Got your attention? Well, I won’t be coy: the key is mindfulness. Surprised? Looking at some of my previous posts on systems, you might think the opposite; isn’t the point of systems to enable you to just breeze through life without really paying attention, and yet still have things turn out okay?
Well…no. In fact, “hell no”.
For instance, take a look at this article on mindfulness in eating from Mind Over Fatter. In it, the author begins with the assumption that mindfulness in eating is important, and then poses the oh-so-practical question: how do we achieve that? Her answer is to give us ideas for implementing a system for improving that mindfulness! Rather than a machine that does your work for you, the system becomes a set of triggers whose sole purpose is to restore you to mindfulness.
It’s like having a series of alarm clocks. The practice of “chewing your food twenty-five times” (as she is reminded by a regular iPhone notification), using the action of stabbing your food with a fork to remind you to wait until you finish what you’re chewing, and other “scripts” are constantly waking you up to the world around you (and in your mouth). They keep you from “falling asleep”, sleepwalking your way through your meal without really paying attention to what you’re eating.
A lot of life is like that, isn’t it? It seems that it’s all too easy to fall asleep, acting automatically on our fears, our greed, our “lizard brain”, rather than waking up to the world around us. We eat without tasting; we watch TV without engaging; we go to our jobs without being present to the joy of doing good work. We read blog posts without looking to apply their insights to our lives. (Yeah — did that one wake you up? Good.)
And of course, we spend without being mindful.
Really, that’s what budgeting is all about, and if you’ve been paying attention to previous posts, you probably saw that coming. And if you’ve heard it before, then listen, because it’s important and worth hearing again. It’s not about going on some sort of money diet, though it can feel like that it times; it’s not about getting out of debt, though it’s a good way to get there; it’s not about preserving marital peace, though that can be a happy side effect. No, it’s primarily about mindfulness: deciding what your values are, what you want to spend your money on, and then staying awake enough to follow through with that decision, even when the siren song of advertising or peer pressure or habit tries to lull you to sleep. This is vital, because the consequences of falling asleep at the financial wheel are disastrous — just ask the guy with tens of thousands of dollars of credit card debt, and no idea how it happened.
And that’s where the systems I’ve been talking about come in. The Monthly Money Check-In, where you go over your bills and your cash flow, keeps you mindful of where your money is going. Similarly, the Monthly Money Date, where you get together with your partner to go over the household budget and talk about money matters in general, helps keep the both of you mindful not only of yourselves, but of each other. The overnight investment test keeps you mindful of why you bought your investments. You get the idea: each of these systems isn’t putting your life on autopilot, but rather getting it back under your control.
Is it hard? Sure, at first — but so is waking up, and if you’re going to live, why not live awake?