Over the weekend, I participated in a really interesting activity that reinvigorated me to keep working towards my lifelong goals and dreams. It took some time (about an hour and a half), but when I was finished, it was worth every second of it. The best part? I had constructed a tool that keeps driving me onwards towards my goals and dreams, giving me specific actions I could be doing instead of spending money at the bookstore or watching television.
To do this, you’ll either need a big sheet of paper (I used a big piece of brown packaging paper and a Sharpie) or a program like FreeMind (an open-source mind mapping package) or KeyNote (an open source note-taking package – I wound up transferring the whole thing into KeyNote afterwards, but we’ll get to that later). Make sure you have a writing utensil that you can read well and that won’t smear on the paper, because you’ll be leaning across it as the process goes on.
Right in the middle of the paper, write your name and circle it. Why? You are at the center of your own life; everything you do connects back to you in some fashion.
Around that circle, write down your main goals in life. What do you want out of life? Do you want an amazing home? Do you want to be a good husband? Do you want to be a good father? Do you want to be a millionaire? Do you want to retire and become a freelance writer? Consider this carefully and ask yourself what values you hold central. You should be able to come up with three to six of these. Write them around the central circle, spaced as far apart as possible, circle each one, and draw a line back to yourself, showing the connection. This is the innermost wheel, and from here we’ll add more wheels.
Now, for each main life goal, identify two to four specific goals that you would like to achieve along those lines in the next ten to fifteen years. At this point, we’re moving from the intangibles to the tangibles. Let’s say one of your goals is to be a great father. Goals for the next ten to fifteen years along those lines could be to guide your child towards adulthood, teach them a solid set of values, aid in training them in their favorite activity, or be an active part of their education. Maybe you define your relationship with your child differently and you see different things down the road.
Write each of these specific goals outside of the inner circle near the associated main goal, circle each one, and draw a line back to the main goal. Maybe you find that you have a goal that associates to two or more main goals; if so, write it twice and draw a dotted circle around one of them so you know it appears elsewhere in the circle. These should form another large circle.
Now start breaking them down. What can you do in the next two to five years to reach each of these concrete goals? Again, you should be able to come up with three or so steps for each one. List those and add another wheel. Then create another wheel outside of these listing the things you can do in the next six months to two years to reach each of those goals. At this stage, I was identifying things like “paying off a student loan” (in with my larger goals of being a good husband and a good father -> providing a financial backbone for my family -> eliminating all debts) and “growing The Simple Dollar to great heights” (in with my larger goal of keeping my creativity and thinking alive -> being a full-time professional writer -> getting published).
Now the final part: for each of these short term goals, make a list of one thing you can do for each goal in the next week. Some of these are going to be mundane, like paying bills or calling your stockbroker or doing some research, but they’re powerful things! You’re basically building yourself a to-do list for the next week that you can directly connect back to your primary life values. When I did this, I wound up with a 121 item to-do list for the next week – and it felt absolutely invigorating. Why? I understood how each item on the list connected directly back to a primary value in my life. I felt really invigorated to tackle a lot of things.
Great, but what does this possibly have to do with personal finance? You likely noticed that many of the items on the outer wheels had costs directly associated with them. You might not know what the cost is yet, but you are aware of the different costs. It will cost money to pay off credit card bills, it will cost money to retire, it will cost money to score that mega TV for your game room. These costs form the backbone of where your spending should be going, and when you spend money that doesn’t relate to one of these things, you’re literally wasting away your life for a frivolous thing.
I’m planning on redoing this exercise on a fairly regular basis, so that I can keep up to date with my own goals and make sure that my spending stays in line with them. I expect for this overall picture to evolve over time as my life evolves and my financial situation evolves. In order to make sure that I do this again, I added a final item to that to-do list: remake your life map.