I was driving past a large cornfield the other day—I live in Nebraska after all—and had a few thoughts on sowing and reaping. We’ve all heard the phrase “You reap what you sow.” That’s true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Yes, if you plant corn, you’ll get corn. No surprise there. But there’s also an element of time and quantity. Time in the sense that it takes time for the seeds you plant to germinate, grow and yield their crop. Quantity in the sense that you often yield much more than you plant. With corn, for example, 10 pounds of seed typically yields 7,280 pounds (130 bushels per acre) of corn. So we reap what we sow, but it takes time and the output usually exceeds input.
As I’m sure you’ve deduced, I’m not talking about corn. I’m talking about living a secure, purpose filled, meaningful life. You won’t get a crop that you didn’t plant. If you want security and meaning, you need to plant “seeds” that will yield those things. Seeds that yield financial independence. Seeds that yield quality relationships. Seeds that yield a healthy body and mind. Seeds that yield meaningful work. Seeds that yield unique experiences and lifelong learning. Seeds that yield satisfaction, contentment, happiness and fulfillment. And once those seeds are planted, you need to nurture them just like the farmer waters, fertilizes and weeds his crop. And then one day, you will have a bountiful harvest. Some of your crops will mature quickly. Some will take more time. Either way, don’t wait. Start planting today with tomorrow’s harvest in mind.
“It’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow some good.” – Pa Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie
COVID-19 has been a tragedy. There’s no disputing that. Thousands dead. Millions sick. Millions more jobless. It’s hard to overstate the negative impacts of the pandemic. And yet, to paraphrase Pa Ingalls, even terrible situations can produce some good. As difficult as this time has been, I can’t help but think that many of us will look back on it as one of the best things to happen to us. Not in a “I just won the lottery!” sort of way, but in a “Painful, but positive” sort of way. Keep reading to see what I mean and to see how you can make sure that this “ill wind” blows some good for your retirement.
It forces us out of routine. It’s easy to get in a rut. Easy to put life on autopilot and live the same day over and over. Even if we don’t like the rut we’re in, we’ll often stay there because it feels safe. Human nature is such that we will often choose being unhappy over being uncertain. One thing this virus has done in spades is forced us all to live life in a different way. It grabbed the steering wheel and yanked us out of the rut. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s almost certainly a good thing. It gives us a fresh perspective. It helps time pass more slowly (because routine is the enemy of time). It opens us up to new experiences and new ways of thinking about things. It presents new opportunities. Yes, it brings uncertainty, but hiding in all that uncertainty is opportunity. Look for it.
It forces us to reexamine our priorities. Priorities are the things in life that are most important to us. They are the people, activities or things that we really care about and that bring us meaning. When life is going along swimmingly and we’re healthy and have plenty of time and money, we tend to get lazy. We allow things in that clutter or confuse our priorities. When life gets hard, however, and one or more of our priorities are threatened, it refocuses our mind on what’s important. Hard times force us to cut and say “no.” They force us to get back to the basics. That means a life less cluttered with filler and more focused on the things that bring you joy and meaning. That’s a good thing.
It forces us to think differently about debt. When the economy is strong and interest rates are low, it’s tempting to add debt. You almost feel foolish if you don’t. “One percent interest? Why wouldn’t I buy a $60,000 car?” But when hard times hit, servicing that debt becomes difficult if not impossible. Debt increases risk and reduces cash flow. It adds stress. It can derail your plans and dreams. It weakens your financial “immune system.” The pandemic is a good reminder to use debt sparingly.
It shows the fallacy of “appearances.” On a sunny day, a house built on the sand doesn’t look any different than a house built on rock. But when the storms come, the difference is pretty clear. It’s easy to get caught up in appearances. It’s tempting to keep up with the Jones’s. But even in the best of times, that strategy can be stressful and unfulfilling. In bad times it can be catastrophic. Machiavelli once wrote “The great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities.” Don’t be one of those people. Build a life that is happy, secure and fulfilling, not one that only looks good on Instagram.
It exposes our weaknesses. Warren Buffett once said “It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who has been swimming naked.” There’s nothing like a combination global pandemic + financial crisis to help expose your weaknesses. Too much risk in your investments? Too much debt? No rainy day fund? Strained relationship with your spouse? Underlying health issues you’ve been ignoring? Settling for a life that isn’t what you want? If the tide went out and you find yourself a bit overexposed, maybe it’s time to go shopping for a swimsuit.
One of the most important ingredients to a successful retirement is to decide what you really want out of life and to start taking those things very seriously. COVID-19, while terrible, has likely helped you in that regard by forcing you to reexamine your habits, routines, priorities, purpose, relationships, finances, lifestyle and any number of other things. Embrace that process and you’ll likely come out the other side a stronger, more resilient, more self-aware person.
