Connected: Developing Intrinsic and Extrinsic Connections to Your Key Financial, Professional, and Life Goals

Goals are a major part of my life. I’ve found, particularly over the last ten years, that setting personal and professional goals and achieving them have improved my life in virtually every conceivable way, from our financial state to the relationship I have with my kids, from my understanding of the world to my professional state and the opportunties it provides. Goals work.

But sometimes they don’t work.

I’d estimate that the majority of the goals I have set for myself over the last several years have been failures. There have been a lot of reasons for that.

For one, sometimes I simply bite off more than I can chew. I’ll take on a goal and simply not have adequate time to devote to that goal because of my other commitments and goals in life.

For another, sometimes the goals I create have unrealistic expectations that I’m just not capable of achieving. I simply can’t make the benchmarks I set for myself and the goal falls apart.

One final reason for failure – and this is a huge one – is that I end up feeling really disconnected from the goal. I know that the goal matters to me deeply – or at least the outcome does – but I just don’t care about it. I’m not excited by the journey, perhaps, or I’m not excited by the destination. I simply don’t feel connected to the goal; it doesn’t feel like it’s really a core part of my life.

I refer to this type of failure as “disconnection,” and defeating disconnection is what I want to talk about today.

The simple fact of the matter is that you are much more likely to succeed at goals when they are deeply connected throughout your life. If you’re connected to a goal socially, spiritually, professionally, mentally, physically, and so on, that’s a good thing. The more connections you have, the better. The stronger and deeper the connections, the better.

A goal needs to feel like it is part of your life, like it is part of your daily routine, like it is part of who you are right now. A goal that feels “separate” is a goal that you’re going to be willing to cut out of your life.

A few questions are going to pop into your mind here.

First of all, how does one build these kinds of connections? In other words, if you define a goal for yourself, how do you make it into a highly connected goal? What are the strategies for integrating that goal into your life and actually making it a part of who you are right now?

If you extend from that, how does one create a goal that is likely to have more of these types of connections? If you’re starting from scratch, what kinds of goals are more easily integrated into your life?

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to answer those questions in my own life over the past several years, and I’ve come to a few really valuable conclusions. Perhaps the most valuable of those conclusions is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic connections.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic

So, as I was discussing earlier, each goal you set has some number of connections to your life – some strong and some weak. The greater the number of connections, the more naturally a goal fits into your life; in fact, working toward a highly connected goal feels pretty much like normal day-to-day life.

Naturally, you’re going to want a goal that either naturally has a lot of connections or makes it easy to put those connections in place.

What I’ve found over the years is that there are really two broad groups of goal connections, and those connections function very differently from one another.

First, you have intrinsic connections. Intrinsic connections are ones that are connected to the journey itself – the specific things you have to do to get to that goal. For example, an intrinsic connection to a fitness goal might be discovering that you enjoy a particular type of exercise. In general, I’ve found that intrinsic connections provide the motivation to continue work towards a goal. They’re the ones that you tend to build routines around and naturally incorporate into your life.

Of course, those types of connections usually aren’t visible to you at the start of a goal, and that’s where extrinsic connections come in. Extrinsic connections are connected to the goal itself, typically to the benefits of completing the goal. For example, an extrinsic connection to a fitness goal might be a picture that you have of your fit body. In general, I’ve found that extrinsic connections provide the motivation to start toward a goal. They’re the ones that get you going at the start and can sometimes help keep pushing you through the harder moments.

In other words, almost every successful goal I’ve had started with extrinsic connections, which pushed me into the goal deep enough that I found intrinsic connections. The mix of the two – primarily the intrinsic connections, but the extrinsic ones kept helping, too – kept me going forward until I found overall success with the goal.

So, let’s take a deeper look at each of these types of connections and how you can use them to achieve your own goals, financial and otherwise.

Extrinsic Connections – The Motivation to Start

I’ve found that, time and time again, extrinsic connections are the ones that you really need at the start of a goal. Quite often, at the start of a goal, you simply don’t have intrinsic connections. You haven’t discovered them yet.

I tend to look at extrinsic connections as being like the scaffolding around a building. You can’t build a building out of scaffolding and this scaffolding won’t ever actually be a part of the finished product, but without that scaffolding, you can’t build the building.

Here are some of my favorite types of extrinsic connections that get me going when it comes to a goal.

Finding pictures of that goal and posting them everywhere. This is one of my favorite extrinsic connections to a goal. I simply find (or Photoshop) a picture that depicts the end result that I want for my goal, then I put that picture all over the place.

