Getting Away From “All-Or-Nothing” Compulsions

DH = Dear Husband

A history of maxing out financially

A month ago, I tried to explain one of my New Year’s resolutions for 2018: “A less S.M.A.R.T goal that I have is to fine-tune the self-discipline that I’ve been building over these last 5 years … I’d like to take another step away from the ‘all-or-nothing’ financial compulsion that I’ve always had.”

I definitely have a compulsion towards maxing out. Financially, it manifested itself in different ways over the years:

  • As a teenager, I’d spend all of my allowance before the month was up and beg and whine for an advance on my next month’s allowance.
  • In my twenties, I would go into credit card debt and overdraft on a regular basis, counting on my next pay to get me out of both holes.
  • In my thirties, I wanted it all: a big house; part-time as opposed to full-time work; multiple activities for our 3 children; cleaning service; gym membership; plenty of “treat-yourself-therapy” like going out to restaurants.

Then life stepped in – in the form of DH’s job loss,  followed by years of career uncertainty and financial stress – and forced a change. A slow, stubbornly reluctant change it was too – even though all circumstances combined to send the message loud and clear: “You need to change!!”

Maxing out in other areas

Most people are in too much debt, and for those of us who have come to recognize it and try to do something about it, there’s something else we eventually have to acknowledge: The poor choices we’ve made financially are not rooted in a lack of math skills; they’re rooted in character flaws.

One of the character flaws I’ve had to acknowledge in myself is linked to this maxing out tendency. It’s the flaw of living reactively instead of proactively. Again it has manifested itself in different ways:

  • “I’m SO tired! I’ll just do the dishes and make my lunch in the morning.” (= Time crunch for morning commute.)
  • “I don’t feel like going to the gym, so I just won’t exercise today.” (= The no-work-out blahs.)
  • “I got caught up in Netfilx. I won’t have time to clean the house today.” (= Burden of accumulating to-do list.)
  • “This is delicious! I’ll just eat one more… OK, another one… Now this one is the last one…” (= Feeling full & gaining weight.)

Fine-tuning self-discipline: morning commute

Just as it took a significant rock-bottom experience to get me to become proactive in managing our personal finances, the rock-bottom experience came into play for my morning commute. A couple of weeks before Christmas, a series of snow storms resulted in 3 consecutive commutes of 3 hours, 2 hours, and 1.5 hours each for my normally 40-minute drive to work.  It was truly life-suckingly awful!

Since that week, however, I have not had a single time crunch commute. I’ve been way more proactive about getting myself prepared for work with plenty of time to spare. I used to think in terms of “How late can I go and still get there on time?” Now, I have no desire to cut it close. I want to give room for unexpected traffic slow downs so that there is no need for white-knuckle commuting. And if I arrive at work earlier than I need to – as I usually do now – that’s not a problem at all.

Stepping away from “all-or-nothing” fitness

I have written multiple times about my poor performance with discretionary money management. It was to help my personal discretionary account that I decided to quit my gym membership at the end of last summer. Much to my surprise, that move resulted in more regular exercise for me.

When I had the gym membership, I would think in all-or-nothing terms. Either I would drive to the gym, take the cardio class, do weights, drive home, shower – or I would do nothing. Now, I’ll go for a 40 minute snow shoe or  a half hour run – or a walk. It’s OK not to do a full-on work-out (that takes over 2 hours when you add the drive time). Getting lower-key physical exercise on a regular basis is just fine.

Proactive house-cleaning

As I wrote two weeks ago, house-cleaning is so much easier to do when the task is shared. After years of doing it on my own with resentment and without ever getting on top of it – it is relatively pleasant now to do my share of it every weekend, knowing others are doing their part. It doesn’t take the will-power to do it that it used to.  It’s easy to find the self-discipline to keep on top of house-cleaning now that it isn’t so draining.

Self-disciplined eating? (Oh well…)

I hope to “fine-tune the self-discipline” of eating too, but I haven’t yet. I had a “This is delicious! I’ll just eat one more…” experience yesterday … AND the day before.

But I think it’s coming. True, proactive self-discipline – as opposed to compulsion on the highly controlled end of the spectrum – has the potential to be widely applied. It’s had a positive impact on my finances, commuting, fitness, and house-cleaning. I believe food is next : )


Do you find that as you develop self-discipline in one area, it spreads to another? Or do you find that self-discipline is specific – that is doesn’t transfer? Your comments are welcome.


