In a given week, the only real “unstructured” time that I have is the hour or two that I set aside for “family time” each day. It’s simply a block of time that I set aside most days – usually from about 3:30 PM to about 5:00 PM on weekdays and a longer block on weekends – where I can largely do whatever I want, provided that I’m spending it with my family.
Most of those days, I spend that time doing something with the children. If they have homework, I help them with it; if it’s sustained silent reading, I’ll usually crack a book and read with them at the same time. If there’s nothing going on, we’ll find something to do. In recent days, we played Minecraft together on a few different computers, played a board game called Pandemic, painted some miniatures, wrote short stories, had an hour’s worth of “read aloud” time that caused me to start sounding hoarse by the end of it, and made smoothies. Today, actually, we’re going to make soft pretzels together.
Most of the rest of the time in my life is pretty structured. I spend most of the day prior to about 3:30 PM working, and that’s typically pretty focused time. I do sometimes “wander” a bit when I’m trying to brainstorm some ideas or when I’m suffering from a touch of writer’s block, but most of my workday is spent researching, writing, editing, or dealing with social media or emails (the latter of which I try my best to minimize, though I do love reading them). I devote an hour each day to focused reading as well.
After 5:00, most days involve evening activities for the family. Everyone but me is in a variety of taekwondo classes for various levels, so I’m seemingly taking someone to taekwondo practice or watching a young child while someone else goes to taekwondo practice virtually every night. There are also some seasonal sports that our children are into – mostly soccer.
I’m also involved in a few community groups myself. Some of them meet weekly. Other ones meet on a monthly basis. This eats up quite a few evenings.
There’s meal prep, basic housecleaning, bedtime routines, laundry, and other chores that seem to fill in most of the remaining gaps. These, along with special events that seem to happen every other week at least, fill in the time on the weekends.
The end result of all of this is that I don’t have a whole lot of unstructured time in my life. My unstructured time is basically a block of “family time,” which is largely spent with the children, and I usually spend some time with my wife just before bed when we’re both pretty tired from a very long day.
This is a pretty common story for people my age. I am far from alone in feeling this way, judging by the stories and life situations of many of my friends who are close to me in age.
The real problem is that this kind of life situation creates a kind of “pressure” after a while, a sense of life unfulfilled and many things left undone. I absolutely feel it from time to time. I have so many things I want to be doing with my time and yet I often feel like I never have nearly enough time to do it.
There are many different ways of dealing with this pressure. I’ve come to believe that the way many adults in the “sandwich generation” (those with elderly parents, children, and a burgeoning career) deal with this pressure is deeply connected to the kind of success that they’ll have throughout the rest of their lives.
Let’s walk through some of the ways of dealing with this kind of pressure.
One common way of dealing with this pressure is through buying luxury goods that serve to make the routine slightly more enjoyable. A luxury car makes the commute nicer. A luxury home makes the hours spent at home a little more pleasant. Beautiful home decor adds more visual appeal to a room.
There are two key problems with this approach. One, it’s effectively like putting paint on a rotten cabinet. You make it look more appealing, but it’s still the same old situation. It’s still unstable – in fact, it might even be a bit more unstable behind the veneer. It might change the surface a little, but it doesn’t change the key problems underneath.
Two, this is a very expensive paint. Doing this sets back all of your long-term life goals. It also can add stress to your day-to-day life, especially if you’re also carrying significant debt. You can begin to feel very handcuffed to your job, leaving you feeling like you’re constantly walking a professional tightrope without a net.
Another way is through “escape.” Many people adopt the “working for the weekend” perspective at work, which results in simply “suffering” through the week and making the weekend or vacation time the focus of everything you do.
The problem here is that it becomes very hard to financially get ahead when you don’t put at least some focus on your career. If you spend your hours at work daydreaming about the weekend and making plans for all of the fun stuff you’re going to do, you’re not focusing on the task at hand and you’re letting other people overtake you at work.
Another problem presented by the “escape” strategy is that it can often be pretty expensive. Most (though not all) avenues of “escape” come with some level of significant cost. This ties into the challenge expressed above, in that you’re left in a situation where you’re spending most (if not all) of what you earn and not building for the future, leaving you handcuffed to your job and likely feeling some additional stress and resentment as a result.
Yet another way is through career obsession. Some people do the opposite of “working for the weekend” and instead focus almost all of their spare energy and time on their career. This often ends up gobbling up most (if not all) of their spare time. Their social network is career-oriented, their hobbies are career-oriented… their life is career-oriented.
While this is better than some of the other options if you truly love your career, it creates a pretty empty life if you ever hit the end of the road in that career path. Your hobbies and much of your social network vanishes along with that career, putting you in a pretty rough place. I’ve watched many people who were very career-focused reach a point of retirement (whether by choice or by force) and then simply have nothing with which to fill their days.
