Stopwatch vs. Timer: Metaphor for Debt Repayment

DH = Dear Husband

How’s that New Year’s “Every. Day.” plank resolution going?

I’m a little sheepish as I consider my New Year’s resolution for 2016. It came out of Christmas day 2015 when I tried on the dress DH had given me. The first thing I noticed in the mirror was the prominence of my belly – so much so that I had to wear “shapewear” to make it work. Ugh!

Resolution: I would not have to rely upon shapewear to wear that dress on Christmas day of 2016. How to reach that goal: “Every day, I will do a plank. Every day. I’m putting that stake in the ground. I’ll start at 2 minutes, but each month, my goal will be to increase by 15 seconds so that by the end of 2016, I’ll be holding a 5-minute daily plank . . . I’ll do a plank. Every. Day”

January 1, I set the timer app on my phone to 2:00, and as I got into plank position, I hit “Start”. Success! Mission accomplished. For the first couple of weeks, I stayed faithful to my resolution until . . . I was off any form of exercise before the end of January because of a muscle spasm in my neck. So much for “Every. Day.”

But that was OK. It was a legitimate excuse, and part way into February, I was able to work out again. I re-set the timer on my phone to 2:15. There! Back on track. “Every. Day.” But then some days I would forget. Other days, I spent all of my energy at the gym and didn’t have anything left over for a plank. And something else crept in. As I kept re-setting my timer each month – 2:30 for March; 2:45 for April; 3:00 for May; 3:15 for June – it got really hard!

Expectations and discouragement

I found I had to psyche myself up more and more just to do it. I found that increasingly, I had to quit before the timer reached zero. I found that it was becoming easier to skip my “Every. Day” plank. Not because I’d been to the gym. Not because I’d forgotten. But because I had come to dread it. Uh-oh.

This past Monday – June 27 – I realized that I hadn’t done a plank in at least a week. Hmmm…. Something had to change. I made a little adjustment to my resolution:  My goal is still to do a plank every day – as opposed to “Every. Day” – and if I can, I will increase my time by 15 seconds each month. But if I can’t, I won’t. I’ll do my best, and that will be enough. The point is to grow stronger (and to get my belly reined in so that I can wear that dress!) – not to be discouraged by oppressive expectations.

Stopwatch vs. Timer

So this past Tuesday – which was my birthday – I did something different. I chose my phone’s stopwatch app instead of the timer. As I got into plank position, I hit “Start” – as usual – but rather than seeing how many minutes and seconds I had left, I saw how many I had accomplished. Breathe 5 times, and then look: 26 seconds. Breathe 5 times more, and then look: 53 seconds. There was less pressure to get to my June goal number. The stop time was optional. So I just kept on breathing and held a little longer. Another 5 breaths. And another. I was so focused upon my breathing that I was taken aback when the numbers went beyond 2:30. I was going to make it! Another 5 breaths – and countdown for the last 10 seconds. 3:15 after all!

 A debt repayment metaphor: focus on what we’d paid off – not on what we still owe

In June of 2012, DH and I had a total debt of $257,000, including $21,000 in consumer debt, $81,000 in business debt, and $155,000 in mortgage debt. For a long time, our focus was upon how much we were accomplishing, and after we learned to wait out temporary discouragements of low-income months and high-expense times, we enjoyed a steady sense of encouragement.

But once we passed the half-way mark, our focus shifted from what we had accomplished to what we had left. Our remaining mortgage sits at $104,000 now, and that’s well below the average mortgage in Canada and the U.S. – about $155,000 in both countries. We have every reason to be encouraged in our goal to reach zero. And yet lately, DH has been saying things like, “$100,000 is still a crap ton to pay off you know.” What’s with that?

Take a look at this again: “. . . our goal to reach zero.” Isn’t that just like the timer – telling us what we still need to achieve – instead of the stopwatch – telling us what we’ve already achieved? Hmmmm …

I think it’s a bad idea for us to focus upon what we still have to pay off – even though it shrinks every month. Doing my planks, I have discovered an unexpectedly powerful encouragement in the stopwatch’s report of my achievement. The timer, in reporting what I still needed to achieve, ended up discouraging me. In the same way, I’m going to shift my focus back to what we have accomplished in our debt repayment – and away from how much we still owe.

We’ve paid $153,000 off of our total debt! And we’ll keep holding . . . through the next few breaths.

Can you relate to this “stopwatch vs. timer” metaphor? Your comments are welcome.


26 comments on “Stopwatch vs. Timer: Metaphor for Debt Repayment

  1. Great analogy. No matter what the goal is, I think it’s better to focus on how far you’ve come then how far you have to go. When people are in denial about their situation, that’s when they need the shock of how much needs to be done. But if you’re making progress, any kind of forward progress, focus on that and use it to motivate you ahead.

    1. Good point about people needing to be shocked out of their denial. It can be tricky to bridge from the discouragement that can follow that shock to the encouragement needed for forward progress. Thanks, Gary.

  2. Happy Birthday Ruth! I hope it was a good one. A great metaphor indeed. I kept a spread sheet during our debt repayment, which I still have. It’s our master budget spreadsheet. I would track our process each month. I often focused on, was excited about the amount of debt we had paid off. Sure early on the number of overall debt was large, but I was so happy that we had finally turned the corner in our behavior that I always looked at the progress, not what was left. It really helped keep our momentum going during the ups and downs of our repayment.

    1. I hope you save that spreadsheet forever, Brian. I suggest framing it and putting it up where you’ll see it every day. I made a graph for an old debt repayment effort of ours, and then put it in a memorabilia drawer, never to be seen for years . . . and we got back into debt. Ugh!

    1. I suppose DH’s “crap ton to pay off” outlook will keep us from getting too comfortable. Discomfort is definitely required for focused debt repayment to work. (DH will be happy with this comment.)

    1. Thank you, Kay! It’s true about the prism and new revelation thing. Who knew there was such a difference between the impact of a stopwatch vs. a timer?

  3. Happy Birthday Ruth!!! 🙂

    Awesome use of metaphor here, and I think it is so amazing that you have paid off $153,000 in debt! That is a HUGE accomplishment!!! Keep up the good work my friend 🙂

  4. Wishing you a very happy birthday, Ruth!

    I can totally relate to this post. I delay my workouts, but when I tell myself, “go do it and just do what you feel like doing, don’t worry about how much or long, it’s better than nothing” – it’s those days that I have my best workouts.

    A great reminder. I get pretty overwhelmed by how far we have to go on our mortgage debt – it’s better to look at how far we’ve come overall in the last few years. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks, Amanda. I’m glad you can relate to this with regards to your mortgage – and your workouts. I sometimes have to remind myself of how good I feel after I do a workout in order to go and do it. I have never thought, “I wish I hadn’t worked out.” I’m always glad to have done one.

  5. Good point. I imagine that two different people might be motivated by the two different goals. I’m definitely a timer gal. Our mortgage debt is ticking down (under 100k, yay!) and we’ve also got an imaginary timer for when we expect that debt to be finished. But, come to think of it, I’ve noticed similar comments from my husband as yours. “We still have a long way to go,” he has said on occasion. Drives me bonkers! I’m thinking that he might be more of a stopwatch guy. Thaks for the marriage insight 😉

    1. Thanks Janeen. For us, it was definitely once we had passed the half-way mark that it seemed more natural to talk in terms of what we had left rather than what we had paid off. I find it taps into the impatience that was always a part of my trouble with money in the first place – so it’s stopwatch for me. I hope that your husband will be able to focus on what you’ve accomplished – and not drive you bonkers : )

  6. Awesome metaphor, Ruth! I am naturally such a glass-half-empty person. I have found myself feeling like our debt payoff wasn’t fast enough, or feeling guilty that we didn’t start a bit sooner. These feelings just aren’t in line with the reality of what we’ve accomplished. It makes much more sense to focus on what you’ve paid off that bemoan what’s left. Congrats on $135000 down!

    1. Thank you Kalie. You guys are doing FABULOUSLY well. To think that you would ever bemoan anything to do with where you’re at! (And that’s $153,000 : )

  7. This was fun 🙂

    And cool to see you!

    I have similar problems with working out until I found the “scientific 7 min work out” and now all i require myself to do is that once a day (during week) and then if I do more great but if not at least I did some! And really it just gets me to take action since it’s only 7 mins 🙂

    (and interestingly enough, planking is a part of the routine!)

    1. Thank you, Kurt! I wasn’t even aware that I was actually taking a “glass-half-empty” approach with my unconscious shift to what we had left to pay off. “Half-full” is definitely the way to go.

  8. PERFECT!!! It seems like the $91K I still have on the books for my total debt isn’t moving much when I pay an extra $200 here, $50 there, or $125 there… But I know I started at $190K and thus I’ve paid off more than half… and I have a system in place that will keep paying it down… So I try to take focus off of the what’s left… I’m looking at the asset side more and trying to look at what I’m building up…

    1. Thank you, Tim. This reminds me of what I was warned about before I ran my first 10 km road race: “The hardest section is the 4-6 km stretch. For the first bit, you have the adrenaline of the start. For the last bit, you have the adrenaline of the finish line. But for the middle section, it just feels like it’s going to last forever.” We’re each in the middle sections of our respective debt pay-offs, so we have to be intentional about being encouraged by every step forward. All the best, Tim! I’ll meet you at the finish line : )

    1. Thank you, ZJ! It IS important to balance a celebration of what we already do with a healthy measure of striving for more. (As for planking, let me advise you to start where you are. My 2-minute baseline was actually quite advanced. 10-30 seconds? Great starting point : )

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