A runaway unthinking brain needs to be trained to halt in its tracks
Reinvigorating your brain is a hard sell. The training is undramatic, and the changes are subtle. Even if you’re in no doubt about the rewards, and the routine required to reap them, you can still be in a lot of doubt about actually doing what needs to be done.
We need to start small. To reduce the universe over which we need to be mindful. We’ve already reduced it to money, but that doesn’t really help, because money plays a part in just about all our decisions – that’s why we’re focusing on it.
Everybody’s lexicon has a special inner circle. Words, phrases, and theories that ears can’t fail to hear across a crowded room, that mouths can’t resist preaching about, or that fingers can’t resist correcting misuse of on the internet. For example, your name, your most hated politician, or, for Daily Mail readers, ‘house prices’. You’re already being triggered by something; far better to redirect that energy towards living a better life than getting cross at strawman communists.
We know that ‘developing greater control over your attention is perhaps the single most powerful way to reshape your brain and thus your mind’.[i] We also know that ‘you pay attention by optimising some other process’. The process we need to optimise is that of the lexicographical inner-circle that already has the greatest control of your attention-grabbing machinery. We need to add to the ranks of words that make you stop in your tracks those that can most effectively enlighten your money mindset, so they can punctuate the flow of unthinking with moments of active, structured, purposeful, thought. This is how we get unstuck and break free of the circular troughs of self-deception.
As with any habit, you should expect to ‘fail’ almost constantly. However, as in meditation, where losing attention should not be seen as ‘failure’, but finding it again as success (the only failure being not showing up), so with other habits. The goal is not unbroken compliance but extending the period between each ‘failure’. In a surprisingly short time, those gaps will become so big that you’ll forget you were ever measuring them.
Hardwired habits begin as fragile intentional attractors of attention. The nascent neural pathways we are bringing under conscious control such that they become unconscious habitual highways are shaped by our thoughts – how we interpret cues and how we respond to them. The same cue, followed by the same routine eventually becomes a highway in your brain.
A money behaviour-changing framework
This chapter sets out specific combinations of cues and routines to remember to follow in response. These cues are divided into three:
1. Principles – Principles are our guiding stars. The reminder that there’s a big goal behind all the smaller ones. The Commander’s Intent of a military operation. They’re what we see really matters when we zoom all the way out. Where will our current actions end up? True in all circumstances. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles a few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods.’[ii] Principles are used to divine more context-specific rules. To use the earlier distinction, Principles are sophia; having a process for putting them into practice is phronēsis. We want both.
2. Rules – Rules are our guiding lights. The koans, quotes, and soundbites that we hope stick in our minds in a way that aids their recall when they’re required. A single rule can cover multiple situations. The right rules are useful both on their own and for sparking in-the-moment triggers.
3. Triggers – Triggers are our guiding blinking reminders on our phones or post-it notes around our homes. They are a laser-sharp attention to the language we use with ourselves and others. Our language is a key to how we interact with the world; take control of it and take control of your behaviour. We need to train ourselves to hear triggers as we do our own names amid background noise.
For effective behaviour change we need a framework that uses all three. That continually connects long-term principle-guided visions of the future and the immediate next steps to take to get there. That takes concepts, distils them to phrases, and trains us to catch when we’re in need of course correction so we slow down and change direction.
Most financial advice stays firmly in the comfortable rules zone, sour-grapesing principles as fit more for hippies than serious finance-focused professionals. Better financial advice remembers the importance of principles, even if it doesn’t always interrogate them properly. Triggers are ordinarily ignored completely, or locked up in academic behaviour-change experiments.
Principles may have greater breadth of vision, but that rarely helps when we’re in the depth of the decision-making weeds. And where soundbites signal our attention, it is the specifics of our actions – down to the level of our thoughts and our language – that rewire our neural networks. Most advice stops too short. ‘Set a budget and stick to it’ is great, but it doesn’t go deep enough. We don’t like deep advice – especially when we’re most in need of it. The more we feel like our relationship with money is imperfect, that it could do with some change, the more we are likely to feel guilty that the change hasn’t happened already, and no guilty person likes being put on the stand, however good they are at lying to the jury. Triggers are in-the-moment, in-your-face, automatic routines for every critical cue. Vigilance is vital. Every cue you catch is a vote for a new way of thinking, acting, and being. Every one you don’t is a vote for the dark side. Manifestoes are no good if they sit on the shelf like so many consultancy reports.
If it doesn’t require effort, it isn’t learning, and if it doesn’t become effortless, the learning didn’t work
Our words are the building blocks of our world. The metaphors that power our language are the myths by which we live.[iii] Metaphors are symbols that allow us to hold complicated concepts in mind long enough to do something with them – to respond thoughtfully instead of unthinkingly. In the word of Iris Murdoch, ‘Words are the most subtle symbols which we possess and our human fabric depends on them. […] The most fundamental and essential aspect of culture is the study of literature, since this is an education in how to picture and understand human situations.’[iv]
These Principles, Rules, and Triggers are designed to interrupt our unthinking as quickly and as effectively as possible, like how a broken rhythm in music or while sparring can arrest our attention or get through an opponent’s defences. This does not mean that the changes they aim at will come as quickly. As Murdoch continues, ‘Moral change and moral achievement are slow; we are not free in the sense of being able suddenly to alter ourselves since we cannot suddenly alter what we can see and ergo what we desire and are compelled by.’[v]
Changes may not come suddenly, but starting the process of change can. Your words and grammar shape your thoughts; they need to be brought out of the unconscious shadows if they are to illuminate a better way to live.
These are starting points only. When you examine your own unique relationship with money, you will find many more. Invent your own. Interrogate them. Internalise them. Put them in an Anki deck and hardwire them into your life. And make sure it feels like work (to begin with). From active recall (as opposed to passive review) and even answering mock exam questions before beginning studying, countless studies support the idea that some sort of struggle enhances learning – when you tell your brain something matters enough to you to struggle, it pays attention.
 Usually the preserve of ‘planners’ as opposed to advisers, a distinction we’ll look at in more detail in Part 2, Section 1.3.
 Arguably thanks to the fall-from-Eden bedrock of our psychology.
 Even when – perhaps especially when – they are their own jury.
 Or other spaced-repetition software of choice.
[i] Rick Hanson, Buddha’s Brain
[ii] Ralph Waldo Emerson, quoted in Ross Edgely, The World’s Fittest Book
[iii] An allusion to both George Lakoff’s Metaphors We Live By and Joseph Campbell’s Myths to Live By
[iv] Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of the Good
[v] Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of the Good