Well, we’re one month in. How is your New Year going so far? Any progress on your goals or resolutions? I’m not a huge New Year’s Resolution guy, but I am all in on the idea of living a life that has joy, meaning and purpose.
That often requires change (hence the resolutions), but change is hard. The urgent overwhelms the important. A host of bad habits smothers the few fledgling good ones. How do you overcome those obstacles and achieve real, significant and lasting change in your life? How do you decide what’s important to you and follow through on making it a reality, both now and in retirement?
I’ve been thinking about that for months and experimenting with what I’ve learned. Along the way, I’ve wrestled with three big ideas that are essential to the process. I’ll write an article about each and recommend 3 books for further reading. Today is Part I.
The More of Less
It’s tough to live the life you want if the life you have is cluttered with stuff you don’t want. So idea #1 is simplicity. Simplify your life and get rid of things that don’t belong. Some of you may remember my interview with Joshua Becker on minimalism and how to simplify life in retirement. Not long after that, Joshua published a book called The More of Less, which I highly recommend. After reading it and taking a class he offered, I decided to get serious about the clutter (stuff, projects, obligations, etc.) in my life. I’m well along in that process now, so I thought I’d share the “why, what and how” in the hopes that it would be helpful to some of you.
Lesson one of Joshua’s course was to define why you want to simplify in the first place. My why was simple: I want to minimize so I can maximize. In other words, minimize stuff, expenses, obligations, hassles, commitments and projects that aren’t that important to me so I can maximize those that are and maximize things like time with family, time with friends, time for clients, freedom, financial peace, writing, traveling and doing. It’s about becoming a minimalist in the things that don’t matter so I can become a maximalist in the things that do.
“Minimalism is the promotion of things I most value and the removal of everything that distracts me from it.” – Joshua Becker
So when we talk about simplicity or minimalism, it’s not necessarily about how many shirts you have or how big your house is. It’s about defining what’s important to you and what isn’t. Then you ruthlessly cut the latter in order to create space, time and money for the former.
Key areas I set out to simplify and declutter
- Home (wardrobe, bathroom, desk, basement, garage, car, etc.)
- Digital life (apps, email, T.V.)
- Health and body (eating, exercise, excess weight, etc.)
- Personal finances
I decided to tackle physical clutter first. I started with my car, because it seemed like an easy win. The first thing I did was throw away everything that was garbage. Then I took everything else from inside the car and sorted it into 3 piles: Things to keep in the car, things to relocate somewhere else and things to give or throw away.
I was surprised how much there was. When you empty out the door compartments, seat pockets, center console, glove box, trunk and everything that is strewn about the floor and seats, there is a lot of stuff. Most of it didn’t belong and it felt great to get rid of it.
Next up was the night stand by my bed. Same process with an equally satisfying result. Then my sink area and cabinet in the bathroom. Then my desk, files, tools, wardrobe, the garage and basement. My wife is in charge of most of the other rooms in the house, so I wisely left those alone.
I’m not done yet, but I’ve made a ton of progress. Our garbage and recycling bins have been full each week. We’ve taken load after load of clothes, books, tools, furniture, electronics and toys to our local mission or Habitat for Humanity. A shredding company comes regularly to our office so we can securely get rid of old documents. Between my home and work offices, I’ve added 20 banker’s boxes full of old papers to the shred pile.
After making progress on the physical clutter, I started working on other areas like projects, my health and my finances. The process is a little different with those, but the desired result is the same: The promotion of things I value and the removal of whatever distracts me from it. That meant working hard to finish up projects that I didn’t want to leave half done. It meant looking at how we spend our money and making sure that we were investing it in our priorities rather than wasting it. It meant simplifying my eating and exercise so I could be healthier (I’m down 18 pounds since September 1st).
So to review. Make a list of the areas you want to simplify, minimalize and declutter. For physical clutter, follow the simple 3 pile process (keep, relocate, trash/give away). For non-physical clutter like projects, finish them up so you can get them off your To-Do list. Don’t worry about having all the answers. Just learn as you go and do what works best for you.
Below are some of the benefits of a less cluttered life. Some I experienced first-hand. Some are taken from Joshua’s book The More of Less.
- More than just a clean house. You get a more meaningful life.
