The ‘Drops in a Bucket’ Mindset

“Don’t you ever get tired of just saving money?”

“Why don’t you just live a little? You have money in the bank and can afford it!”

I’ve heard these things for many years from my own internal voice of conscience. I’ve also heard variations on it for many years from different people in my life.

I can afford this little treat for myself, so why not indulge? It’s just a little thing in the big scope of things, so it doesn’t really matter, right?

This is actually a fairly compelling argument on the surface. Splurging on a $10 treat does in fact seem pretty tiny in comparison to the amounts one would need to retire early – $1 million or so, at least. $10 is less than what most people earn in an hour of work, while $1 million would take most Americans 15 years to earn. $10 doesn’t seem like much, but for many people, $1 million seems like a huge sum. How can $10 possibly have anything to do with $1 million?

Drops in a Bucket – Literally?

Over the summer, I was trying to illustrate this concept to my children. I took two buckets into the backyard. One bucket I sat under a water spigot, which I turned on just enough so that a drop of water would fall out every few seconds. I then went around to the spigot on the other side of the house, turned that spigot on to drop water every few seconds, and then sat the bucket nearby not catching the water.

The first thing I told them was to imagine that bucket as a big life-changing goal that they want for themselves. “When this bucket is full, you might never have to work again for the rest of your life. When this bucket is full, you’ll have a fifth dan black belt in taekwondo. When this bucket is full, you will have earned a Ph.D. in your area of interest.”

At the first spigot, the one where water was dripping into the bucket, I told them to imagine each drop going into that bucket as being a dollar saved or a practice session complete or a study session complete. A drop represented a dollar put into the bank. It represented a 30-minute taekwondo workout. It represented a 30-minute study session.

At the second spigot, the one where I just let the water drip on the ground, I told them to again imagine each drop as being like a dollar or like 30 minutes of free time. When it drops on the ground, that means you spent that dollar on something forgettable or you spent that time watching a random show on Netflix. Sure, it might be fun, but within a few seconds, that drop is gone. It’s absorbed into the landscape of everyday life.

After that, we spent a few hours doing other things. I know we went on a bike ride and did some cleaning in the house. I had set an alarm on my phone to remind myself to look at those buckets in about six hours, so when my alarm beeped, I gathered the children and we went out there to look.

First, we looked at the empty bucket. The ground was damp, but nothing had really changed. It was still the same old area.

Then, we walked around to find the other bucket. It was mostly full with water. Drop after drop, our goal had been mostly achieved. Again, things were largely the same over there except now there was a mostly-full bucket on the scene, a major life goal almost complete.

Those drips and drops of dollars saved and practice sessions and study sessions added up to a major change.

The Reality of Drops in the Bucket

Of course, the reality of building toward huge goals is different than this analogy. In the real world, each and every drop in the bucket is a decision point. Our lives do provide us with a steady trickle of money and time, but as it comes to us, we decide how to use it.

$10 comes along. Are we going to put it in the bucket, or are we going to spend it on a coffee and a bagel?

Half an hour comes along. Are we going to use it studying for our goal, or are we going to use it to watch SportsCenter?

The real challenging part is this: Making the short-term choice – spending the money or time on something fun – isn’t inherently the wrong choice all the time. I might be choosing between spending half an hour with my oldest son playing a game together or spending it exercising. I might choose between spending $10 on lunch when I’m going out with a friend or putting it in the bank.

Those choices are hard ones. They’re all hard ones. It’s a seemingly endless sequence of judgment calls.

What we do, then, is create shortcuts for ourselves. We try to reduce that judgment call down to instinct or to very simple thoughts so that we’re not paralyzed with indecision.

The problem is that when most people trust their instincts, they end up going for the short-term benefit. At our core as humans, we’re short-term thinkers. We’re thinking about how to acquire short-term food and shelter and comfort, just like our ancestors on the savannah. We don’t instinctively consider our lives 10 years from now. We might consciously think about it, but it’s very hard to instinctively consider it.

So we end up wasting a lot of droplets on short-term things, and then we wonder why it seems like our bucket will never fill up.

The people that succeed in life are the ones that figure out how to get most of their droplets in the bucket. The people that run in place seem to mostly have their droplets fall to the ground.

From Droplet Waster to Droplet Collector

The key question, then, is how does a person move from being someone who lets most of the droplets fall to the ground to a person who collects more of their droplets in the bucket?

In other words, how do you move from using your time and money mostly on short term pleasures toward using your time and money for achieving long term goals?