What are some practical ways to apply all this? I’ll put a few ideas below along with links to articles and resources at Intentional Retirement.
Quick thought for today.
If you want to live an intentional life, you should focus primarily on
the present. Let me explain. We all spend part of our days—either mentally
or physically—in the past, present or future.
You’re sitting there right now in the present, but maybe you’re thinking
about something you did this past weekend or dreaming about something you hope
to be doing 5 years from now. Past, present
and future. We all spend our time
inhabiting each of those spaces.
Unfortunately, most of us mess up the proportions. We spend too
much time and energy on the past and the future and not enough on the
present. We look back and worry about the
things we did or didn’t do. We look
forward and dream about the things we hope to eventually do. That only leaves a small amount of our time
where we’re honest to goodness living in and making the most out of the
I’m not saying that you should ignore the past and the
future, but the present should be your priority. Anything else means you’re focusing on things
you can’t change (the past) or things that might not happen (the future). Here are a few suggestions on how to get the
How to use your past:
Don’t obsess over it. Don’t
waste your time thinking about regrets or wishing you had done or said things
differently. Don’t cling to
bitterness. Don’t hold grudges. Instead,
think fondly of the good times and be grateful for the wisdom earned and lessons
learned from the challenging times. Use
it as a foundation to build on. Remember
the people, places and things that made you who you are.
How to prepare for your future: Don’t push everything to the future. Don’t treat it as some magical time where you’ll finally start living. Delayed gratification is great if it’s allowing you to work toward something, but it becomes a problem if it becomes an excuse for life avoidance. Use the runway between the present and the future for planning and preparation. Use it to set the proper direction for your life and to get any necessary prerequisites out of the way. Use it to set goals, dream, plan, save and even to experiment. All of those things will help you hit the ground running and make the most out of your future years.
How to live in the present: Don’t get bogged down in the routine of
life. Don’t focus all your time on the
maintenance of living. Don’t live a life
that is frantic and unintentional. Be
present in your days, with your friends and during experiences like vacations
rather than worrying about how to make it look a certain way on social
media. Decide what you really want out
of life and start doing that. Today. Even if you have to start small, start. Have intentional action in your relationships,
activities, health, hobbies, pursuits and every other area of your life. Be proactive.
Learn. Do. Go. Experiment. Take risks.
In other words, live.
A good balance of past/present/future is something like
10/60/30. If yours looks more like
30/20/50, you’re not really living life.
You’re worrying about the life you’ve already lived and dreaming about a
life you hope to someday live.
At Intentional Retirement, we believe that retirement is an
intentional way of living that prioritizes freedom, fulfillment, purpose and
relationships. It starts today and is an
incremental process of aligning your lifestyle and actions with your highest
priorities. To do that, you need to
focus on the present. Stop fretting over
what is past or dreaming about what is to come.
Today is a new day. Start doing.
Happy New Year! Just a quick thought today on doing (i.e. taking more at bats). One of the biggest retirement mistakes I see people make has nothing to do with money. It’s that they constantly defer their dreams. They just don’t do stuff. Everything is “someday” this and “someday” that. And I totally get it. It’s hard to decide what you really want out of life. It feels risky to put yourself out there to try stuff. But you absolutely have to do it.
The best advice I can give you for 2020 and beyond is to start
taking some at bats. Right now. Even if you’re not retired. Especially if you’re not retired. The worst that can happen is that things
don’t work out, you get rolled a little bit, so you dust yourself off and try
something different. Ironically, that’s
also one of the best things that can happen.
Because that failure is feedback.
It turns out we’re pretty terrible at knowing what’s going to make us
happy. The more stuff you try, even if
you don’t end up liking it, the better idea you’ll have of what’s important to
you, who’s important to you, what you like, what you dislike, what makes you
happy and what you’re passionate about.
All of those things help you understand yourself and they make
you more self-aware so you can design a life that takes you where you want to
go. Finding out that you actually hate
to travel or you stink at gardening or golf is awesome. That means you won’t waste any time or money
on those things during the prime of your retirement. Instead you can triple down on the things
that you do care about.
So start taking some at bats today. Get out there and try stuff. Take a trip.
Pick up a new hobby. Learn
something new. Meet new people. Challenge yourself. Get outside your comfort zone. Sure, you might strike out a few times. But you’ll get better. You’ll figure out what you really want out of
life and you’ll be doing something about it.
And that’s what living an intentional retirement and an intentional life
is all about.
To optimize something is to “make it as perfect, effective
or functional as possible.” That’s a
good goal for retirement. After all, you
only have one shot at it, so make it the best it can be. Here’s how to optimize your life for
Control your time. Think of life as a pie chart that is divided into time you control and time controlled by others. The goal is to gradually shrink the piece of the pie that is controlled by others. The smaller that piece becomes, the more “retired” you are. The more time you control, the more you can focus on the things you want to do rather than the things you have to do. How do you control more of your time? The primary way is to be financially independent, so make sure your finances are on track.
