In business, a sunk cost is a cost that has already been incurred and can’t be recovered. Economists tell us that we shouldn’t factor these costs in when making a rational decision about how to proceed. Since we’re human and hate losses, however, we often use these previous costs as justification to invest more.
The more we invest in something, the harder it becomes to abandon. To change would be to admit that those previous investments were wasted. That’s a tough pill to swallow, so we engage in what economists call a sunk cost fallacy or what psychologists call irrational escalation. You and I might more easily refer to it as throwing good money after bad. Or for my British readers, in for a penny, in for a pound.
Most of the discussion around sunk costs has to do with money, but money isn’t the only metric. Time is another resource we invest. So is effort. We invest those things in relationships, life pursuits, plans for retirement, a career. Sometimes those investments pay off and get us to where we want to be. Other times we realize, if given the chance to do it over, we would have chosen differently. In those cases, just like the business person should not throw good money after bad, we should not throw good life after bad. Or good time after bad. Or good friendship after bad.
The time, energy, effort and emotion we previously put into all those things are sunk costs. We shouldn’t use the fact that we invested badly as an excuse to continue to invest badly. Yes, changing course will force you to admit the mistake. That might cause pain, stress, confrontation or ridicule, but it will be temporary and you will have the opportunity to move forward in the right direction. If you continue in your error, you won’t have the short-term moment of pain as you admit error, but you will have the long-term pain and regret that comes from persisting in your error. Which is worse? The latter, by far.
It’s Monday morning. You’re starting a new week. Maybe you’re heading off to work. Maybe you’re already retired. Either way, be honest with yourself. Is there anything on your calendar this week that you’re doing, not because you want to or because you think it’s the right thing for you and your life, but because you’ve invested a bunch of time/money/life pursuing that path and you don’t want to admit failure? I do. This article is your permission to stop. If not today, someday soon. For today, at least make a decision if not an action. Decide “this is not what I want to do.” And then start figuring out exactly what it is you do want and what needs to change to make that a reality. In short:
- Admit your mistake. Choose temporary over permanent pain.
- Decide what it is you really want out of life.
- Have the courage to pursue that, regardless of what came before.
I’m doing a 3-part series on how to overcome obstacles and achieve the real, significant and lasting change necessary to live the life you want, both now and in retirement. It’s a 3-part series, because we’re covering 3 big ideas. Idea #1 was minimalism: Deciding what doesn’t belong in your life—stuff, expenses, obligations, hassles, commitments, projects—and getting rid of it. Idea #2 is Essentialism: Deciding what IS important and DOES belong in your life and then doing it more often and better. And finally, Idea #3 is Systems and Habits: Taking the essentials from Step 2 and creating systems and habits that make doing those things consistent, automatic and nearly effortless.
For each part of the series, I’ve shared a book that dives deep into the issues at hand. For this final part, I’m sharing two books. The book focused on systems is How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams (Quick note: The book presents several powerful ideas, but also a few that are a little wacky). The book focused on habits is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.
Why systems? When you have a system in place, you have a repeatable process that is designed to get a desired result. Apply that to life. If you have certain desired results you want, both now and in retirement, why not create a system that is designed to produce those results?
Why habits? Will Durant once said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Greatness then, is not an act, but a habit.” Once you have the systems in place, you want to make them effortless. You achieve that by doing it over and over until it’s automatic.
Let’s look at systems first. In How to Fail, Adams makes the provocative statement that goals are for losers. If you really want to be successful at something, you should focus on systems instead. He explains:
“For our purposes, let’s say a goal is a specific objective you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.
“Language is messy, and I know some of you are thinking that exercising every day sounds like a goal. The common definition of goals would certainly allow that interpretation. For our purposes, let’s agree that goals are a reach-it-and-be-done situation, whereas a system is something you do on a regular basis with a reasonable expectation that doing so will get you to a better place in your life. Systems have no deadlines, and on any given day you probably can’t tell if they’re moving you in the right direction.”
“My proposition is that if you study people who succeed, you will see that most of them follow systems, not goals…If you know some extra successful people, ask some probing questions about how they got where they did. I think you’ll find a system at the bottom of it all.”
Examples of goals vs. systems
Goal: Lose 20 pounds.
System: Eat right.
Goal: Run a marathon in under 4 hours.
System: Exercise daily.
Goal: Make a million dollars.
System: Be a serial entrepreneur
Examples of successful people who use(d) systems
- Warren Buffett: Investing
- John Wooden: Coaching
- Jeff Bezos: Business
- Michael Phelps: Swimming
- Stephen King: Writing
So here is this idea in a nutshell. If you focus on the goal, you’ll struggle. So focus on the systems—the things you will do day in and day out—that are going to help you achieve the goals. When you do that, the goals become a natural byproduct of using your system.
Yes, the lines are sometimes blurry between goals and systems, but don’t get hung up on it. Again, Scott Adams:
“The systems-versus-goals point of view is burdened by semantics, of course. You might say every system has a goal, however vague. And that would be true to some extent. And you could say that everyone who pursues a goal has some sort of system to get there, whether it is expressed or not. You could word-glue goals and systems together if you chose. All I’m suggesting is that thinking of goals and systems as very different concepts has power.”
So systems have power. I think that’s partly because they give you more at bats. You’re swinging every day. This may produce more strikeouts in the long run, but it will also produce more walks, singles, doubles, triples, and the occasional home run. It also affords you the opportunity to practice, learn, test and refine. What are some other benefits of systems?
- Mindset: According to Adams, “Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous pre-success failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do.”
- Being Proactive: When you do something every day (or regularly), you’re obviously being more proactive. You feel better about something when you’re doing something about it.
- Progress: Systems show more short term progress. Studies show that progress is the most powerful human motivator. When you see progress, you’re motivated to do more and it creates a virtuous feedback loop. Goals, especially big ones, are long term affairs. The finish line is way off in the future. You might never get there. That can cause you to procrastinate, lose focus, get distracted and give up
- Motivation: Again, progress = motivation.
- Automation: Systems help you to automate processes and make them easier.
- Improvement: The practice and repetition involved with systems helps you improve.
- Iteration: You’re constantly learning, so you can integrate that into your system to make it better.
- Energy: When you can celebrate little successes on a regular basis, that boosts your energy and makes you excited about doing more.
- Self-awareness: Research shows that we’re terrible at predicting what will make us happy. Systems help you test your predictions (dreams, plans, goals) so you can get a clear understanding of what you want out of life.
- Structure: Systems give structure to your activities so that you’re focusing your time on the things that will give you the skills, benefits and results that you want.
- Productivity: Systems and structure make you productive. If you know what you’re going to do tomorrow or next week or next month and how you’re going to do it, you’ll get way more done than the person who wakes up and randomly bounces from one task or decision to another.
- Skill acquisition: “I want to travel someday” doesn’t do anything to build your skillset now. “I plan and take one trip each quarter” helps you acquire the skills necessary to become a good traveler.
- Simplicity: With systems, big, complex things (write a book, save $1 million, travel the world, etc.) are broken down into bite sized chunks that seem easier and less intimidating.
- More time doing stuff: Goals are things you achieve later. Systems are things you do today. If you have a goal to travel, you will hopefully do that someday. If you have a system for traveling, you will be doing that today. At a minimum, this gives you more time to enjoy travel (or whatever).
- Focus: A system keeps you focused. It’s a repeatable process that you do day in and day out. It keeps you from getting sidetracked with 100 other things.
Things you should systematize
There are two primary areas where you should implement systems. First, you should have systems for things that you currently do on a regular basis. This could be things like paying your bills, responding to email, eating and exercising. You should have a system for each of those things that helps you to be both efficient and effective.
Personal Example: I used to pay my bills randomly as they arrived using a checkbook and a bunch of stamps. Now I pay my bills once a month in about 10 minutes using online banking. Less time. No stamps. Better system.
Second, you should create systems for things that you want to do. Do you want to lose weight? Save more? Read more? Travel? Don’t just have a goal to do those things someday. Create systems that allow you to do them today.
Personal example: I wanted to lose a little weight, but diets don’t seem to work long term and “Lose 20 pounds in 6 months” doesn’t help me overcome the temptation to stop at Dairy Queen today. So I downloaded the app Way of Life and I had it ask me two questions every day: “Did you overeat today?” and “Did you do something active?” Super simple system with daily accountability. No foods were excluded, I just couldn’t overeat. No specific exercises required. I just had to do something active. Walking around the lake counted just as much as an hour of high intensity weightlifting. Result: I dropped 20 pounds in four months.
Application for retirement
How can you apply this to retirement? Think about the major retirement goals that most people have. Financial independence. Travel. Hobbies. Volunteer work. Relationships. Health. Rather than keeping those as goals that you hope to achieve someday, how could you create systems now so you can start making progress? I don’t want to give you the answer, because what works for me won’t necessarily work for you. So give it a shot. Think about what you want out of life and retirement. How can you change that from a “someday” goal to an action that you’re doing by the end of today?
The Power of Habit
This post is already longer than most, so I’ll try to distill The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg down to the key idea that will help us turn our systems into habits that are effortless.
How Habits Work
Your brain is always looking for ways to save effort. One way it does this is by “chunking” activities. Simply put, it takes a sequence of actions and converts them into an automatic routine. Duhigg gives the example of backing out of your driveway in the morning. There are perhaps 20 separate actions involved in that process, but you probably do it without giving it any thought because your brain has “chunked” those activities and it does them automatically without even thinking. It becomes a routine. Your brain wants to try to convert pretty much any routine into a habit. It does this in a three-step loop:
- Cue: Step one is a cue that tells your brain to go into automatic mode.
- Routine: Second, there is a particular routine (physical, mental or emotional) that you perform.
- Reward: Finally, there is some sort of reward that helps to tell your brain whether this particular loop is worth remembering in the future and making into a habit.
Here’s an example related to exercise:
Cue: Your alarm goes off.
Routine: You get out of bed, put on your running shoes and go for a run.
Reward: After the run, you make and enjoy your morning coffee.
In this example, your brain soon starts to crave coffee right when the alarm goes off so it goes into automatic mode and completes the routine so it can get the reward. Voila! A habit is born.
How to Create or Change Habits
According to Duhigg, cravings drive habits. If you want to create a new habit think about the routine you want to create and then come up with a cue and a reward. If you want to change an existing habit, keep the cue and the reward the same, but insert a new routine.
Whether creating a new habit or changing an old one, the important thing is to get your brain to crave the reward. The craving drives the habit loop. It outweighs the temptation to skip the routine. When a habit is created, the brain stops fully engaging and the activity happens automatically. Once the habit is formed, you have to actively work to keep it from happening.
Certain habits start a chain reaction in other behaviors. Duhigg calls these Keystone Habits. For example, people who begin a habit of exercise discover that, in addition to exercising, they also naturally start to eat better, sleep better, be more productive at work and feel less stressed. With Keystone Habits, you don’t try to get everything right. You try to get several of the most important things right and the rest starts to fall in place.
Keystone habits can vary from person to person, but here is a list of 11 common (and sometimes surprising) Keystone Habits given by Duhigg:
- Have family dinners
- Make your bed every morning
- Exercise regularly
- Track what you eat
- Get enough sleep
- Save money
- Develop daily routines
- Plan your days
- Cultivate willpower or self-discipline
That’s a wrap!
Well, let’s end things there. We covered 3 big ideas that have the power to completely transform your life. I know because I’ve seen them working in my own life and I’ve heard from many of you who have started to implement them as well. Keep up the good work!
Simplify your life: The More of Less by Joshua Becker
Do more of what matters: Essentialism by Greg McKeown
Make the important things effortless: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
Note: Since I have my own books for sale on Amazon, I am a part of their Amazon Affiliate program. The links above are affiliate links, which simply means that if you buy a book after clicking one of the links, Amazon (at no additional cost to you) will pay me a small commission that I use to help cover the costs of this site. That’s not why I recommend the books, of course, but I wanted to make you aware of it.
This past week a close friend of mine lost his mom. She was in the hospital recovering from an illness, but her prognosis was good and the staff was ready to send her home. A few hours later a blood clot took her life.