I’ll be honest – I don’t have a perfect recipe for this that works for everyone. What I do have, however, is a recipe that works pretty well for me. It’s not an absolute shift, mind you, but when I use these tactics in my life, I find myself unquestionably putting more of the drips and drops of my life into my various buckets, and letting fewer of them just fall to the ground, wasted.

Here are the strategies that really work well for me.

Articulate clear long-term goals for myself and develop clear plans for those goals. There’s a giant gap between daydreams and goals.

Daydreams are vague ideas of things you might like to achieve in the future but aren’t really taking any sort of action towards. Thinking about how you want to lose weight or you want to save for retirement is nice and pleasant, but it doesn’t achieve anything. It’s just empty thoughts if you don’t carry it forward with action.

A goal, on the other hand, is something that’s concrete and tangible. Not only is it a true promise to yourself, but it’s also a way to turn a vague daydream into something clear and specific to work towards.

Most of the time, I’m working on several goals for myself at the same time, spread across several areas of life. I almost always have some kind of personal growth goal going on. I usually have a fitness goal going on. I usually have a hobby-oriented goal or two.

These are (typically) are big goals, ones I won’t achieve quickly. They’re going to require consistent effort over time. Things like building a 12 month emergency fund while saving 12% of your income for retirement or reaching a target body weight or achieving a black belt in taekwondo or running a 20 minute 5K are things that are possible, but they’re not easily achieved in a day. They take time and consistent effort – lots of droplets in the bucket, in other words.

I usually define and refine goals for myself using the SMARTER rubric. SMARTER goals are made up of seven parts:

“S” is for specific, which means that a good goal is very clear on what you’re trying to achieve. It’s not enough to say you want to get better at something or you want to save money. You need to state exactly what you want to be able to do or exactly how much you want to save.

“I want to save money” isn’t specific. “I want to save $500,000 for retirement before I reach age 55” is very specific.

“I want to get in better shape” isn’t specific. “I want to run a 5K in under 20 minutes” is very specific.

“I want to lose weight” isn’t specific. “I want to lose 100 pounds” is very specific.

“M” is for measurable, which means that it’s extremely easy not only to determine if you’ve achieved the goal, but how much progress you’ve made toward that goal. This usually means identifying your goal in terms of a number that you can work toward.

“I want to save enough money to retire on” isn’t measurable. “I want to save $500,000” is measurable.

“I want to feel more fit” isn’t measurable. “I want to earn a black belt in taekwondo” is measurable.

“I want to learn more” isn’t measurable. “I want to read and understand Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy” is measurable.

“A” is for achievable, which means that it’s realistic for you to be able to do this with sustained effort. You might have a goal that will cause truly amazing things as a consequence, but the goal itself ought to be reasonably achievable.

“I want to run a three minute mile” isn’t achievable. “I want to run a 20 minute 5K” is achievable for most healthy people.

“I want to save a billion dollars” isn’t achievable for the vast majority of us. “I want to save an amount equal to ten times my salary” is achievable for most of us.

“I want to read every great book about the Civil War” isn’t achievable for the vast majority of us. “I want to read Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy carefully while making notes” is definitely achievable.

“R” is for relevant, which means that the goal is in line with things that you want out of life. This should be centered around something you want, not something you’re doing to make someone else happy.

“I want to save for retirement” isn’t a relevant goal if you never intend to retire. “I want to plan for financial independence as early as possible so I can control my career and time choices” is a relevant goal.

“I want to earn a black belt in taekwondo” isn’t a relevant goal if you’re just looking to improve physical fitness. Instead, look for a goal very relevant to your own personal fitness goals – if you intend to lose weight, then choose a goal centered around fat burning and not a mix of focusing and flexibility.

“I want to read this really challenging philosophy book” isn’t a relevant goal unless you have a deep interest in philosophy. Instead, choose learning goals that are oriented around your personal curiosity, not some vague idea of what will make you seem “smart.”

“T” is for time-bound, which means that you’re committing to completing your goal within a certain time frame. Without some sort of time boundary, slow or even nonexistent progress toward a goal becomes acceptable. It also helps you break down the goal into smaller pieces that lead to the goal within your timeframe.

“I want to save $500,000” isn’t time bound, but saying “I want to save $500,000 before I turn 60” is time bound.

“I want to earn a black belt” isn’t time bound, but saying “I want to be ready to test for my next level of belt at every testing interval until I reach black” is definitely time bound.

“I want to read Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy” isn’t time bound, but saying “I want to read Foote’s trilogy by the end of the year” is definitely time bound.

