement on the progress meter. If you come to a sticking point, then further noodling on your problem probably won’t get you any closer to a solution. Now is the time to stop and engage in the Shower Solution.
The Shower Solution and the Shovel Solution are mutually reinforcing. The Shower Solution gives you the “a-ha!” moments which you then commit to your muscle memory and to your behavior through the Shovel Solution. The Shovel Solution helps you reinforce what you know, and when you stop making progress towards finding the answer, switch back to the Shower Solution.
Has this article given you any “A-ha!” moments? What are you going to do to make them stick? Tell us about it in the comments below.
Jason Hull is a candidate for the CFP(R) Board’s certification, is a Series 65 securities license holder, and owns Hull Financial Planning. He is also a personal finance columnist for U.S. News & World Report.