Whenever I consider whether or not I should be doing something, I ask myself a very simple question.
Is this moving me towards my goals?
The outcome of that question casts a strong light on the activity at hand. Sometimes, it’s a positive light and it encourages me to move forward. At other times, it’s a negative light, and it makes me back off a bit.
It’s a very simple and very effective litmus test for everything that I do. Let’s break it down a little bit.
First, you’ve got to have goals
For this question to work, you need to have goals for the future. Almost always, I have a bunch of goals going on at once. Some of them are very short term, to be accomplished within a week. Others approach a lifelong journey.
Here’s a snapshot of a few of my goals, just to show you what I mean.
By March 16, I want to have the house prepared for a nearly weeklong visit from my sister-in-law and her soon-to-be spouse.
By the end of June, I want to have about three weeks of articles banked for The Simple Dollar so that I don’t have to worry about content production when I visit Seattle for the aforementioned wedding (and give myself a little bit of breathing room on either side).
By the end of 2011, I want to have “Project X” completed. What is Project X? I’ll tell you about it in the future, but it’s intended to be a fully passive revenue stream.
By the end of 2013, I want to have our home’s mortgage completely paid off.
Four goals. Four different timeframes. Four different sets of influences on me.
So, when I’m looking at what I’m going to do right now, I keep those goals in mind.
An example: I was out running errands earlier. I was near the local gaming shop, so I stopped in. There was a game there that I knew that Sarah and I would enjoy playing. Should I buy it?
Well, Sarah and I play a lot of games together – it’s one way we spend time together in the evenings (a positive towards the goal of being a good husband). On the flip side, we have several games on our shelves already that we’re itching to play (negative toward being more diligent about using stuff we already have), plus the game would cost $40 (negative toward every spending goal). I could also definitely afford to go home and research the game a bit more and perhaps buy it online at a later time, saving some cash.
So I move on, knowing that such a choice is not really taking away anything I might enjoy, but also knowing that it is yet another step towards goals that I have.
Does a bad answer always mean no?
Now, it would be easy to perceive this as being a reason to never indulge in anything that doesn’t take me toward a goal. Abandon fun, all ye who enter here? Not so much.
Yes, if something is a negative towards every goal that I have, I won’t choose to do it. Drug use? It’s not going to happen, because it’s a negative towards many of my goals (savings goals, being a good parent, etc.) and a positive towards none of them.
On the other hand, when a friend calls me up and invites Sarah and I over to do something fun, I’m almost always going to say yes. Sure, that time spent might be a negative towards some of my goals – I certainly could spend my time getting prepped for my sister-in-law’s visit or working on “Project X” – but it’s also a positive towards other goals, such as building key friendships and enjoying non-idle leisure (my friends don’t just sit there watching whatever’s on television).
Sometimes, I’ll even go ahead with things that are contradictory to more goals than are benefited by the choice. For example, I might decide to buy a new boardgame out of my personal spending allowance for the month. Yes, I could save that money for another goal and yes, there probably are games on my shelf that could be played instead.
But I recognize that such a choice really is a rare splurge. It is not something I do every day – or every week. Occasionally doing such a thing not only maximizes the fun of doing something so frivolous, it also reminds me that doing this every day would not be nearly as fun.
Doing something like that is a fun occasional splurge, but it’s not nearly as fulfilling over the long term as making consistent choices that take me towards my goals.
The big win
Of course, the best options are ones that simultaneously bring me deep enjoyment and move me towards a number of goals.
A period of writing where the pressure is off is a great example of this. I thoroughly enjoy writing when I’m not under some sort of time crunch, plus such writing almost always carries me towards lots of personal goals.
Planting the garden is another great example. It’s often a goal in and of itself, but beyond that, it’s a very frugal activity that gets me outside and gets some exercise (using the hoe, etc.). I enjoy every second of it, too.
Going to thrift stores with my wife often hits several things at once, as I’ll sometimes find things we’re looking for at a huge discount, plus I’m bonding with my wife without spending much money at all.
Playing with my kids, reading a challenging book, preparing dinner at home – these all fall under that umbrella.
When those things happen, when I hit a bunch of goals and do something deeply enjoyable, then I truly feel like my life is headed in the right direction.