*Image courtesy of flickr.

About author View all posts

prudencedebtfree

10 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Oh, I was truly hoping you’d have the secret to self-disciplined eating, as that’s one of the problems that plagues my wife and me…but you’re right, you can’t have everything. I’m glad you’re finding your self-discipline in other areas though, and I think it’s true that when you exercise those self-discipline muscles, it tends to spread to other things.

    • Thanks, Gary. I hope and believe it will eventually spread to food : ) All the best to you and your wife in the same pursuit.

  • This is so wise: The poor choices we’ve made financially are not rooted in a lack of math skills; they’re rooted in character flaws.

    I think looking inside for reasons you’re struggling in an area is a hard, humbling thing to do, but in the end it’s really more hopeful than blaming circumstances outside your control, because you can do something about yourself and your flaws. I do believe self-discipline spreads to multiple areas of life, but I tend to be on the compulsive end, and having kids has been an exercise in letting some of that go. I spend more money, have a messier house, exercise less, and accomplish less of my to-do list now but I’m trying to soak in the experience of having little ones while still keeping our home and health at a functional level. So glad you’re exchanging habits for extremes–you’re really on to something there that could help a lot of people!

    • Thank you, Kalie. It has been a humbling thing to do – but the rewards have been beyond our expectations. We started out wanting to pay off debt, but have gained a lot more than better financial health. And as for your situation, there’s nothing like young children to help you “let go” if that’s what is needed! I hope that you’re doing well as baby #3 gets ready to come into the world : )

  • I’m with Gary. I’m still trying to find sustained success in eating healthier. I have like you, seen our success and discipline with our finances trickle over into other areas of our lives. When you focus, organize and communicate better in one area, those things are hard not to follow in other areas. I do find it does take constant commitment because we can easily slip back into bad habits if we can lazy. Wishing you continued success!

    • There is definitely a vigilance involved. At times when there is a big stress in our lives, I can’t focus on finances, and my self-discipline with money goes out the window. That only happens in cases of extreme stress (like my mom’s failing health in the fall), but it reminds me that, as you say, “it does take constant commitment.” Food is a tricky area for self-discipline. I think it’s because, unlike changing behaviours (like spending habits), changing food habits involves our addictions to things like fat, sugar, and salt.

  • Well, it seems like you’re kind of tackling one thing at a time which makes most sense. Trying to completely overhaul you life in one fell swoop probably isn’t the recipe for success. I do think self-dicipline overall is a learned tool, but for me it doesn’t necessarily carry over to all aspects of my life. While I’m great with exercise, I’m “bad” with food. I’m on a good roll right now, but I literally have to keep it in the forefront of my mind constantly. I think some things just take longer to learn than others.

    • I had to keep my money management in the forefront of my mind to change it up. Something like exercise doesn’t require quite the same vigilance because I actually like working out. (Making time for it was always my struggle.) Food would definitely be a “forefront of mind” thing for me. And I don’t know if the forefront of my mind is big enough to accommodate both food and finances. Perhaps as my finances come to a new normal, I’ll be able to tackle this food thing once and for all. I’m glad you’re on a good roll with food now, Tonya! It’s worth being a point of focus for almost everyone. (Just saw “What the Health” last night. Ugh!)

  • In my experience, the HABIT of self discipline is fungible but I am now aware that it requires willpower which is something that runs out in a day. So I indulged in way too many KitKats today and then indulged myself in a 45 minute cleaning spree when I would normally have maybe withheld both but not gotten as much work done. It’s all a trade off but if I can choose a few places to focus, each day for an hour or so, that has great benefits for keeping our home running smoothly.

    • Thanks, Revanche. I had to look up “fungible”. Good word! And yes, it’s true that willpower plays into self-discipline – and that willpower is a finite resource. That helps explain why people have a hard time addressing every area of life that needs addressing at the same time. It’s a good idea to be aware of that limited supply of willpower, and to dish it out daily in a prioritized way – as you do. (Did the KitKats help fuel your cleaning spree?)

Leave a Reply to prudencedebtfree Cancel Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *