When it comes to the “want”/“should” conflict, the cards are stacked against retirement savers.(Photo: Getty)

Over the last two decades, psychologists and behavioral economists have studied the “want” vs. “should” dichotomy.

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This is the internal conflicts each of us faces when we make decisions. It explains why we buy candy instead of carrots, read romance novels instead of the classics, and spend today instead of saving for tomorrow.

Researchers have identified five everyday situations which tilt the odds of making the more beneficial choice against us (see “How the 401k Fiduciary Can Help Retirement Savers Make Better Decisions (Part I),” FiduciaryNews.com, August 23, 2016).

Here’s the problem. Those “everyday” situations aren’t merely common, they’re downright pervasive. People don’t stumble upon them every now and then — they represent a regular daily feature in nearly all of our lives. For example, do you ever find yourself juggling multiple tasks or embedded in any other stressful situation? If your brain can’t focus, you’re more likely to make a suboptimal decision. Similarly, how often do you find you “reward” yourself with a “devilish” treat after doing something good?

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Face it. When it comes to the “want”/“should” conflict, the cards are stacked against retirement savers. There are simply too many instances where circumstances place you in a position where simple inertia causes you to make a “want” decision when you’d be better off making a “should” decision.

There are ways (which we’ll discuss next week) to proactively alter these circumstances, but you can’t change the course of a mighty river forever.

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That got me thinking. The want/should conflict reminds me of many other times when it’s hard to do the right thing.

That could be standing up against a bully, making that extra effort to get yourself into condition for the big event, or exercising 30 minutes a day every other day. It’s hard to do all those things. It’s easier to avoid conflict and avoid work – whether mental or physical. That’s where inertia keeps us, as in Newton’s First Law of Motion: “A body at rest tends to stay at rest.”

Of course, any physics aficionados out there might recognize that I left out “unless a force acts upon it” from that portion of Newton’s First Law. For the purposes of our discussion, that “force” represents those proactive ways to deal with the environmental reality of the want/should dilemma. (Again, we’ll discuss those next week.)

For now, though, I’d like to turn your attention to the second part of that First Law. It states “A body in motion tends to stay in motion” (again, there’s that pesky “unless a force acts upon it,” but that’s not relevant).

In other words, inertia works both ways. It can cause you to stay still or keep moving. Whatever you’re doing, it keeps you doing it.

Now, with that in mind, let’s go back to the examples we gave earlier showing the tendency to make the “want” decision instead of the “should” decision. In each of those cases, without changing the pre-existing “want” inducing environment, we know of one activity that can cause someone, despite the circumstances, make the “should” decision – training.

Think about it. Training instills a discipline that, if done properly, creates a positive habit. Remember that second part of Newton’s First Law? The part about “staying in motion”? An ongoing habit represents the real-world application of this “staying in motion.”

And when is the best time to develop habits? When we’re young. If you learn to exercise 30 minutes a day as a youth and continue to do it year after year, it’s much more difficult to stop exercising. You’ll feel empty – like you’re missing out on something – if you take a break from this daily event.

Now, substitute the word “saving” for “exercise.” Here’s an example of how to develop that habit in a child. Let’s say the child receives an allowance of $5 a week. Don’t give the child a $5 dollar bill, give the child five $1 bills. Then have the child physically place that $1 in a piggy bank (or some such thing).

Week in and week out, every time the child gets $5 the child puts away $1 in a bank. At the end of the year, have the child count the savings. It’s $52 – more than ten times the weekly allowance!

Now, add to that compound interest and you’ve really got a habit worth keeping!