I liked this part of Jason Kottke’s wrap-up of his first day at Pop-Tech:
Alex Steffen: Cars equipped with displays that show gas mileage, when compared to cars without the mileage display, get better gas mileage. That little bit of knowledge helps the driver drive more economically. More visible energy meter displays in the home have a similar effect…people use less energy when they’re often reminded of how much energy they use. (Perhaps Personal Kyoto could help here as well.) At dinner, we discussed parallels between that and eating. Weighing yourself daily or keep track of everything you eat, and you’ll find yourself eating less. In the same way, using a program like Quicken to track your finances might compel you to spend less, at least in areas of your life where you may be spending too much.
My theory is that the secret code for most self-improvement systems — from Getting Things Done through Biofeedback and the Atkins diet — is not hard to break; any idea that helps you to become more self-aware can usually help you to reach a goal or affect a favorable solution. That’s pretty much the entire bag of doughnuts right there.
Both of these sentiments are right on. Self-awareness — a mirror that reflects back who you are and what you’re doing — can be enormously helpful for getting you on track to make changes in yourself. This is probably where Quicken had its biggest success, and where it did the most for me personally: showing me what had happened in the past. My experience over time, though, was that it was really hard to stay on track with a change that came from that insight. I felt like I was working for Quicken, not the other way around! Where Quicken falls down, for me and for many of the other people I’ve spoken with, is in two main areas: (1) it takes way too much work to keep it up to date (see my post on “Tamagotchi Software“); and (2) it’s stuck in the past, in two senses, both by being entirely retrospective (“you were broke — you’re still broke — yup, signs point to broke”) and by focusing on the financial needs of twenty years ago (writing checks and balancing checkbooks). Self-awareness is necessary, and great, for any change you want to make. But it’s not sufficient for making a real change in your life.
For me, the secret to making truly useful tools or systems for helping people change lies in combining Jason and Merlin’s insights with Kathy Sierra’s exhortations to “Give users a way to kick ass“:
The key is to have a cycle where the user can keep building their skills to reach higher and higher levels! In other words, the challenge keeps building, but so do the user’s skills and knowledge. The spiral is a continuous cycle of motivation/seduction followed by a period of intense activity toward a goal followed by REACHING that goal which then gives you more skills and knowledge (superpowers, tools, whatever) that let you achieve still higher levels… and on it goes. Five hours later you’re at Level Eight, or skiing bigger moguls, or helping save the world.
It’s very easy to summarize your financial information these days — the tools exist, some credit card companies and banks will even give you an “end of year report” that shows you where you spend your money in pie chart form. That’s a start. Look at that data, and something will probably jump out at you — restaurants, debt, clothes, whatever your particular “biggest slice” is. It’s even easy to start working on that biggest slice. The hard part is getting to the next level — not just going out to eat less for a month or two, but really changing the way you view, and interact with, and take control of your money. What do I do when I’ve gotten the self-awareness, started to make a change — then what? How do I stay on course? I think Kathy’s got the formula right, and we’re doing everything we can to learn from her.