Note: For help accomplishing the things discussed in this article, you might be interested in my book and organization kit If Something Happens to Me.
It’s been a rough couple of months in the U.S. Devastating hurricanes. Wildfires. Nuclear tensions with North Korea. Charlottesville. Las Vegas. It’s all a vivid reminder that life is uncertain. Have you ever wondered what you would do if you suddenly became the victim of a natural disaster, terrorist attack or other unexpected event like a fire or earthquake? Would you know what to grab if you only had seconds to escape your house? Would your loved ones know what to do if they had to step in and manage your affairs? A little planning now can make a big difference later. Here are 5 key actions you can take to prepare for the unexpected.
Meet with Your Advisers: Having 6 feet of water in your living room is not the time to discover that you don’t have flood insurance. The emergency room is not the place to learn that you need a medical power of attorney. Your funeral is not the ideal time for your spouse to discover that you didn’t have adequate life insurance. Schedule meetings with each of your advisers and let them know that you are trying to disaster-proof your affairs. Ask them to help fill any gaps that exist in your current planning.
Prepare a Grab-and-Go Case: You should organize all your important legal, financial, and insurance paperwork into a file that you can grab quickly if you need to flee your house or your city. Consider including birth certificates, estate planning documents, financial statements, insurance policies (homeowner’s, auto, life, health), Social Security cards, contact information for all of your advisers (program it into your cell phone as well), a list of prescriptions you take, a copy of your driver’s license and some emergency cash. I’ll include a more comprehensive list at the end of this article.
Keep in mind that you may not be able to escape with your important paperwork. Many fires, for example, happen while the homeowners are away. To protect yourself, store backup copies of important documents in a safe-deposit box or with a trusted friend, relative, or adviser. As a general rule, don’t keep anything in your safe deposit box that you may need in an emergency, such as a power of attorney, because boxes are not usually accessible 24-7 and may be sealed temporarily after the box owner dies. It’s a good idea to keep copies in the box, but have readily accessible copies as well.
Prepare a Household Inventory: Recent hurricanes destroyed thousands of homes. Most homeowners will not be able to remember everything that was in their home when filing insurance claims. A simple household inventory listing your home’s contents, or a video walk through of your home, will help avoid this problem. Just remember to store the inventory somewhere other than your home.
Write a letter of instruction: Your will and powers of attorney are formal legal documents designed to put certain people in charge and give them instructions for handling your affairs. There are plenty of things those documents don’t cover, however. For those things, you should write an informal letter of instruction to your spouse or other heirs. The letter can contain things like your funeral preferences, passwords, a “To-do” list, recommendations on how to invest life insurance proceeds, how to disperse certain personal property or heirlooms not accounted for in the will, what to do with pets, or any other explanations or instructions that would help ease the transition through an obviously difficult time. It’s an informal document, so add anything you think might be helpful and periodically update it so it stays current.
Update Your Plan Annually: Change is the one constant in life. Make sure to review your affairs at least annually in order to make necessary updates. Some questions to ask include: 1) Has your marital status changed? 2) Has the value of your assets changed significantly? 3) Have you made any changes to your insurance policies? 4) Have you changed jobs? If you answer “yes” to any of those questions, you should meet with your advisors to update your planning.
Life can change suddenly. By investing a small amount of time and energy into organizing your affairs, you can gain the peace of mind and protection that comes from being prepared.
Document Storage Checklist
- Contact list
- List of checking/savings account numbers
- List of credit card numbers
- Recent statements for all investment accounts
- Insurance policies (life, homeowner’s, renter’s, auto, etc.)