- More time and energy (our stuff takes a lot of time and energy to maintain)
- More money (buying less, maintaining less, leaner expenses)
- More freedom
- More security (need less)
- Less stress
- Less distraction
- Less environmental impact
- Higher quality belongings
- A better example for our kids
- Less work for others (e.g. dealing with our stuff after we die)
- Less comparison
- More contentment
- Ultimately more happiness and fulfillment
- Enables you to fulfill your greatest passions
- Enables you to be more generous
- Enables you to live a more intentional life
Below are the two biggest misconceptions about minimalism that Joshua mentioned in his book.
- It’s not about giving everything up. It’s about getting the right stuff, commitments, etc.
- It’s not just about organizing. It’s about de-owning, de-committing, etc. Actually getting rid of the stuff that is getting in the way of what you want.
Thoughts and Lessons
Throughout the process, I’ve learned all sorts of lessons. I’ll list some of those below along with several more taken directly from Joshua’s book or from other people prominent in the minimalism movement.
- Clutter is a visual sign of procrastination and carries with it just as much anxiety. (Leo Babauta)
- In essence then, clutter is a sign of laziness just as much as it’s a sign of overconsumption, disorganization, etc.
- It is easier to see everyone else’s clutter than it is to see your own.
- Live it yourself before you ask it from others (i.e. around your home).
- We live in a world where 6 billion people live on less than $13,000 per year. Most of our financially related stress occurs because of artificially manufactured need.
- A busy life is an unreflective life.
- Busyness is a form of laziness (Tim Ferriss).
- Minimalism serves as a gateway to intentionality in every area.
- Opportunity cost: Life is about choices, but some choices are more valuable than others. Each time we choose something, there is an opportunity cost. By choosing to do something, we are choosing not to do alternatives. Therefore, we give up the potential benefit of those things. Make sure that the benefits you gain from your choices are greater than the ones you’re giving up.
- Deal with clutter right away. If you don’t, it builds up and procrastination gets easier as the task at hand gets larger.
- The best thing to do is start and then figure it out as you go.
- You clarify your goals and settle into a less-encumbered lifestyle at the same time.
- Becoming Unbusy: Cultivate space in your daily routine. Reduce distractions. Say “no.” Appreciate and schedule rest.
- This process will probably take months. Maybe an entire year. I cleaned out my car in an hour, but I’ve got projects I’m trying to finish that will take months.
- Success and excess are not the same.
- Be very intentional about what you add into your life. Be a tough curator.
Fill the void
Once you’ve gotten rid of things you don’t want, you have room to add more of the things (relationships, projects, experiences, work, possessions) that you do want. The next article in the series will help with that process and will cover some of the key ideas in the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown. Until then, I hope you’ll spend time using the ideas in this article to pare back things that are unimportant to you with the ultimate goal of creating the life you want, both now and in retirement.
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.
Happy New Year! What do you have planned? Need a little inspiration? Try this:
I want more purpose
I want to be happy
I want to be more proactive
I want to be healthy
I’m tired of waiting for retirement
I want to do something big
I want to finally plan my retirement
I want to be less busy
I want to focus more on things that matter
I want to avoid regrets
Am I ready to retire?
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.
I’m still alive! Sorry I haven’t posted much lately, but life got a little crazy. Thankfully, things are starting to return to normal, so I thought I’d ease back into the swing of things with a quick post on an unexpected challenge that sometimes arises during retirement.
I’m retired. Now what?
I was in L.A. a few weeks ago speaking to a group and during the Q&A a lady raised her hand and said something like: “Retirement is harder than most people think. Not necessarily the money part, but figuring out what to do. I thought I’d spend 20 years traveling, but got bored with it after 6 months. Any advice for someone like me who is trying to figure out what my typical day will look like?”
Some version of that question comes up more often than you’d think when I’m speaking to a group or talking with clients. It turns out that daydreaming about what to do with your free time is pretty easy when you don’t have any free time. Once you’re retired, however, and all you have is free time, it can be a challenge to fill your days with interesting and meaningful activities.
So, what advice to give? Thankfully, I’ve written on this topic before (e.g. 10 Questions That Will Help You Decide What to Do During Retirement), so I had a few ideas. What I didn’t want to do was answer her question by suggesting a bunch of activities. “Have you tried Cross Fit? What about volunteering? You could learn to paint. That Bob Ross guy always looked happy.” Somehow, “randomly try stuff” doesn’t seem like great advice.