“E” is for evaluate, which means that, on a regular basis, you step back and reconsider your goal and what you’re doing to achieve it. Do you still want this goal? Are the steps you’re taking toward it working?

I’ve found that a weekly reflection on my ongoing goals is perfect for this. I simply sit down and go through my list of ongoing goals. Am I still engaged with this goal? How did the past week go?

“R” is for readjusting, which means that you’re making changes to your goal or to the steps you’re taking toward that goal based on evaluation.

If you decide that you’re struggling with a goal, spend some time considering if it’s the goal itself or the route you chose to get there, and then adjust accordingly and re-evaluate later.

The truth is that SMARTER goals are really useful for me in terms of achieving long-term things because they do a great job of translating that long-term thinking into short-term action. I find that a really good goal-oriented planner, like the Full Focus Planner or the SELF Journal or the Panda Planner, work really well for this. (I’ve used many such planners in the past and am currently using the Full Focus Planner… perhaps at some point I’ll do a comparative review.)

Setting a great goal that leads perfectly into daily action and re-evaluating it regularly is a really big part of moving your life’s droplets into big goal buckets, but there are other strategies that are key, too.

Automate a lot of long term financial goals, which takes a lot of day-to-day money decisions right out of one’s hands. I’ve found that simply automating a lot of my financial transactions goes a very long way toward achieving financial goals.

Whenever income arrives in my checking account, a number of automatic things occur. Some of it is shuffled off to investments. Several bills are automatically paid. A little bit is pushed into savings to continue growing my emergency fund.

The small amount that’s left is just money that can be used for more flexible purchases, like food and household supplies (and hobbies and entertainment). In general, I can spend that money fairly freely because I know my financial goals are taken care of.

If you have long term financial goals, you can easily direct the droplets of your income into that long term goal by just automating things. Take the daily decisions completely out of your hands. Trust in automatic transfers and bill pay to ensure that the bills get paid and that your investments grow. It’s easy – most such transfers require little more than filling out a form, and then you just forget about it and they happen automatically, either on a particular date or in response to a deposit in your account.

Use “time blocking” to ensure that one is using a lot of my day effectively, and use those blocks to take daily steps toward your goal. Time blocking has been an absolute godsend for me over the past year. It’s helped me keep pace with a lot of different long term initiatives and projects I had for myself.

All you do is make a schedule for the upcoming day, but you block out time for everything. Don’t leave even a spare hour – if you want to have some breathing time, literally block out time for it.

I literally block out all twenty four hours, including sleeping time, and then I do my best to stick with those time blocks throughout the day. I block off time for work, time for personal goals, time for exercise, time for household tasks – you get the idea. I also block off time for hobbies and for “unwinding.”

What ends up happening when I follow this time-blocking routine is that I end up staying on task a lot more during time blocks because I know I have that unfettered free time and hobby time to look forward to. If I know I have an hour later on where I can just devote all of it to something fun, it becomes a lot easier to stay on task right now and do something tough. This enables me to keep making progress on a lot of goals, even when things are busy.

Use downtime, particularly at the start of the day, to reflect on your ongoing goals, particularly ones that require mindfulness throughout the day. It’s never a bad idea to start your day with a review of your goals and a simple reflection on what you can do today to move forward on that goal.

In other words, start off your day with the simple question of how you can put a few more drops into the big bucket of each goal in your life, rather than letting those drops just spill out on the ground.

Sometimes, the goals you have require ongoing behavioral change. Maybe you’re committing to not spending money that you haven’t planned for. Maybe you’re committing to a calorie control regimen. Maybe you’re simply trying to kill online spending. Those goals are perhaps the most important ones for daily review – or perhaps even more frequent than just daily reviews.

Some Final Thoughts

If you dig through the above suggestions, you’ll probably get a picture of how I strive to put more drops in the bucket than forgotten drops on the ground. I develop goals for myself using the SMARTER rubric, break them down into things I can do each day to get there, automate as much of it as possible (particularly with finances), reflect each day on my goals, and then reassess everything each week and see if I’m still headed where I want to be going.

It sounds like a lot of work, but when you come out of a week where you’ve really managed to hit your stride on a lot of things in your life and you can really feel those drops hitting the bucket and moving you in the right direction instead of letting money, time, and energy go to idle waste, it really feels worth it.

Becoming the person you want to be really comes down to making sure the drips and drops of time, money, and energy in your life go somewhere useful, and this is the most effective recipe I’ve found for it.

Good luck in getting your own drops to fall in your buckets!

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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