Problem #2: “I can’t remember to complete many small actions.”
I’ve talked at length about why small actions are important. So the question is, why do people struggle to complete them on a consistent basis?
I don’t think it’s because we’re lazy or unmotivated or can’t find the time. Instead, the difficulty is related to a concept called cognitive load.
Let me explain.
We all have a finite limit on our short-term memory. It’s been said that most people can only retain seven chunks of information. Since a tiny fraction of what you know is stored in your “working memory,” you have to rely on long-term memory and existing habits to accomplish almost every task in life.
For instance, when you first learned how to drive a car, you had to consciously think about the process required for each action and decision. This included tasks like changing lanes, parallel parking, using a turn signal, or driving with a stick shift. Each task required constant reinforcement of your short-term memory.
Eventually, these actions became learned behavior, which means you no longer have to think about the process required to drive a car. You just do it! This frees up your mind so you can focus other things, like singing an off-key version of your favorite song on Spotify.
Now, let’s use a different example to demonstrate cognitive load. We all know that tracking your expenses is the key to mastering your financial life. Honestly, it’s not hard to write down an expenditure—it’s an action that takes a few seconds to complete. But it’s easy to forget because it’s not an automatic part of your daily routine. If you don’t use what’s called a “trigger” to remind you of this action, then tracking your spending is hard to remember on a consistent basis.
Let’s compare tracking expenditures to a small habit that’s (hopefully) a permanent behavior—brushing your teeth.
We all know there are serious negative consequences if you forget this activity. Gingivitis, periodontitis, and tooth decay all are possibilities when you fail to stick to the daily teeth-brushing habit.
Your average person understands these risks, so she remembers to do it (at least) twice a day—usually in the morning and evening.
So, my question is, how do you remember to brush those pearly whites?
Well, I think the main reason is because this small action is usually “anchored” to a larger routine that you complete when you wake up in the morning and before you go to bed in the evening. Brushing your teeth doesn’t strain your cognitive load because it’s now an automatic action.
This leads to my next question: Why is it easy to remember brushing your teeth but harder to remember an equally important habit, like tracking your expenditures?
I feel the answer is related to the fact that tracking your expenditures isn’t anchored to an existing routine, which is the main reason why it’s important to build habit stacking routines into your day. So, let’s talk about that next.