I’ll put it on the lock screen of my phone – and as the background. I’ll set it as the screensaver on my computer. I’ll hang one from the rear view mirror in my car. I’ll tape one to the bathroom mirror that I look into each morning.

I’ll see that picture over and over and over again, and it will constantly remind me of what I want to be working toward today.

For example, when I was first trying to establish a strong connection to our personal finance goals, I found this wonderful little picture of a house in the country, because that was the big thing that Sarah and I wanted. I actually Photoshopped Sarah and I into that picture, then I put copies of that picture everywhere. It became a vivid and constant reminder of what I was working for.

Reading or viewing motivational things related to that goal. Early on in my personal finance journey, it was extremely helpful to know that other people actually had followed this path. People had gone through their debts, paid them off relatively quickly, and found themselves on the road to financial success.

From that point, it’s really easy to move that over to yourself. If that person can do that, then I can surely do this, after all. It makes that other person simultaneously into an example of how you could succeed as well as something of a source of competition, too.

For example, if you read a story about someone that managed to pay off all of their debts, it can provide something of an extrinsic connection to that goal. You see that it is possible and that ordinary people can do this; it’s something that really is within the reach of your life.

Maintaining a chart showing your progress toward that goal. Even to this day, I love looking at my spreadsheet that tracks my net worth growth over time. It’s still pointing upwards and it still includes those parts of my life where my net worth was negative.

Why do I look at that chart? It connects me to where I’ve been regarding that goal, as well as where I’m going and where I want to go. That upward trendline pushes me forward like a stick in the middle of my pack.

For a long time, I actually used the graph of my financial progress as a big visual reminder, putting it everywhere. Since then, I’ve switched to another reminder of sorts (pictures of my children), but I still find that this simple picture of my progress makes me feel connected to my goal in a deep fashion.

Having an intervention from a loved one. My wife provides a pretty regular extrinsic connection to my goal, not just because I want to have the rewards of this goal to share with her, but because she directly pushes me to take positive steps and make progress.

We often sit down together to look at our progress (and our missteps) and when she identifies a misstep, it makes me feel a ton of emotions. Some of them are negative – frustration, mostly – but many of them are positive. I want to do better. I know I can do better. I focus on those emotions. I use them to connect myself more strongly to that goal so that I make better choices every day.

This all works because my wife and I have a strong relationship. I genuinely want her to have a joyful future, full of lots of wonderful things, and we both “intervene” with each other for those reasons. We encourage each other to do better than we did before and to connect each other to these big shared goals.

Considering the benefits to other people of your success at this goal. While intervention is a direct extrinsic connection to a goal, simply thinking about how your success at a goal will positively affect the other people in your life is more of an indirect – but still powerful – extrinsic connection to a goal.

For example, when I think about financial independence, I can’t help but think about how it will positively affect our children in early adulthood. We can show up when we’re helpful in their lives and then disappear when they need their day-to-day lives back again. We can be just as involved in the lives of our children and grandchildren as they want because we won’t be strapped down by jobs or careers.

That’s a positive vision of the future, one that relies a lot on how our positive financial choices will benefit many people that Sarah and I care deeply about. Our choices now and our progress toward our goals really can make the lives of our children (when they’re adults) and our grandchildren a lot better. For me, at least, that is a very powerful extrinsic connection.

Sharing the goal and the positive results and progress on social media. If you want to generate a lot of extrinsic connection to a goal, share your goal with friends and family far and wide. Put that goal up on social media – Facebook, Twitter, whatever you prefer – and start uploading a weekly or monthly update on your progress.

Doing that is incredibly scary, but it gives you this deep connection to your goal because you know that a lot of eyes are on you. The comments that friends and family give can provide a huge amount of motivation and connection to your goal.

In fact, it was this type of motivation that originally encouraged me to launch The Simple Dollar. Having a personal finance blog formed a strong extrinsic connection to my personal finance goals, one that still persists to this day. Simply writing about what’s happening with my finances to an audience really makes a difference in terms of connection.

Intrinsic Connections – The Motivation to Continue

On the flip side of extrinsic connections are the intrinsic ones, the ones that actually help you push through the challenging steps and the drudgery that comes with achieving a goal. Extrinsic connections are great for helping you start, but these are the ones that help you keep going. They’re all about integrating all of those key steps into your normal life.

Here are some of my favorite types of intrinsic connections that keep me involved with a goal through thick and thin.