Instead, I focused on two things. First, I reiterated something that experience had already taught her: Retirement is more than a math problem. Yes, money is important, but the recipe for a happy retirement includes many ingredients and financial security is only one of them.
Second, I shared this quote from Harrington Emerson, an efficiency engineer and management consultant in the early 1900s:
“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”
Methods vs Principles
Let’s unpack that a bit. Think of principles as the laws, rules or beliefs that are foundational to a particular thing. For example, the principles of flight are lift, gravity, thrust and drag. That’s only four things, but if you want to make a flying machine, it needs to tick all those boxes.
Once you understand the principles, you can use any number of methods to accomplish them. In fact, as long as you understand the principles and how they interact (e.g. a heavier plane needs more thrust and lift) then you’re free to do pretty much whatever you want in the design and construction of the craft. It can have a jet engine or propeller. The wings could be made of cloth, steel or some type of composite. It can be big or small. Fast or slow. Have one seat or hundreds. It can serve a specific purpose (e.g. float plane, fighter jet, crop duster) or be a jack of all trades. You get the idea.
Just like with flight, retirement has certain principles that are foundational to success. Things like financial security, meaningful relationships, health, time control, purpose and a sense of belonging, to name a few. Once you understand what those are, you’re free to try pretty much whatever methods (procedures, techniques, tactics) you want to accomplish them. And since a) you understand the principles and b) you know yourself, you can choose methods that both serve the underlying principle and align with your interests, skills, desires and priorities.
Consider our flight analogy again. You’ve probably seen those old videos that show the blooper real of early flying machines. The bicycle with the oscillating bird wings attached. The man jumping off the hill with cardboard wings strapped to his arms. The man on roller skates with…you guessed it…bird wings attached to his arms. It’s clear that these Wilbur and Orville wannabes were doing their best to copy the “methods” of birds without understanding the principles involved that make those birds successful.
Likewise, retirees will sometimes copy things like golf, travel or relocating without realizing that they’re confusing principles and methods. Travel is not a principle of retirement. Having meaningful pursuits is. Volunteering is not a principle of retirement. Purpose is. Tennis is not a principle of retirement. Being healthy is. If you ignore the principles or don’t understand them, any method you try will feel random, ineffective, unstructured and ultimately disappointing. But if you understand the principles then, to paraphrase Emerson, you’ll have unlimited methods to choose from and you can experiment and settle on those which suit you best.
Great to talk to you all again. Touch base if there’s anything I can help you with.
Last year I read a book called The Power of Habit that gave me some insight into what happens in our brain when we develop habits or get into a routine. I’ve thought about this topic before and had the sense that, while some routine is often necessary, too much routine can make life feel dull and short. It turns out that research backs this up.
In the book, the author talked about an experiment that the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department at MIT did on rats. They hooked their brains up to a bunch monitoring devices and then put them, one at a time, into a simple T shaped maze. At one end of the maze, behind a partition, was a rat. Down the hall and around the corner was some chocolate. With the flip of a switch, the researcher would drop the partition (which made a loud click) and the rat would be standing there staring down the hall.
Slowly, it would start to sniff. It could smell the chocolate, but didn’t know where it was, so it would wander down the hall, stopping, sniffing, scratching and looking around. When it got to the end, it would usually look to the right, sniff, look to the left, sniff and then follow its nose to the left where the rat would discover the chocolate.
The more they did this experiment, the more the rats would hear the loud click, the partition would disappear and they would go straight to the chocolate. Once the rats had figured out the maze and developed a routine for getting the chocolate, the researchers compared the before and after brain scans. When the rat was new to the situation, his brain exploded with activity when he heard the click and the partition disappeared. Each time it scratched, sniffed and looked around the brain was buzzing with activity as it analyzed the sights, sounds and smells.
After repeating that experiment hundreds of times, however, the way their brains reacted started to change. Once they had the routine down—walk down hall, turn left, get chocolate—their mental activity started to decrease. The more automatic it became, the less the rats had to think. Almost every area of their brains quieted down. Even the part of the brain responsible for memory went quiet.
The only part of the brain that was still active was the basal ganglia, which is this ancient part of the brain that, up until then, scientist didn’t understand very well. What they learned from their experiments is that the basal ganglia is responsible for identifying the habits and routines that we have. Once it recognizes those patterns, it takes over and allows the rest of the brain to pretty much shut down.
