There is a common phenomenon in the world of personal finance called “lifestyle creep.” It describes our tendency to buy bigger, better, and nicer things as our income rises.
For example, say that you receive a promotion at work and suddenly you have $10,000 more of income each year. Rather than save the extra money and continue living as normal, you’re more likely to upgrade to a bigger TV or stay at better hotels or buy designer clothes. Your normal lifestyle will creep up slowly and goods that were once seen as a luxury will gradually become a necessity. What was once out of reach will become your new normal. 1
Changing human behavior is often considered to be one of the hardest things to do in business and in life. Yet, lifestyle creep describes a very reliable way that human behavior changes over the long-term.
What if we adapted this concept to the rest of our lives?
Changing Your Normal
Let’s list some typical financial goals.
- I want to own designer jeans.
- I want to have a bigger house.
- I want to drive a faster car.
Here’s the interesting thing:
These big goals naturally happen as a side effect when we have the means to make them happen. When our purchasing power goes up, our purchases tend to go up too. That’s lifestyle creep.
What if similar side effects could happen in other areas of life?
Consider these goals:
- I want to add 10 pounds of muscle.
- I want to find a partner and get married.
- I want to earn six figures per year.
- I want to get a higher score on my test.
- I want to own a successful business.
What if we trusted that adding more muscle or earning more money or getting better grades would come as a natural side effect of improving our normal routines? In other words, as our normal habits improved, so would our results.
This idea of slightly adjusting your habits until behaviors and results that were once out of reach become your new normal is a concept I like to call “habit creep.” 2
How to Practice Habit Creep
If you buy more things than your bank account can sustain, that’s not lifestyle creep. That’s called debt.
Similarly, if you adopt a bunch of new behaviors you can’t sustain, that’s not habit creep. In other words, the key is to avoid the trap of trying to grow too fast. Lifestyle creep happens so slowly that it is almost imperceptible. Habit creep should be the same way. Your goal is to nudge your behaviors along in very small ways.
In my experience, there are two primary ways to change long-term behaviors and improve performance for good.
- Increase your performance by a little bit each day. (Most people take this to the extreme.)
- Change your environment to remove small distractions and barriers. (Most people never think about this.)
Here are some thoughts on each one:
Increasing your performance. You have a normal way of living. For example, your current level of physical fitness is generally a reflection of how much activity you get on a normal day. Let’s say that your standard day requires you walk 8,000 steps. If you want to get in better shape, the standard approach would be to start training for a race or exercise more. But the habit creep approach would be to add a very small amount to your standard behavior. Say, 8,100 steps per day rather than 8,000 steps. You can apply this logic to nearly any area of life. You have a normal amount of sales calls you make at work each day, a normal amount of Thank You notes you write each year, a normal amount of books you read each month. If you want to become more successful, more grateful, or more intelligent, then you can use the idea of habit creep to slowly improve those areas simply by improving the way you live your normal day.
Changing your environment. There are all sorts of things we do each day that are a response to the environment we live in. We eat cookies because they are on the counter. We pick up our phones because someone sends us a text. We turn on TV because it’s the first thing we look at when we sit on the couch. If you change your environment in small ways (hide the cookies in the pantry, leave the phone in another room while you work, place the TV inside a cabinet), then your actions change as well. Imagine if you made one positive environment change each week. Where would your life creep to by the end of the year?
Changing Your Normal
The results you enjoy on your best day are typically a reflection of how you spend your normal day.
Everyone gets obsessed with achieving their very best day—pulling the best score on their test, running their fastest race ever, making the most sales in the department.
I say forget that stuff. Just improve your normal day and the results will take care of themselves. We naturally make long-term changes in our lives by slowly and slightly adjusting our normal everyday habits and behaviors.
If you want more practical ideas for breaking bad habits and creating good habits, check out my book Atomic Habits, which will show you how small changes in habits can lead to remarkable results.
We could have an entirely separate discussion about whether lifestyle creep is a good thing or not. Typically, the concept is viewed in a negative light because it indicates unnecessary consumerism and the purchasing of items that you don’t really need. Furthermore, lifestyle creeps seems to increase the risk of loss aversion. For example, once you own designer clothes and an expensive car, it can be difficult to go back to rocking Levis and driving a Toyota Camry. That said, I’m not entirely against buying nice things for yourself (provided they are useful or that they bring you happiness), but this discussion is outside the scope of this article. I bring up lifestyle creep here simply to provide an example of how human behavior changes over the long-term in a reliable and long-lasting way. It’s an example of how you can make changes that actually stick and, as is always the case with humans, those changes can be positive or negative.
If you’re wondering, habit creep is a phrase I just invented. Bonus points for me.