My preferred strategy is what I call the “Optimal 50” strategy. It’s right in line with the theme of financial independence that I’ve long talked about on The Simple Dollar.
My goal is to simply walk away from working for a living somewhere around age 50, perhaps a few years before then. At that time, most of the pressures in my day-to-day life will have gone away. My parents, sadly, will have likely passed on by then. My children will be out of the house by then, too.
For the first time in a long time, I’ll have a truly blank slate to do with what I want. I want my 50s and 60s (and hopefully beyond) to be the best decades of my life, one where I can follow whatever interest or passion I wish to without worry of time or money or health.
I want to have a healthy pool of friends to associate with and a strong relationship with my children and (eventually) any grandchildren that appear. I want to have a strong standing in many community groups and the opportunity to take on leadership positions in some of them, like perhaps becoming a city councilman or even a mayor or the president of a charity. I want to have the clarity and the time to write a novel or five, even if they’re not particularly commercially viable. I want to be able to load up in a camper with my wife and drive around the country for an entire summer if we feel like it.
That’s a pretty wonderful dream for me. That’s exactly what I want from my life, something that I recognize isn’t exactly possible right now, but something that could be possible in a few years.
However, it requires a few things. It requires me to have plenty of money saved up. It requires me to be in good health. It requires me to have built and sustained a lot of positive relationships – with my family, with my current friends, with new friends, with people in the community.
It requires me to work a bit harder and sacrifice a little now in order to have that wonderful life later when some of the constraints of being in the “sandwich” generation are gone.
The thing is, right now, I’m relatively young. I’m capable of handling a lot of challenges in my life. They just have to be sensible challenges, ones that obviously lead to an “optimal 50.” Here’s how I’m doing that, and how it can work for you.
Making the ‘Optimal 50’ Strategy Work for You
The entire “Optimal 50” strategy is centered around doing everything I can now, while I have a lot of energy and determination, to create the best life I can after some of the life pressures fade away with time – namely, ailing parents, maturing children, and financial insecurity. For me, that “target date” is close to the age of 50 – it may be earlier than that or a bit later than that for you.
It starts with a vision.
Create an Optimistic (But Still Realistic) Vision of Your Life at 50 in Great Detail
I’ve mentioned this strategy before as a very useful technique for goal setting. It’s easy. Simply imagine your life as you would like it to be in five, 10, or 20 years, depending on the goals that you’re setting. Don’t imagine someting impossible – don’t envision yourself as a billionaire – but imagine something optimistic.
Don’t just settle on a vision all at once, either. Take your time with it. Think about the details. Who will be a part of your life? What kind of physical shape will you be in? Where will you live? What hobbies will you have? What will you have achieved?
The more details you add, the better, because it is the details that really begin to illustrate the changes you need to make between then and now.
In the end, that’s the purpose of this kind of visioning. Your real goal is to generate a list of things that need to change between your life now and the life that you want.
Address All Aspects of Your Life
Many people, when they walk through an exercise like this one, tend to overemphasize some areas of their life and overlook other areas. Usually, this is fueled by the areas that they happen to be most concerned with at the moment.
I usually point to seven different areas of life that people should seek to find success in. Many of these are deeply interrelated – success in one area will often make success in other areas easier.
Physical success is all about your personal health and fitness. Are you happy with your body shape? Is your weight in a good place? Are you getting regular medical checkups?
Mental success is all about getting your mind in the right place. Are you learning something new every day? Are you able to deal with challenges and changes without breaking down?
Social success means that you have a healthy number of social relationships that you can draw on for companionship, advice, and human connection. Do you have friends that you communicate with regularly? Do you have a small group of close friends that you talk to often? Do you have a large number of acquaintances with which you have a positive relationship? Do you have a relatively small number of people with which you have a negative relationship?
Familial success means that you have strong positive ties with your family, however you might define it. I often use “family” in a bit broader sense as the handful of people with which you have the closest ties, often including people you cohabitate with. Do you have a small group of people that you deeply trust and can reveal your inner thoughts to? Can you maintain long-term positive relationships with those people? Are you a good parent?
Professional success doesn’t mean that you dominate your profession per se, but it does mean that you’re able to maintain a job and have plans for earning more in the future. Do you build good relationships with coworkers and supervisors? Do you treat each day as an opportunity to be successful in the workplace? Do you try to build the skills you need for the next step up the ladder in your career path or in your workplace?
Spiritual success means that you have a peaceful connection between yourself and the world as a whole. You might not know the meaning of life, but you’re at peace with what you do know. Do you have a sense of your place in the world? Do you strive to understand the universe a bit better each day? Do you meditate or pray? Have you laughed today?
Financial success is often the foundation upon which much of these things reside. Do you have the money to do the things you want to do? Are you spending too much on unimportant things? Are you saving for the future?
These questions are intended to direct you to specific things you can do today that will improve your life situation tomorrow. Thinking through questions like this on a daily basis will serve you well in building toward a well-rounded life.