- Will and/or trust documents
- Durable power of attorney for health care
- Durable power of attorney for finance
- Social Security cards
- Copies of birth and marriage certificates
- Passports and copies of driver’s license
- Computer and online user names and passwords
- Safe combination
- Safe deposit box keys
- List of prescriptions you take
- Emergency cash
Safe Deposit Box
- Copies of will or estate plan
- Copies of your powers of attorney
- A list of your insurance policies
- A list of your financial account numbers
- Originals of birth and marriage certificates
- Adoption papers
- Citizenship records
- Military service records
- Vehicle titles
- Real estate deeds
- Mortgage paperwork
- Loan agreements
- Stock and bond certificates
- Certificates of deposit
- Precious metals
- Valuable collectables
- Photographs, video and/or a written inventor of your home’s contents
With a Friend, Relative or Trusted Adviser
- Paper or digital copies of the documents in your grab and go case
- Contact information for you (email, cell phone, etc.)
- Instructions on keeping the data secure
- Contact list for your advisers and heirs should something happen to you.
“Having a secure shelter doesn’t make storms any less dangerous, but it does make them less dangerous to you.”
~ John Mauldin
I’ve helped many people transition into retirement over the years and when I ask a new retiree how things are going, the response is generally positive. That said, retirement is a huge transition and there are always unexpected feelings or emotions that crop up. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s something wrong with your retirement. It just means that you’re normal. So don’t be surprised if you feel one or more of the following:
The Problem: I feel guilty.
This is surprisingly common and I’ve seen it manifest itself in two ways. The first is guilt if you’re not doing much or making the most of your time. You finally have some free time and you struggle with how to use it. You feel guilty because watching T.V. or running errands doesn’t quite feel like sucking the marrow out of life.
The second is guilt if you’re doing fun stuff that your friends and family aren’t doing because they’re still working. I’ve actually had clients hesitate before responding to me when I ask “What did you do today?” The answer is “I went golfing” or “We saw a matinee and then went for a walk” but they are hesitant to say that because they know I spent my day behind a desk. When prodded, they say they don’t want to make others feel bad or come across as boastful.
For the first type of guilt, don’t worry! You’ll get better at it. You control a much bigger piece of your time in retirement and that takes some getting used to. Work hard to do things that leave you feeling happy and fulfilled, but keep in mind that not every minute of your day has to be spent bungee jumping or traveling. Sometimes the best way to spend a day is binge watching House of Cards on Netflix.
For the second type of guilt, just allow it to pass. Don’t become an insufferable braggart, but don’t feel guilty about enjoying your life either. You worked hard and made good decisions. Enjoy your time.
The problem: I’m second guessing my decision.
Buyer’s remorse is a real thing. Chances are you’ve felt it if you’ve ever bought a house or had to make some similar big decision and feared making the wrong choice. It can creep up after retirement as well and cause you to question whether you should have retired in the first place.
I have a client who has been dealing with this lately and she shared something that I thought was really insightful. She said, “Whenever I second guess my decision, I focus on why I retired in the first place.” Her choice would have been to work for five more years, but two things happened: Her mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and her grandkids were all at an age when hanging out with grandma was just about the best the thing ever. If she had stuck to her timeline and worked for five more years, there’s a pretty good chance that her mom may no longer be around and her by then teenage grandkids will have priorities other than grandma. In other words, she gave something up, but got something far greater in return. There are pros and cons with most decisions in life. Retirement is no different. Keep that in mind.
The problem: I feel disappointed.
Most of us have an idealized view of retirement. Add years of anticipation to the mix or a personality that enjoys the structure and challenge of work and it’s not uncommon to feel a bit underwhelmed after entering retirement.
The best way to avoid disappointment is to retire TO something rather than FROM something. If all you do is subtract things—work, obligations, commitments—you simply create a void in your life. That void can open you to self-doubt, regret, lack of purpose and boredom. Nature abhors a vacuum. If you take something out, you need to replace it with something else (e.g. travel, school, a second career, hobby, etc.). The goal is not to do nothing. That just creates a void. The goal is to do what excites you.
And test those plans out before you retire. I most often see disappointment arise when a person has prepared for retirement using all lesson and no lab. In other words, all of their retirement plans are in their head or on a sheet of paper, and they haven’t spent any time actually testing and refining those plans. Reality can’t compete with 40 years of idealized assumptions.
