“Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and
underestimate what they can do in ten years.” – Bill Gates
One of the biggest changes in my perspective on personal finance
since I started The Simple Dollar is how to succeed at your
When I first started to turn things around, I set what I thought
was an enormous, audacious goal. I wanted to pay off all of our
debts, which were in the mid five figures at the time, in a year.
It seemed practically impossible. It was this big intimidating
goal. I decided to throw everything I had at it.
For a while, I spent a ton of time and focus every single day
figuring out how I could squeak out a few more dollars to throw at
that debt. I had a nice vintage Magic: the Gathering card and
sports card collection from my teen years and I sold off many of
the valuable cards one at a time to maximize my return. Sarah and I
started preparing all of our meals at home and I started taking
leftovers to work every single day. I sold off almost all of my
video games, the majority of my books, and most of my DVD
collection, mostly piece by piece to maximize return. I did thing
after thing, trick after trick, step after step to cut my spending
as much as possible.
When my enthusiasm for all of that started to wane a little, I
started The Simple Dollar so I could channel my passion for writing
into it. I’d write about my experiences with every little savings
tactic I could find. At the same time, I had some moderate success
repairing computers for a number of elderly people who mostly used
them to email relatives (this was basically before social
networking became a big thing) and mostly just enjoyed having
someone to talk to. They’d call me to come fix some minor problem
and I’d end up having coffee with them and listen to stories
about their grandchildren and then pay me some negligible amount
for the effort.
What happened? In less than a year, all of that debt was gone. I
had thrown everything but the kitchen sink at all of that debt and
it had vanished.
There is a giant problem with this success
story. It only really worked because I was able to sustain
a ridiculous amount of effort over the course of an entire year. We
got there, but it was only due to a day-in-day-out obsession with
saving every penny and earning every extra penny that we could.
Yet, in the back of my head, it set this false idea that
the best way to reach a big goal is to set a big goal and throw
everything but the kitchen sink at it.
Over the following years, I used this approach with all kinds of
goals and… it mostly failed. I’ve tried it with weight loss.
Failed. I tried it with various fitness goals. Failed. I tried it
with building The Simple Dollar and there it somewhat succeeded,
but even that was an illusion (I’ll get back to that).
So, what’s the story here? I now think that my ability
to achieve that huge goal in a year was an aberration that only
worked because there was a perfect storm of elements. My
infant son and my growing understanding of what it meant to be a
father was a huge emotional driver, as was the realization that a
second child was coming near the very end of that year. I was able
to utilize my passion for writing to help continue and maintain my
efforts by writing for The Simple Dollar, and that “juice” was
only there because writing wasn’t actually my main career. I had
a lot of spending that I could cut from my life and a lot of items
with at least some value in the closet that I could sell off. The
progress was easy to see and easy to track and additional effort
translated pretty nicely into additional observable progress.
The thing is, for most goals, you’re not going to have
all of those perks. You aren’t going to have steady
observable progress toward your goal – even with perfect effort,
you’re going to often progress in fits and starts. You won’t
always have great motivation. You won’t always have a ton of
low-hanging fruit that makes progress relatively easy. You won’t
always have outlets that tap into your other interests.
Several years ago, Sarah and I decided that we were going to aim
for early retirement, and I knew right then and there that the
strategies that helped us pay off our debt so quickly probably
weren’t going to get us to financial independence any time soon
– and I was right.
For this goal, many of the advantages we had during our initial
push to debt freedom were missing. We can’t make steady progress
because of the vagaries of the stock market – a month of busting
our rear end could see a drop in our retirement savings, especially
as our balance grows. We don’t have a lot of low hanging fruit in
our life that can bolster our savings rate or free up some cash for
our goal. The honeymoon period of financial improvement is over –
we don’t have that same burning motivation we had at the start of
our debt repayment. Not only that, there’s no measure by which
financial independence isn’t a lot of years in the future. It is
a really long term goal.
If we focused entirely on our big destination goal,
we’re doomed to fail. If we use the strategies we used during our
debt repayment, we’re doomed to fail.
We need a different approach, and for us, the best
approach to an enormous goal that’s more than a few months into
the future is to grind it out.
What do I mean by “grind it out”? I mean that the
focus of our efforts needs to be on the very short term, where we
create routines and habits that produce slow and steady progress
toward the big goal, and our success is measured by those efforts
Do I have a good grip on my spending habits today? Am I doing
what I can to keep expenses low today? Am I ensuring that we
don’t raise the expense of our tastes too high and keeping treats
rare enough that they’re genuinely appreciated? Are we steadily
contributing to our investments this month?
In other words, if your big goal is a long term goal,
focusing just on the end result probably won’t get you
there. Your “honeymoon period” will end and you’ll
find yourself falling back into old, bad habits. This is why very
few people succeed at long term diets – they’re so focused on
the end goal that they’re not actually focused on sustainable
day-in-day-out meaningful change in their lives and thus, when the
excitement wears thin and the siren’s call of old habits is loud,
they fall back on those old habits.
Instead, if you have a big long term goal, you need to
focus on how you can mold your everyday life to make that big goal
a likely outcome of your normal everyday routines. As I
discussed in this week’s mailbag, this is akin to Scott Adams’
concept of a “system” (where you’re consistently doing a
certain improved behavior or set of behaviors to increase positive
outcomes) but the big difference here is that you do still have a
long term goal. You’re choosing the daily behaviors to push
yourself toward your big goal.
If you have a huge goal in front of you that’s more
than a month or two in the future, I strongly encourage you to
focus on daily routines above all else. What can you do
today to nudge yourself closer to that goal? Even more important,
what can you do today that’s repeatable tomorrow and the day
after that and the day after that to nudge yourself closer to that
goal? Which of your normal behaviors, if you were to change it in
some fashion, would help lead to the big goal you desire? How can
you change that behavior? How can you sustain that change? (Hint:
the book Triggers
by Marshall Goldsmith is invaluable here).
My own experience has been that it’s good to really focus on
changing one or two behaviors at a time unless a serious life
change is going on which is already forcing you to make a whole
bunch of changes. I tend to do this by executing thirty day
challenges where I really focus hard on that behavioral change as a
short term goal, and if I like the results from it, I move on to
applying techniques from Triggers
to transform it into a permanent change in my behavior.
Just remember, when you’re trying to achieve a monumental
goal, it’s not the big steps that matter. It’s the daily grind,
and figuring out how to make that grind tolerable and even
rewarding and enjoyable is the key to achieving almost every big
goal in life, whether it’s debt repayment or financial
independence or something else entirely.
Source: FS – All-News2-Economy