Constantly Ask Yourself Whether the Thing You’re About to Do Makes a Better Life for You at Age 50
While thinking about and planning for things you might actively do to make a better life is a great way to get started and a great way to push yourself to do some good things, it doesn’t always help with one’s day to day choices. For instance, you might be turning over a new leaf at work, but that doesn’t mean you’re suddenly going to be flooded with new opportunities.
Most of the work of building a better life isn’t from big new initiatives, it’s from making positive conscious decisions throughout the day on the little things. Whenever you’re faced with a choice or when you’re considering doing something, simply ask yourself which option is more likely to create a better life for you down the road.
The choices are often really simple and small ones. I get a six inch sandwich at the sub shop instead of a foot long. I talk myself out of backing something on Kickstarter. I choose to drink water instead of a soft drink. I go outside and play with my kids instead of getting screen time with them. I eat one less slice of pizza. I intently listen to my child talking instead of drifting off with my own thoughts.
They’re all little choices, sure, but they add up, bit by bit. The important part is that I’m not really sacrificing anything significant to make these positive changes.
Do Something Significant Every Day to Build a Better Long-Term Life
While making those little choices is important, it’s also important to step up and do significant things. It’s not enough just to choose to not eat that piece of pizza. You need to fill your life with bigger conscious choices that play toward the long term.
A great example of this is the choice to exercise. Most of us would rather do something else than exercise. Why not curl up on the couch and watch a television show instead? That sounds much more pleasant.
Yet exercise will benefit you both in the short term and in the long term. You’ll get a better night of sleep that night and feel more energetic the next day. If you do it consistently, you’ll start to see some real health benefits from it, too. You’ll start slowly shedding weight and feel a much more consistent energy boost. In short, you’ll feel like a new person, and that will sustain as long as you keep making that choice.
There are lots of significant things you can do to improve your life each day, depending on what your personal goals are and what your vision for the future looks like. Dedicate an hour to reading something challenging each day. Do something besides watching television with your spouse. Play a few games with your kids and focus on them instead of just thinking about other things to do. Volunteer for a tricky task at work and follow through on it. Go through your possessions and sell off some things. Sign up for your 401(k) plan. Bear down on a major project at work. Stop by and visit a friend that’s struggling and be in the moment with that friend.
Do something notable each day that forms a building block for the future you want. You’ll never regret it.
What I find when I do this in my own life is that I end up feeling incredibly satisfied and happy with myself at the end of a day where I focused more on the long term. When I spend a day exercising, eating well, spending very little money, working hard at my job tasks, building relationships with people, and building skills, I feel like that day was a great day. When I spend a day goofing off, blowing money on forgettable stuff, and wasting a bunch of time, I usually go to bed feeling down on myself. This, of course, is a mix of simply making small positive choices as well as choosing bigger things to do each day.
So, for me, the reward for working for the future often shows up that very day. I go to bed feeling tired, but it’s a good tired, the kind of tired that comes at the end of a day of doing something really worthwhile. That’s actually a pretty great reward. I end up sleeping like a rock and wake up the next day feeling really refreshed.
Learn to Deal with Impatience and Jealousy
I find that there are two big enemies to this kind of life strategy. The first enemy is impatience. There are moments when I want the big changes in my life now rather than later. I feel like I should exercise a few times and be in great shape and when that doesn’t happen, I get frustrated. I feel like I should make a few good financial moves and be in great financial shape and when that doesn’t happen, I get frustrated. You get the idea.
The other enemy is jealousy. I begin to convince myself that I “deserve” some relatively meaningless pleasure, something that theoretically makes my life nicer but is honestly forgotten pretty quickly. I begin to feel jealous of the things that other people have.
How do I battle these feelings?
For impatience, I look back and see where I started, then compare that to where I’m at right now. I might not be at my goal yet, but I am definitely at a far better place than where I started. If I compare my current situation to where I was even five years ago, I’m better off in almost every aspect of my life. Am I where I want to be? No. Am I in a better place? Absolutely, and I got there because I made the everyday choices.
For jealousy, I practice social indifference. To put it simply, I make a conscious effort to expose myself less and less to what other people are doing and what they might want. The social cues delivered to me by all forms of media, from print media to television to social media, point my life in directions that I generally don’t like, so I simply make a conscious effort to scale back my use of media whenever I start to feel jealous.
Those strategies go a long way toward keeping me focused on what’s important to me without falling into the twin traps of impatience and jealousy.
This “Optimal 50” strategy has been the guiding focus of my efforts for quite a while now, with some very strong success in some areas (financial, for one) and some positive (but not as overwhelming) results in others.
Overall, however, I can see my life growing in a direction that makes me genuinely excited for the future in almost every aspect of my life. I can’t wait to see what’s coming up and I’m going to be ready for it.