Feeling Stuck? Try a Pattern Interrupt


This month, I’m running an experiment with my spending.

It’s based off a simple question. How many days can I go without:

1. Not spending any money at all, or

2. Spending $20 or less?

When I say “spending money,” I mean discretionary spending — or things that are not needs, fixed expenses, or required to live.

I’m curious about how much money I spend that I don’t have to spend, and if I can be a bit more mindful about how I use my money and therefore, use less of it.

I wanted to try this because I enjoy practicing mindfulness when it comes to my finances, and this experiment is an excellent way to do this. It causes a pattern interrupt, or a disruption from my normal way of doing things.

Understanding the Power of Pattern Interrupts

The idea of a “pattern interrupt” comes from something called neuro linguistic programming. Abbreviated as NLP, this programming is a therapy technique that uses a “set of language- and sensory-based interventions and behavior-modification techniques designed to help improve self-awareness, confidence, communication skills, and social actions.”

NLP Mentor, a resource site for this method, does a nice job of neatly explaining the power of pattern interrupts:

Usually habits are useful. Auto pilot means our brains have become so efficient at doing something we can tune out our conscious minds.

We get dressed, drive, walk, clean our teeth in ways that don’t need much mental attention. Rapport is tuning in to another at an unconscious level.

But patterns can be our downfall too. We can eat mindlessly and therefore overeat. We can tune out important people and not hear important messages. We can exercise without paying attention and damage bits of our bodies.

The Chopra Center goes into deeper detail about how the process works, and includes suggestions on steps to take to implement pattern interrupts in your life. Their explanation of “pattern awareness” is closely related to what I’m talking about here, and describes a slow but steady increase in awareness of patterns in your life.

You can apply a pattern interrupt in any area of your life in which you wish to spark change — or to simply increase awareness of your own behaviors and habits. In my case, I’m motivated by the awareness piece: I want to practice mindfulness with my money, so I’m setting myself this experiment and giving myself a chance to play around to see what comes up.

I already have good money management habits, so I’m not necessarily looking to make changes. You might be in the same place: you’re generally happy with your financial situation, but you want to continue being happy with it. To do so, you need to pay attention and this practice can help keep you engaged.

A pattern interrupt could help you make changes you wish to see in your own life, and it can help you do that in a manageable, sustainable way. Sustainable is a critical word here, and I could add graduate and meaningful into the mix as well.

The Goal: Gradual, Sustainable, Meaningful Change to your Mindset, Behaviors, and Habits

Most people try to tackle change and triumph over it. They treat it as a big hairy undesirable beast they need to master. And they need to do it tomorrow.

But we’re not wired to make 180-degree turnarounds out of our practices, habits, and behaviors. We certainly aren’t well adapted to do it instantaneously, and yet it seems like that’s what most people try to do when trying something new. Instead of testing things out or striking out with a sense of curiosity and desire to explore, we tend to try to pick up hammers and attack anything that happens to look like a nail.

The result could be change. It could be sudden, but it won’t be significant. It certainly won’t last. Real change takes time, increasing awareness, and a lot of practice.

This is part of the reason why I use the kind of language I do here deliberately. This is about experiments, not rules. Curiosity, not judgment. Play, not punishment.

I’ve tried the extreme routes when it comes to money. I’ve gone to great lengths to spend less, save more, and increase my earnings. I got results. But I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t satisfied. And I couldn’t keep it up forever.

Today, I’d much rather focus on things I can sustain and things that help me make meaningful change on a deeper level — because those things allow me to make progress without sacrificing my happiness. A more balanced approach (rather than extreme strategies) allow me to enjoy success while actually being present to that success, instead of constantly chasing the next bigger better badder goal.

The Problem with a Spending or Shopping Ban as a Pattern Interrupt

If my experiment where I’m seeing how many days in April I can go without spending money (or spending less than $20 when I do spend) sounds a lot like a spending or shopping ban, you’re not wrong. It’s similar, but not quite the same.

And I’d argue my method is a lot more effective if your goal is long-term habit change and forward progress.