In a tribute he wrote for her funeral, my friend described an epiphany he had while attending the funeral of his grandfather some years earlier. As he looked around the church and saw all the sadness and emotion, he thought: “I wonder how much of this is grief and how much of this is regret?”
As he reflected on that, he realized that he would one day be burying his own parents. When that day came, he knew there would be plenty of grief, but he didn’t want that grief to be “stained and pained” by regret as well. So he got very intentional about those relationships. He invested time, effort and money to make sure they were as good as they could be. And when he got word about his mom, here’s how he described his feelings:
“Pure grief…uncontaminated by regret.”
Yes, he felt incredible pain, but the pain was not compounded by feelings of lost opportunities and missed chances. If anything, the grief was softened by the many joyful memories that were a byproduct of his close relationship with his mom.
The Life Change
“I wonder how much of this is grief and how much of this is regret?” When I read that statement, it stopped me cold. I thought of painful losses in my own life and realized that, almost without exception, part of what I was feeling was regret. Sometimes, MOST of what I was feeling was regret. How about you? I’m guessing you have one or two examples in your own life as well. We all get plenty of “at bats” with pain.
- The pain we feel when a loved one dies
- The pain we feel when our kids grow up and leave the house
- The pain we feel when a relationship ends
- The pain we feel when a close friend moves away
- The pain we feel when our health changes, placing limits on what we can do
- The pain we feel with missed opportunities or risks not taken
- The pain we feel when life draws to a close
We don’t have our kids, spouse, friends, family, health, youth, jobs, money or opportunities forever. For this one brief life, we get to be a steward of those things. They ebb and flow as we live, but one day they’re gone. For most of us, that will happen gradually. For others, it may happen all at once. We can’t control the loss, nor can we can control the grief we feel because of it. But we can control the regret by doing everything possible to make the most out of our opportunities. Are you doing that? Will you do that? The holidays are here and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to make the most out of your time with friends and family. The New Year is coming and you’ll get a chance to start fresh and focus on what matters. To paraphrase Mary Oliver, make the most out of your one wild and precious life. Then, when time closes the door on something, you can be sad to see it go, but so glad that it happened to begin with.
Merry Christmas to you and your family. Thanks for following along in 2016 and stay tuned for much more in 2017.
What makes a good life? Now there is a question with universal appeal! Who wouldn’t want to know, in advance, what types of things would make them healthier, happier and more fulfilled?
Unfortunately, research shows that we’re not very good at predicting what will make us happy. I call this the “I want to be rich and famous and then all my problems will be solved!” fallacy.
Just because we’re not good at predicting, however, doesn’t mean that we’re destined to a lifetime of trial and error in search of the holy grail of happiness. There is plenty of research on what works. Indeed, one of the longest studies has been going on for the last 75 years.
It’s called the Harvard Study of Adult Development. Started in 1938, the study follows two groups of people. The first group was made up of 268 Harvard sophomores. The second group was made up of 456 young men from inner-city Boston.
Every other year, researchers follow up with the surviving study participants and interview them extensively about everything from their finances and careers to their relationships and social activities. Then every five years, they do an extensive evaluation of each participant’s health, including x-rays, blood tests and echo cardiograms.
Robert Waldinger, the current director of the study (he is the 4th over the past 75 years), detailed some of the key findings in his excellent TED Talk. Here is a summary:
- Relationships and social connections are really, really good for us. They make us happier and healthier and they help us live longer. Those in the study with good relationships experienced all of those positive outcomes. Those in the study who described themselves as lonely, however, had a shorter life expectancy, reported being less happy and had worse mental and physical health.
- The quality of our relationships makes a big difference. The better the relationships, the more positive benefits people experienced. Participants who were the most satisfied in their relationships in their 50s were the healthiest in their 80s.
- Good relationships protect your brain. Participants who reported having good relationships and being in healthy marriages had minds that stayed sharper longer and they performed better on memory tests.
