“Everyone can perform magic, everyone can reach his goals, if he is able to think, if he is able to wait, if he is able to fast.” — Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse
My high school English teacher passed away several years ago. Before he passed, I had the chance to tell him that he had a profound impact on my life. After all, I write for a living, and it was his teaching more than anything else that enabled me to write reasonably good material fairly quickly, which led me to where I’m at now.
Another thing that he did for me that I don’t think he ever realized was that he opened my eyes to a much wider world of reading and the impact it can have on me. He introduced me to Henry David Thoreau, whose writing has had a profound impact on my life (see here and here and also a ton of my inspiration articles). He introduced me to Herman Melville, a writer I didn’t appreciate as a sixteen year old but whose works I devoured when I was in my thirties.
He also introduced me to Hermann Hesse, whose quote starts off this article. I remember diving into Hesse’s books during my last semester of high school, particularly a copy of Siddhartha with a bright blue cover, but also several others that I checked out from the library. I read every single Hesse book that my local library had (and could get) during the summer between high school and college and my dog-eared copy of Siddhartha went with me to college that fall.
A few years ago, I went through a period where I decided to re-read a fairly long list of books that I could recall having a major impact on my life. I made a long list of them and started snagging them from the library or downloading them for free from Project Gutenberg if they were old enough to be in the public domain.
Some of those books were still very impactful for me, while others were less so. Siddhartha, and several other Hesse books I re-read, were on the “impactful” side of the equation.
As I was reading through those books again, I copied down a lot of quotes that I wanted to think about, of which that quote at the beginning was one. I actually stuck the quote in a note to someday write about on The Simple Dollar, but it ended up getting buried in a pile of several hundred (yes, hundred) other ideas I have for articles, most of them half-baked.
A few days ago, I stumbled across it again, simply because I was searching through my notes for references to something else entirely. I found that note, opened it up, and the quote just rang out to me like a church bell on a quiet Sunday morning.
Think. Wait. Fast. That’s really all you need to do to achieve almost any financial goal, and almost any goal in life.
The thinking part of a goal is the process by which you turn a vague daydream into something concrete that you can actually achieve in life.
An idle daydream about being debt free or being able to live off of your savings or retiring early or paying for your child’s college education is pleasant, but it’s just an idle daydream, one that slides into your head and then drifts away just as easily. It’s pleasant, but it doesn’t really do anything.
Turning that daydream into a goal requires thought and planning.
What exactly is it that you want to achieve? “Paying for my child’s college education” sounds great, but how much will that actually cost? “Saving for retirement” sounds great, but how much do I need to save? “Losing weight” sounds great, but what’s the best way to actually do that? A good goal requires some research.
What is my target? What exactly is it that you want to do? This works best when it’s something that’s clearly a “yes” or a “no” when you’re checking to see if you’ve achieved it. Using a number is often useful, but you can also have a specific condition. For example, if you want to save for your child’s college education, what is the dollar amount you’re aiming for? If you know what tuition costs at a good university, maybe you’ll aim for four semesters of that tuition amount in their 529. Again, this builds off of the initial thought about the goal and
When is my target? Another key element is the end date for your goal. When do you want to achieve this goal by? Sometimes, it’s obvious – you want to achieve that college savings goal by the time that person starts college, or you want to achieve your retirement savings goal by the time you retire. Sometimes, it’s not so obvious – when is it that you want to be debt free? You can choose that for yourself.
Is this all realistic? If you know what you want to do and when you want to do it, you should check and make sure that the goal is realistic. You want the goal to be a bit challenging, but you don’t want it to be literally impossible. A good way to do a reality check on your goal is to break the dollar amount down into a weekly or monthly amount and see whether that makes sense. For example, if you’re aiming to pay off $10,000 in debt in two years, you’re aiming to pay off $100 in debt every week. Is that feasible?
What are your daily steps? A final major element in your thought process about goals is what that big goal translates into in terms of daily steps. I like to use a series of questions to help me figure it out if it’s not obvious:
+ What can I do this year to bring me closer to my big goal?
+ What can I do this quarter to bring me closer to what I need to do this year?
+ What can I do this month to bring me closer to what I need to do this quarter?
+ What can I do this week to bring me closer to what I need to do this month?
+ What can I do today to bring me closer to what I need to do this week?
The entire focus in terms of action, then, is that thing you need to do today. The entire plan hinges on that thing for today and nothing else. Then, each week, reassess all of those questions.
All of this requires a lot of thought. The idea is simply to bring that goal into focus so that you can actually see what effort you need to put forth today and how it relates to that goal as well as to discard half-baked ideas so you don’t throw your efforts away down an aimless path.
Big goals require a lot of patience. Almost every big goal out there has a timeline that stretches far beyond what feels “real” in our everyday life.
After all, if you could achieve a big goal in your life in just a few days, well, then you’d obviously do it. The reason that many people don’t achieve big goals is because of the wait.
For me, a key part of the wait is the part of the thought process above where I break things down into what I need to do today in order to achieve my goal, and then I make today’s element paramount. I try to avoid making the piece for today too big – it has to fit into my life, after all – but I do try to make it urgent and important. Doing that not only keeps me moving forward toward the goal, but it makes the goal feel real and tangible in my everyday life rather than something huge and outside the scope of my normal life.
I use a lot of different tricks to make today’s step toward a goal relevant, but the biggest part is that I remind myself of today’s step in the morning. One thing I do each day, early in the day, is to review my ongoing goals and make sure that there’s something in my day related to that goal. Sometimes it’s an addition to my to-do list; other times, it’s another step in a 90 day challenge.