The basal ganglia is your best friend when you’re trying to form new habits like going to the gym or eating healthy, but it’s bad news if life becomes so routine that your brain basically switches to autopilot. In that case, you’re not really creating new memories or being an active participant in big chunks of your day because major parts of your brain are switched off. If you do the same thing every day for a year, you don’t remember a bunch of unique days. You basically remember 1 day that you lived 365 times. The entire year kind of feels like it took 24 hours.
So if we want time to feel as if it’s passing more slowly and we want our memory banks full of unique experiences, we need to find a good balance between routine and novelty. Yes, we want a good exercise routine, but we also want to steer off the well-worn path of life once in a while. Especially in retirement. We need to find ways to break up the routine. We need to try new things and seek out new experiences. How can you do that in your life? What can you do this week to break routine? Experiment and see what happens.
Here’s a short video for inspiration. It’s by Jed Jenkins where he talks about coming to the realization that routine is the enemy of time so he quit his job and took a thousand-mile bike trip from Oregon to Patagonia. Some of you may remember the video from our Facebook page a while back. If you haven’t seen it yet, it will likely be the best 4 minutes of your day. Enjoy.
When we think about compounding, we often associate it with financial success, but other areas of life—activities, travel, learning, ideas, marriage, friendships, clients, contacts, freedom, health, hobbies, religion—compound in a very similar way. Each time we get a small win in one of these areas, we can put it to work to help us grow and bring on bigger, better wins. It’s like earning interest on our interest, but the payoff is a richer life rather than just a richer portfolio.
This is a powerful idea and, with New Year’s Resolutions just around the corner, a timely one as well. As you plan for the coming year, keep in mind that the things you do with your life in the years leading up to retirement can have a huge impact on how rewarding your retirement will be. Why? Because with compounding, the really interesting payoffs come at the end.
That’s why Warren Buffett earned 99% of his wealth after his 50th birthday. Not because he somehow became a better stock picker as he got older, but because that’s when the big dollars started compounding. But he never would have gotten to that point if he hadn’t been a good steward with the small dollars.
He made his first trade at age 11 with about $200. Over time $200 became $400 and then $400 became $800. Pretty soon, thousands became tens of thousands, which became hundreds of thousands, which became millions and eventually billions. When you look at the chain of returns, you realize that the trade that got him from $1 billion to $2 billion wouldn’t have happened without the trade that got him from $10,000 to $20,000. The earlier trades weren’t as interesting because they didn’t have as many zeros, but they were absolutely essential.
Since other areas of your life can compound in a similar way, then retirement is a time that can really be exponentially cool—IF—you spend the years leading up to retirement doing the things you need to do to build your “capital” of friends, skills, experiences, self-awareness, etc. Unfortunately, we often get wound up in one or two things at the expense of others during our pre-retirement years. For example, we focus on our stuff at the expense of our relationships or our careers at the expense of our health. We promise to get to the other things “Someday.” Then we get to retirement and rather than getting interesting payoffs in the areas that matter most, we’re stuck getting from 1 to 2, 2 to 4 and so on, without enough runway to get to the really interesting numbers.
This is why I’ve often said that delayed gratification is overrated. Not because I’m impatient, but because I know that if I only start to live when I hit some predetermined age (like 65), it will be like Buffett waiting until his 5th or 6th decade to start investing. He’d still be a brilliant guy, but he would run out of time before the numbers got interesting.
And no, it’s not lost on me that sometimes non-financial compounding is at odds with financial compounding. A dollar spent today on travel or a date night with your spouse is a dollar that you won’t be able to add to your compounding assets tomorrow, but if you spend it wisely, you’ll have something else—experiences, memories, strong relationships, skills, etc.—that will then be able to compound and produce greater and greater returns over time and bring you much meaning, happiness and fulfillment. It’s up to you to find the balance between the financial and non-financial that makes the most sense for your situation. Invest wisely in both.
Seneca once said: “Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested. But when it is squandered…we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing.”
Ponder that thought and the aforementioned ideas on compounding as you reflect on the past year and begin planning for the next. And if you’d like a little help with your planning, just a quick reminder that The Ideal Retirement Design Guide is 40% off for the holidays.
Have a great weekend!