So back to our original question. What makes a good life? Rather than focusing on wealth, career or material possessions, the Harvard study shows that we would do well to focus on close, healthy relationships. Again, Robert Waldinger: “…over and over, over these 75 years, our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned in to relationships, with family, with friends, with community.” Keep that in mind as you live life and plan for retirement.
I just finished reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s a bestselling classic, but I must confess that I wasn’t a huge fan. It did have a few great nuggets that made me think, however, and today I’d like to share a short passage from the book that could have a profound impact on how you approach retirement. Consider it Zen and the Art of Retirement.
In the passage, the main character is talking about the problem of value rigidity, which refers to our tendency to cling to certain preconceived ideas of what’s important and what’s not, even when events or circumstances change. To make matters worse, we sometimes put a high value on things that we shouldn’t and then stubbornly cling to our error. Here’s the text followed by a few takeaways for your life and retirement.
“All kinds of examples from cycle maintenance could be given, but the most striking example of value rigidity I can think of is the old South Indian Monkey Trap, which depends on value rigidity for its effectiveness. The trap consists of a hollowed-out coconut chained to a stake. The coconut has some rice inside which can be grabbed through a small hole. The hole is big enough so that the monkey’s hand can go in, but too small for his fist with rice in it to come out. The monkey reaches in and is suddenly trapped…by nothing more than his own value rigidity. He can’t revalue the rice. He cannot see that freedom without rice is more valuable than capture with it. The villagers are coming to get him and take him away. They’re coming closer — closer! — now! What general advice…not specific advice…but what general advice would you give the poor monkey in circumstances like this?
Well, I think you might say exactly what I’ve been saying about value rigidity, with perhaps a little extra urgency. There is a fact this monkey should know: if he opens his hand he’s free. But how is he going to discover this fact? By removing the value rigidity that rates rice above freedom. How is he going to do that? Well, he should somehow try to slow down deliberately and go over ground that he has been over before and see if things he thought were important really were important and, well, stop yanking and just stare at the coconut for a while. Before long he should get a nibble from a little fact wondering if he is interested in it. He should try to understand this fact not so much in terms of his big problem as for its own sake. That problem may not be as big as he thinks it is. That fact may not be as small as he thinks it is either. That’s about all the general information you can give him.”
Here are three important takeaways from this story:
Sometimes, especially during times of change or major life transitions (e.g. retirement), we need to revalue things so that we can realign our actions and beliefs with our new life. Said another way, the types of things that are important to us in the new life stage are likely different from the things that were important to us during the previous life stage. We need to decide what those new things are and elevate them to their proper position. If we don’t, we’ll cling to things that used to be important to us (e.g. work, certain relationships, houses, how we spend our free time, hometowns, etc.) and our tight grip on those keeps us stuck in the monkey trap, unable to pursue our new plans.
Sometimes holding the tangible thing can cause you to lose the intangible. There’s nothing wrong with having nice things, but everything we own takes some of our time and some of our money. If we focus too much on the tangible (houses, cars, gadgets, etc.), that leaves little time and money left over for the intangible (travel, experiences, hobbies, relationships, pursuits, etc.).
Sometimes we don’t understand how much we value the intangibles until we lose them. I was reading a study recently that listed out the types of things that were important to retirees. Number 1 was financial security (no surprise there). Number 2 was health. In the story above, the monkey got the rice, but it cost him his freedom. I don’t know about you, but I’ve definitely made sacrifices to my health as I pursued wealth (a.k.a. career). I’m sure you have too. We work hard. We’re busy. No time for a healthy lunch. No time to exercise. No time to get enough sleep. We take our health for granted. In our own way, we’re grabbing for the rice, but if we’re not careful it could cost us a major intangible like our health, and consequently our freedom to pursue many of our retirement plans. We may take it for granted now, but it will be sorely missed when it’s gone.
How can we avoid monkey traps?
What that question is really asking is this: How can we tell if we’re hanging on to something trivial at the expense of something important? How can we tell the genuine from the counterfeit? To answer that, let’s look at an example from the Secret Service. In addition to protecting the President, the Secret Service is in charge of protecting against counterfeit currency. When they’re training new agents to recognize counterfeits, they don’t sit them down in a room with a bunch of counterfeit bills and point out the flaws.