Optimize your location. The American Enterprise Institute recently published a study on how location affects happiness. They concluded that people who live closer to the things they want to do are happier, more involved, more satisfied with life and less likely to be lonely. Kind of a no brainer, right? If you love to ski, live close to the mountains. If you want to spend time with your kids, live in the same city. And the study found that proximity works for small things too. If you live near a multitude of amenities—the coffee shop, gym, community center, restaurants—you’ll likely get out more, feel less isolated and be happier.
Hack your health. A hack is a trick or method that increases efficiency. I have a friend who recently started a physical therapy practice that focuses on prevention rather than recovery. I think the idea is a brilliant hack. Similar to the dentist, you go in twice a year for evaluation and a checkup. He takes some baseline measurements and looks for problems. Then he asks what types of things you like to do (e.g. hike, ski, golf, garden, run, tennis, etc.) and gives you exercises that will allow you to do those things for as long as possible. I like to hike, so we’re working on leg strength, balance, joints and endurance. The idea is to keep me healthy and active doing the things I want to do for as long as possible. How about you? What types of things do you want to be able to continue doing as you age? Schedule some time with a local physical therapist and ask them to help you optimize your health for the lifestyle that you want to live.
Be specific. At the risk of sounding obvious, you have a much greater chance of accomplishing a goal if you know exactly what it is you want to do. If you want your retirement to run smoothly, make specific plans.
Take some at bats. One of the biggest mistakes I see some people make is that they constantly defer their dreams. The best advice I can give you today is to start taking some at bats. Right now. Even if you’re not retired. Especially if you’re not retired. The worst that can happen is that things don’t work out and you get rolled a little bit, so you dust yourself off and try something different. Ironically, that’s also one of the best things that can happen, because that failure is feedback. It turns out we’re pretty terrible at knowing what’s going to make us happy. The more stuff you try, even if you don’t end up liking it, the better idea you’ll have of what’s important to you, who’s important to you, what you like, what you dislike, what makes you happy and what you’re passionate about. That makes you more self-aware so you can design an optimized life that takes you where you want to go.
Be a system thinker. Retirement has a ton of moving parts that need to work together to produce the results that you want. Those parts include things like money, relationships, pursuits, Social Security, Medicare, healthcare, distribution planning, tax planning, housing and insurance to name a few. Those parts work together in a complex system. If the parts work, the system works. If one or more parts isn’t functioning properly, the system breaks down. To optimize your life for retirement, make sure that each part of that system is working as it should. Some parts you’ll be able to handle on your own. For other parts, you’ll likely need to enlist the help of people like your accountant, financial adviser or doctor.
Simplify. As you take more control of your time and plan your transition into retirement, make a “Stop Doing” list. Certain things will no longer be relevant to your new plans. Go through all your activities, obligations and commitments and decide what needs to go. Once finished, your schedule will be much less cluttered and you will be able to use your time more efficiently. Do the same thing with the physical clutter in your life.
Retirement is not a one size fits all proposition. By focusing on the items mentioned above and
tailoring them to your unique situation, you can optimize your life for the
retirement that you want.
We just wrapped up Labor Day Weekend here in the U.S. That is the unofficial end of summer and it
means we only have four months to go before we finish up this year and start a
new decade. That’s plenty of time to get
a few things done and finish the year strong.
Think about any financial, investing, lifestyle, relationship, health or retirement goals you had for 2019. How have you done so far? How can you make the most out of the next four months? Focus in on one or two areas where you’d like to make progress before year-end and get to work. Maybe that’s making a written retirement plan, increasing your savings rate or making a plan to finally get debt free. Maybe that’s repairing a relationship, starting a new workout program or learning a new skill. Maybe you’ve reached your health deductible for the year and it’s a good time to schedule that procedure. Or maybe it’s time to plan that trip (always a good idea). Think about how good it would feel to finish the year with a few major items checked off your To-Do list. Think about how much progress you could make in 2020 if you ended 2019 with solid momentum.
Part of my job here is to help people avoid
complacency. To push you to have a tough
conversation with yourself about what you really want out of life and to
encourage you to take those plans really seriously. Consider yourself pushed. Touch base if there’s anything I can do to
help. And props for everything you’re
doing so far. The fact that you’re
following along at this site tells me that you’re no slouch. Saving for retirement and being intentional
with life are not easy tasks. Most
people don’t do it. You’re in that small
minority of people who are laying the foundation for their future through
discipline, hard work and good stewardship.
Well done! Keep up the good
work. Finish the year strong.