Many people try shopping bans, or “no spend” weeks or months. But this is extreme and sets you up for failure from the beginning.

It’s a bit like a radical, unforgiving diet: the moment you set hard and fast rules that you know you can’t sustain in the name of quick gains, the temptation to break your own rules becomes almost unbearable.

This is what makes intuitive eating such a powerful concept. The moment you quit labeling food as good or bad and simply consider what works for your body and what doesn’t, the urge to eat the “bad” or “forbidden” foods fades away. There’s no thrill in diving into a box of donuts when donuts cease to represent a naughty, indulgent treat and just become something you could eat whenever you wanted.

I don’t know if there’s such a thing as “intuitive spending,” but if it doesn’t exist yet it might soon. There are so many analogies with food and finance, and I think this is another: the moment you ban yourself from spending on something is the instant that thing becomes the most tempting, must-have item in existence.

A spending or shopping ban won’t likely lead to a chocolate chip cookie binge, but it could result in a stress-induced online shopping spree. Or it could create a ton of unnecessary feelings of guilt and “wrong"-ness when something inevitably happens that forces you to break your spending rules (or you simply forget that you had the rule in the first place).

The results, either way, are less than favorable: either you spend more that you would have before you tried to restrict yourself, or you just feel worse regardless of the outcome (even if you actually succeeded in spending less). Setting up a bunch of rules immediately forces you to resist your ability to choose freely… and that’s a problem because what you resist persists.

Fact: Life Costs Money

The other major issue with traditional spending freezes and bans? You can’t literally spend no money.

Life comes with expenses. That’s just a fact. Rent. Utilities. Bills you have to pay, like insurance. You don’t get to opt out of these just because you’re working on your spending habits.

We all have some level of fixed expenses that we have to address each month. Then there are the more ambiguous expenses that live somewhere between fixed or necessary and purely discretionary.

Think things like groceries or personal care items; everyone needs food, but what we each spend at the grocery store fluctuates wildly depending on how much time you devote to bargain hunting, where you go to shop for these necessary items, and what kind of products you buy once you’re there.

Some people include groceries in discretionary spending for the purposes of a no-spend week or month, and commit to using up pantry items and meals in the freezer. This is an excellent way to make sure you use what you already bought, but that’s just the thing — you already bought it. Meaning, you still spend money. It just didn’t happen to be in this month.

But breaking spending up by month is a type of mental accounting. There’s nothing wrong with it as it makes budgeting and cash flow easier to manage, but a month as a period of time is a relatively human construct.

(Yeah, I get that months are based on lunar cycles/planetary movements/science things — but your money does not care how long it took a space orb to circle a space fireball.)

This is another way you set yourself up to fail if you try a complete ban or freeze, or set up a bunch of complicated rules around what “counts” and what doesn’t. The rules immediately feel bendy and lose some of their meaning (while the urge to resist them persists!) and that gray area makes it hard to define success.

Did you “win” if you had to buy veggies on the 25th day of the month? Did you “fail” if you decided to attend your friend’s going-away party and bought a meal or drinks out while celebrating one last time with her?

This is extra baggage that you don’t need to assign to your money. Your finances offer enough complications all on their own. Don’t add additional stress by setting yourself up to fail at a subjective game in which you get to set the rules in the first place.

Experiment with a Spending Pattern Interrupt

Bringing awareness should not bring judgment along with it. Pattern interrupts are about observing, noticing, seeing. It provides you a space to engage more with something — without making it about wrong/right, failure/success.

You can’t fail at an experiment. You can only disprove a hypothesis, but even that gives you the opportunity to set up a new experiment and test again.

If you want to open yourself up to lasting and meaningful change, consider a pattern interrupt. If you simply want to notice more, give this method a try. I’ll be doing it with my spending in April, and approaching it with an air of curiosity.

It’s not a spending freeze or a challenge, and there’s nothing to win or lose. It’s simply about asking the question “what happens if I do this? What can I notice? What can I observe?”

Get inquisitive. Interrupt a pattern, and then see what happens next.

Kali Roberge