For example, if I’m working on paying off my debts, today’s goal might be to “find one thing I can change to spend less money and execute it and put the saved money aside for an extra debt payment.”
If I’m working on saving for retirement, I might have a similar task, but with the goal of working toward a place where I can bump up my 401(k) contribution at the end of the month (meaning I need to be making a permanent or easily repeatable change).
Those kinds of things go on my to-do list. Other things are just reminders, like reminding myself to be more conscious about what I’m eating or to listen attentively when having conversations with people.
However, the most important ingredient over the long haul is patience. You have to be able to give it time, because most big goals simply can’t happen overnight.
There are a number of things you can do in your life to cultivate patience, beyond the techniques above:
+ Review your day during moments of downtime. How have things gone? What do you need to do the rest of today?
+ Intentionally do things with minimal distraction (a great step here is to start using “do not disturb” mode on your phone as often as possible, or even leaving it behind when doing things).
+ Take on “micro-challenges,” where you push yourself to do something pretty challenging for your goal today – a particularly hard daily step.
+ Ask three questions before making a statement when talking to someone. Whenever you’re conversing, make it a point to ask questions and listen rather than impatiently diving in with your initial idea.
+ Postpone impulsive splurges; if you want to splurge, put it off for another day rather than just saying “no.” You can even schedule it if you want, but don’t do it right away.
+ Plan ahead for big indulgences and enjoy the anticipation.
+ Chart your progress over time as you move from your starting point to your goal. This is really useful if you have a number to track, like your net worth or your weight or your planking time or whatever.
+ Focus on how far you’ve come, not on how far you have to go. You’ll generally buzz right through a honeymoon period with your goal, and then it’ll get tough. Rather than focusing on the distance ahead, look back at how far you’ve come and tie it to your efforts today. “I paid off $2K in debt in the last few months because I did something useful every day toward that goal; I can definitely keep that up!”
+ Take on a few long-term commitments. If you can commit to something that other people rely on that also nudges you toward your goal, that will help you keep moving forward and usually make it much easier to generate something to do today.
+ Pause before you take action and ask yourself if this really makes sense. Does this choice really help me out in terms of what I want out of life?
+ Remind yourself that mild discomfort is tolerable and doesn’t have to be immediately fixed. Your life doesn’t have to be constant comfort. (We’ll get back to this in a minute.)
+ Automate as much of your plan as you can so that impulsiveness doesn’t wreck your progress.
+ Find free hobbies to capture your attention so that you’re not tempted to always spend money.
Fasting simply means choosing to go without something in the short term in order to achieve some long term benefit. It usually applies to choosing not to consume food, but it applies to almost everything we buy or consume, from television to the internet, from hobby items to special treats.
Some people fast for spiritual or social understanding, as going without something important like food or drink can teach you a lot about the experiences of others and about yourself.
However, fasting in some form is often a key part of a long term goal. You’re usually giving up something that you consume, whether it’s money or food or time. Many 30 day and 90 day challenges are forms of fasting, where you’re agreeing to go without something that you regularly consume.
For example, let’s say that one element of fasting that you decide to take on is that you’re going to buy store brand items for everything from now on unless the product reveals itself to be problematic. At first, you’ll have to consciously remind yourself to buy store brand ketchup and store brand hand soap and store brand pasta, but as time goes on, that will begin to feel like the natural choice.
Fasting is often a dietary choice useful for weight loss. For example, many people choose to practice intermittent fasting as a weight loss strategy, in that they choose to only eat one meal a day or only eat during a six hour window each day.
Over a long period, fasting towards a goal should elicit some permanent changes in behavior. For example, I know several people who consciously practiced intermittent fasting and now feel most comfortable eating just one meal a day, along with perhaps one small snack.
Here’s the thing, though: fasting is hard. Going without something that you want, particularly when the want is incredibly strong and the thing you want is easy and harmless to acquire, is an intense personal challenge. This is often the piece that causes people to fail in their quests for financial improvement and other aspects of personal improvement. Think of the person that tries to be frugal for a while and then bounces right back to spending, or the person who diets carefully and then goes right back to eating a ton.
My advice is simple: if you’re fasting in order to help bring about a permanent change in your life or to achieve a big long term goal, choose principles of fasting that you can continue permanently. For example, if you’re trying to use fasting to diet, rather than looking for something that gives you some quick results that you can’t possibly sustain over the long haul, look for something less intense that you can sustain over the long haul that will still give results but a little less quickly. The same is true for spending changes: stick with realistic changes you can sustain rather than hyper-aggressive ones that you can’t pull off.
Not sure whether something is sustainable? That’s what a 30 day challenge is for. Stick to the change for 30 days, then assess whether it’s permanent or not.
Think. Wait. Fast. That’s really all you need to do to elicit real change in your life. Three words.
It seems simple and it is, but it’s incredibly hard to do. People constantly try and fail to achieve the changes they want out of life, not because they’re failures, but because change is hard. If it was easy, everyone would be millionaires with a perfect body and inner peace.
So what’s the trick? I think if there’s one trick to making think, wait, and fast work, it’s breaking things down into smaller pieces, trying them out, and then making sure the smaller pieces are realistically sustainable. That requires thinking, waiting, and fasting, but it leads to the strong possibility of permanent change and achieving the big goals you want.
Think. Wait. Fast.
You can do this.
Think. Wait. Fast.