The Marathon

The other day, I read a brilliant little article by Seth Godin called The Solo Marathon. Seth’s entire site is worth reading, but this one is particularly good:

The usual marathons, the popular ones, are done in a group.

They have a start time.

A finish line.

A way to qualify.

A route.

A crowd.

And a date announced a year in advance.

Mostly, they have excitement, energy and peer pressure.

The other kind of marathon is one that anyone can run, any day of the year. Put on your sneakers, run out the door and come back 26 miles later. These are rare.

It’s worth noting that much of what we do in creating a project, launching a business or developing a career is a lot closer to the second kind of marathon.

No wonder it’s so difficult.

Seth’s concept of a marathon is a great perspective on big long term goals that we give ourselves. Paying off your debts is one of those lonely solo marathons. So is financial independence. No one is cheering you on. There is no peer pressure, or very limited peer pressure. There’s little excitement in the day-in-day-out practice of financial responsibility.

As he puts it, no wonder it’s so difficult.

(All of that applies to any big long term goal we give ourselves. Losing weight. Any kind of fitness goal. Building a small business. Writing your first novel. They’re all solo marathons.)

In response to this, I started looking into some of the things that motivate people to run marathons.

This article by Jeanne Stein at the LA Times is insightful. She points to external and internal motivation, and why internal motivation is more important:

An estimated 10% to 15% of L.A. Marathon registrants never complete the race, race officials say. True, some don’t bother to show up on race day, but others start and give up along the way.

This is where motivation comes into play. Some motivation comes from within. Known as intrinsic, or internal, motivation, it’s fueled by joy in the activity, like running, or in the sense of accomplishment that results. Extrinsic, or external, motivation comes from outside factors, such as wanting a medal or accolades from friends.

For a marathon, put your money on the intrinsic kind, say sport psychologists.

If you want to complete a marathon, intrinsic motivation is the key, not extrinsic motivation. The motivation has to come from inside of you, not from an external source. The thought of trophies and ribbons aren’t enough. You have to want it enough inside.

(I wrote a great article on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation a couple of years ago, entitled Connected: Developing Intrinsic and Extrinsic Connections to Your Key Financial, Professional, and Life Goals.)

Another interesting article from RunnersConnect, entitled How to Motivate Yourself During Intense and Monotonous Weeks of Marathon Training, hits even more directly on motivation for solo marathons:

Create systems so you don’t have to think about running

Don’t be afraid to have a little fun

Strategically remind yourself of your goals

Over at Zen Labs Fitness, they offer up 7 Simple Ways To Keep Your Marathon Training Motivation Up:

1. Take Baby Steps

2. Focus on Short Goals

3. Make a Playlist

4. Record Your Runs

5. Find a Support System

6. Incorporate Rest Days

7. Reward Yourself

There is definitely some significant overlap in all of these suggestions for finding success at running and preparing for a “solo marathon,” and it turns out that many of those strategies apply very well to other “solo marathons” in life.

Here are six significant strategies that you can use to help you in the “solo marathon” of achieving debt freedom or financial independence.

Cultivate Your Environment

The day to day routine of your life should be one that naturally moves you toward your goal. You should set up elements of the routine when you feel energetic and motivated, so that the environment around you keeps you moving toward your goal even when you’re not motivated.

Here are some of the things you can do to make this happen for a financial goal.

Make it easy to choose the low cost route for as much as you can. For example, when you’re energetic, go to a warehouse club and buy a bunch of stuff in bulk so you have it on hand and don’t have to grab it at the local store. Make a bunch of meals in advance and stock the freezer with them so you know you have meals already at home on a busy evening.

Cultivate social relationships that succeed without spending money. You want to avoid and minimize friendships that will mostly only hang out with you if you’re out on the town or doing something expensive and cultivate friendships that thrive when you’re doing things that don’t cost money at all – things like having dinner together at each other’s houses/apartments or going on hikes in state parks or having board game nights or movie nights or having a book club with books from the library or getting involved in community activities and so on.

Intentionally cultivate low cost hobbies. Consider the things you enjoy doing and cultivate the hobbies that don’t cost very much to engage in. Spend less time golfing, for example, and more time geocaching. Spend less time going out to restaurants and spend more time learning how to cook great food at home. Spend less time going to theaters and spend more time devouring the film collection from your local library.

Spend less time buying and more time doing. Many people, as they grow older and busier, move from a tendency to do things to a tendency to collect things. Buck that trend. Aim to do as much as you can and collect only when there is no more to do. For example, if you have a movie collection, aim to watch every movie on your shelf that you’ve never watched before or only watched once before you get a new one (and maybe, along the way, ditch movies that you don’t think you’ll watch again). Do the same with a book collection or (gulp) a board game collection.

The key to this is to block off time in your life for doing something you enjoy rather than just collecting stuff for it. Make Saturday afternoons time for enjoying a hobby of yours, and block off that time. Use that time to explore actually using the stuff you already have or doing things that don’t have an inherent cost associated with them. Make this the norm in your life.

Make It Systematic

With training for an athletic goal, this usually means cultivating a daily or weekly routine that so naturally incorporates your training that you don’t even have to think about it. For example, you might work on getting up an hour earlier each day and having your gear right by the door each morning and once that becomes natural to you, the exercise becomes natural, too.