Instead they sit them down in a room with currency experts and pristine examples of genuine bills. They go through every detail. Why it’s there. What it represents. How it deters counterfeiters. How difficult it is to reproduce. How to look for it. They learn what the ink looks like. They learn what the paper feels like. They learn what the bill smells like.
By studying what makes a bill genuine, a funny thing happens. Without ever studying the counterfeits, agents can spot them from a mile away because they know what the genuine bills look like. We can do something similar. If we sit down and decide what’s genuinely important to us—what we value above all else—then when imposter opportunities come along, we will be able to recognize them for what they are. Then rather than shoving our hand inside and grabbing for the rice, we’ll keep right on walking because we have a clear idea of what we really want out of life and we’re taking those plans very seriously. If we can all do that, then we’ll be well on our way to an intentional, meaningful retirement.
If you’re like me, you want to live a long, healthy life, filled with purpose and surrounded by those you love. What are some practical ways to make that dream a reality?
Best-selling author Dan Buettner, along with a team at National Geographic, think they have the answer. They scoured the world for communities of people that lived longer, healthier lives and then researched those people to determine what they were doing differently than the rest of us. His team came up with 9 key traits.
Move naturally. None of the people studied by Buettner exercised in the way that you and I have come to think of exercise. They didn’t run marathons, lift weights or do CrossFit. Instead they moved naturally. They walked, climbed stairs, gardened and/or road their bike for transportation. Movement was a regular, natural part of their day.
Have a purpose. Apparently, if you have a reason to get out of bed in the morning, you’re much more likely to be alive to get out of bed in the morning. Buettner points out that the people in the Blue Zone of Okinawa Japan have even given this a name. They call it Ikigai. It means “a reason for being” or “a reason for getting out of bed in the morning.” What is your Ikigai?
Find ways to relax and shed stress. Buettner’s researchers found that when you’re in a hurry and stressed, it triggers an inflammatory response in your body. That inflammatory response can lead to all sorts of health problems and diseases. By finding ways to relax and de-stress, Blue Zone people live longer.
Eat less. Those who live longer tend to eat less than the rest of us. Buettner points out that it takes your stomach about 30 minutes to tell your brain that you’re full. Blue Zone people naturally recognize that and stop eating before they’re full. The Japanese even have a name for it: Hara Hachi Bu. It’s a Confucian teaching to stop eating when your belly is 80% full.
Eat more plants and less meat. Blue Zone people aren’t typically vegetarians, but they tend to eat a more plant based diet, especially beans. They eat meat, but usually only 4-5 times per month.
Drink in moderation. Those who drink in moderation tend to outlive teetotalers. The antioxidants and resveratrol in red wine, for example, have been shown to improve artery health and increase good cholesterol (HDL). Consume too much, however, and the negatives outweigh the positives.
Have faith. Buettner and his team found that those who attend some sort of faith based service four times per month tended to live, on average, about 14 years longer than those who didn’t.
Live close to and be committed to loved ones. Blue Zone people tend to live close to their loved ones and they are committed to those relationships. They have a healthy marriage. They keep parents and grandparents close by and they help them as they age. They have their children nearby and have a good relationship with them.
Have a strong social network. Blue Zone people tend to have strong friendships. Not only that, but their friends tend to support healthy behaviors and they are a positive influence—both mentally and physically.
On the surface, Buettner’s research seems like common sense—eat right, get exercise, have friends—but I think that misses the main point. The power of those behaviors only shows up when they become lifestyle habits. The people in the Blue Zones do those things every day for a lifetime. So if you want to gain some of the same benefits (regardless of where you live), consider how you can design your lifestyle, environment and daily life to incorporate those 9 things regularly.
If you want to read more about Blue Zones, Buettner has two books based on his research:
Note: I periodically recommend books to readers and I belong to the Amazon Affiliate Program. That means that, at no additional cost to you, Amazon will pay me a few cents if you purchase a book through one of my links. Obviously I’m not doing that to get rich, but because I believe in the things I recommend. Please don’t buy anything unless it will help you accomplish your goals for a meaningful retirement.