The problem: I feel like a fish out of water.
No matter how prepared you think you are for retirement, you will probably still struggle. It’s a huge transition. The routine you’ve had for the last 40 years is out the window. That can be a bit disorienting for many people.
When talking with a client recently, she compared retirement to becoming a parent for the first time. “Before becoming parents we read books, painted the nursery, sought advice from other parents and bought all the cribs, carriers and countless other things that parents need. We thought we were totally prepared. And then we had our first child and all that went out the window. Retirement is similar. As prepared as you think you are, you really can’t grasp what it takes or what it will be like until you’re actually living it. Your experience will be totally different than the guy next door.” Great advice. Yes, there are tons of things that you can and should do to prepare, but the battle is always different than basic training. Don’t get discouraged. You’ll figure it out and get better at it with practice. Focus on living the life that you want to live. Imagine your ideal life and then work backwards from there to figure out the most direct path to where you want to be. Focus intently on the things that matter to you and throw yourself into them wholeheartedly. That kind of focus and tactical thinking will help you rapidly flatten your learning curve and smooth your transition into retirement.
Remember that retirement is not a date on the calendar, it’s a life stage that will last for years. Think back to when you first became an adult. Were you better at it at 28 than you were at 18? Of course. The same will be true with retirement. It might feel a little awkward at first, but you’ll get better at it over time.
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.
Hi all. Life got busy and Part 3 of my series on simplifying your life and executing on the things that are most important to you is taking a bit longer than expected. I know. Ironic isn’t it? Anyway, that post will be up soon. Meanwhile I wanted to give you a few quick thoughts on some recent research related to when we expect to retire vs. when we actually retire.
When do you plan to retire? If you said mid to late 60s, you have a lot of company. Most people plan on working until then. Here are the specifics. According to the latest iteration of the EBRI Retirement Confidence Survey, 75% of people said they expect to work until at least age 65. A full 38% expect to work to age 70 and beyond. When asked why, some gave lifestyle reasons and some gave financial reasons. In other words, for some it’s a choice. They don’t need the money, but they enjoy the challenge, engagement and structure that work provides. For others it’s a necessity. They need the money. The paycheck (and in many cases the healthcare) they earn from working longer is an integral part of their retirement funding strategy.
Do those expectations match up with reality? In a word, no. In addition to tracking when people expect to retire, the EBRI study also tracks when they actually retire. And as you may have guessed by now, most people retire much sooner than expected. The study found that 76% of people retire before age 65 with the median retirement age at 62. Almost 40% retire before age 60 (vs. 9% expected) and a scant 4% work to age 70 and beyond (vs. 38% expected). When asked why, some said they decided they didn’t really want to work after all. Others had a health issue or were the victim of downsizing and were forced to quit sooner than expected.
Regardless of the reasons, when expectations and reality are so far off, it causes problems. It reminds me of something Mark Twain once said: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know that just ain’t so.”
What if you retire earlier than expected? You’ll need to figure out how to bridge the healthcare gap until you’re eligible for Medicare. You may need to claim Social Security early and take a permanent reduction in benefits. You will need to fund your lifestyle for several years more than expected. You’ll need to find other ways to fill your time, find purpose and get social interaction than heading to the office. Those are some serious issues. So as you plan for retirement, outline what you want and what you expect, but always be asking “What if it doesn’t work out that way?” Have a contingency plan. Be ready to pivot or call an audible if necessary. Then if expectations and reality diverge, you’ll be able to adjust and keep your plans on track.
Have a great week! As I mentioned earlier, Part 3 will be on the way soon. Also, we’re heading to Iceland in a few weeks to do some exploring, so I’ll probably write a post on that that includes some stories as well as some of the tools, tricks and strategies I use for planning trips. Until then, stay intentional and touch base if there’s ever anything I can do to help you.