Finding things you enjoy doing that happen to directly lead to that goal or synergize with positive steps toward that goal. There’s nothing better than doing something that you love anyway and realizing that it actually supports and helps you move toward a big goal in life. That turns the day to day progress toward a goal from drudgery to joy, which is about the most powerful intrinsic connection you can make to that goal.

My favorite example of this for personal finance goals is cooking. I love to prepare food for my family, but I would often talk myself out of it under the idea that I wasn’t good at preparing food. Once I actually convinced myself to do this a few times solely because it saved money, I began to actually appreciate the joy that making meals for my family brought me and now it’s something I relish in many ways, far beyond the fact that it’s far cheaper than eating out all the time.

But how do you find these things that synergize so well with your goal?

Trying many different practical steps and sticking with the ones that click well. Keep trying lots of things. Try everything you can related to your goal and see which ones just “click” with you, because the reason that something is going to “click” is because it also syncs up well with other aspects of your life and other aspects of your personality.

This is why I continually try new frugal tactics even though we’re making great progress toward our goal. I’ll try any fun thing that’s free or inexpensive. I’ll try almost any strategy that saves money around the house.

Most of them are things that I know I’ll drop, but some of them will just “click” with me. I’ll want to do them, either because they’re enjoyable on their own or because they replace something else due to the fact that the price of the new thing is lower without any other real drawbacks. Those things tend to make me feel that I’m really making forward progress with my big goals.

Spending time with people who are also on that journey. I’m a firm believer that most people tend to wind up being pretty similar to the people they spend the most time with, so I try to spend time with people who are working toward the same goals that I am.

Most of my friends are frugal. It’s pretty rare to find a group of friends in their thirties who are all debt free and who are all moving straight toward an early retirement. I fully expect that everyone in our core group of friends will be retired by the time they’re 55 or so.

In a way, that’s an extrinsic connection, but it also becomes very intrinsic, too. Our conversations are all openly about the things we need to do to stay on this path. We swap ideas, not in a congratulatory way, but in a normal “we’re heading toward this goal” way. Plus, it becomes much more fun when the people you enjoy hanging out with are also pushing toward the same goals that you are.

Finding a set, routine time during the day to actively work on the goal. If you pencil in some element of your daily routine and make it stick, like, say, a pre-breakfast exercise routine or a commute that avoids tempting places to shop, you’re going to be much more likely to stick to it. You’re building an intrinsic connection to the goal, in other words.

A great example for this type of connection comes at dinnertime at our house. I don’t just say that “supper is at 6 PM.” I say that supper actually starts that morning with a prep period, then it also starts at about 5 PM for me. That’s because I use that time to prepare our evening meal. The routine is that I start on supper quite early most nights and I don’t leave it for the last minute. That way, I have plenty of space in my life for home meal preparation, which is a big money saver (and something that’s enjoyable).

Simply put, I make sure that my day has room for frugality, that I’m not backed into corners where I’m forced to spend money just to make it through the day.

Reading about practical, applicable steps toward achieving that goal. Even after almost a decade of financial progress, I still read through personal finance books, looking for little tips that will help me on my way. Why? I’m simply finding a new strategy to try out forms yet another intrinsic connection to the big goal.

Every time I read about one of those strategies, there’s a good chance I’ll try it. That, in itself, is a minor intrinsic connection. If I try a strategy, there’s a good chance it’ll be useful and stick around. That’s an even stronger intrinsic connection.

Even if the strategy itself doesn’t work, the process of trying it and evaluating it ties you closer to your overall goal and makes the goal feel much more real.

Intentionally thinking positive thoughts about the steps needed to approach your goal. This is a bit of “power of positive thinking,” which doesn’t itself amount to much, in my opinion. So why is it here?

The truth is that the more positively you think about something, the more likely you are to actually do it and the more likely you are to walk away from it feeling good. That’s going to build intrinsic connections to the overall goal.

It’s not the positive thoughts themselves that matter, but the actions that the positive thoughts lead to. A positive thought, all on its own, is useless. A positive thought that gets you off the couch? That’s useful.

Final Thoughts

As you add more and more of these strategies to your life centered around your goals, you add more and more extrinsic and intrinsic connections to that goal. That goal begins to feel more and more like a natural and normal part of your life. When that happens, progress toward the big goal – and achieving the big goal itself – become a natural conclusion to your everyday life.

That’s the value of connections. It’s not that they achieve something momentous on their own. It’s that they slowly absorb that goal into the normal flow of your life, changing things around so that this goal that seemed so hard at the start is actually just part of the normal flow of things.

When that happens, success is going to be right in front of you.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.