With financial goals, it’s a little different. Here’s how you can make financial goals more systematic so that progress toward your goals is part of your natural life even without establishing new habits.

Automate, automate, automate. Your progress toward your financial goals should be as automated as possible through automatic withdrawals from your paycheck and automatic transfers set up with online banking. That way, you don’t have to lift a finger to keep making progress toward your financial goals.

For goals like early retirement, this is straightforward. Just have a hefty amount taken out of your paycheck into your 401(k), or have $100 taken each week from your checking into your Roth IRA. With other goals like debt repayment, you may have to set up an automatic extra bill payment, like a $500 payment each month toward your goal, or an automatic transfer into a savings account. Regardless of your specific goal, having an automatic small weekly transfer into an emergency fund is a great idea to keep you on track – $20 a week becomes $1,000 in emergency funds each year.

Make your “default day” as cheap as possible. Ordinary days in your life should be as inexpensive as you can possibly make them. When you can find little tweaks that make your normal days a bit cheaper, make them happen, especially when they don’t involve significantly altering your normal behavior. This means buying ingredients for and preparing mostly simple low cost meals, indulging in low cost sources of entertainment, and so on.

Here’s one particularly powerful tool for keeping your “default day” cheap.

Switch to buying routine products in the most inexpensive form possible (often store brands). This is perhaps the most efficient thing you can do to make your “default day” cheaper. If you buy store brand hand soap, every squirt of hand soap is a little cheaper. If you buy store brand laundry soap, every load of laundry is a little cheaper. This is true for pretty much every household and hygiene product you use every day.

Keep Track of Your Data and Progress

An interesting theme emerged as I was examining strategies for succeeding at marathons: virtually all of them were in favor of keeping track of your data and progress. When did you run? How far did you run? What was your speed? Record it, save it, compare it to your past efforts.

What’s the advantage of doing this? It reminds you of where you were at and how far you’ve come. It helps you figure out the periods when you were improving and the periods when your improvement is slowing and even periods when you backtrack. It helps you maintain momentum and also to normalize your routines.

How can this be applied to financial goals?

Record your progress toward your major financial goal on a regular basis. Aiming for debt freedom? Calculate your total debt each month and record it. Aiming for early retirement? Calculate your total retirement funds and record it each month. Aiming for a house down payment? Keep track of your savings for that goal and write your balance down each month.

Recording the data itself should become routine and a way to remind yourself of your ongoing effort, but a lot of the value comes from looking at the data.

Compare where you are now to where you started to see how far you’ve come. It’s often easy, in the middle of a long financial journey, to get lost in how far you have to go. Rather than looking at the distance between where you are and the destination, look at the distance between where you are and where you started. That’s the profound change, the one that should make you realize how much is really changing in your life.

Keep track of month-over-month change and see if you notice patterns. For example, perhaps you’ll notice that from January to February, you were able to pay off $600 in debt, then from February to March you were able to pay off another $600, but then from March to April you only paid off $200. You might not notice that if you weren’t recording data, but it’s a sign that something’s going on and you can look carefully at that period and your current behavior with a careful eye.

Utilize Smaller Goals Along the Way

Another aspect that pops up regularly in marathon training guides is the value of utilizing smaller goals along the way. Waking up one morning and deciding to run a marathon out of the blue is going to end in disaster or in an absurdly long running time, so if a marathon is your goal, you need to have some smaller steps along the way to get you to that point.

The same is true of a giant personal finance goal. If you want to pay off $100,000 in debt or save enough for early retirement, you’re looking at years of progress for almost all Americans.

At the same time, humans are short term thinkers. Big goals are great, but they can be unrelatable in our day-to-day thinking. How do you make this work for a financial marathon?

Break down your big overall goal into progressively smaller pieces until they seem reachable and tangible. A great example of this is the 5-4-3-2-1 method I recently discussed. You take your big goal and ask yourself “what can I do in the next year to make this big goal a reality?” Then you ask yourself “what can I do in the next three months to make this one year goal a reality?” Then you ask yourself “what can I do this month to make that three month goal a reality?” Then you ask yourself “what can I do this week to make that one month goal a reality?” You can even break it down further into “what can I do today to make this week-long goal a reality?” and “what can I do right now to make today’s goal a reality?”

Different people click with different levels of that questioning. I find that I really thrive with thinking about things from the weeklong perspective, and breaking it down from there feels like a natural extension.

Strive for excellence with that smaller goal. Don’t just aim to achieve that smaller goal. Aim to smash it into oblivion. Do it in such a way that there’s no question you’re heading for success, and take pride in that excellence.

Regularly re-evaluate your shorter term goals. A big part of a system of breaking down big goals into smaller ones is that you’re reevaluting it all every step of the way. Does the completion of a smaller goal fit into the bigger goal like you hoped? Do you need a different approach at one level or another? I personally use a weekly review process where I go through my goals and evaluate whether they make sense.

So, if you’re considering a debt repayment goal, you might sit down at the end of the week and ask yourself how your progress went this week. Did you achieve the piece you wanted to achieve this week? Why or why not? How do your numbers look? What can you do next week? Do your bigger goals still make sense? You’ll probably do a little adjusting, maybe dialing it down, maybe dialing it up, but most importantly keeping it in line with the reality of your life.

Keep Your Big Goal Fresh in Your Mind

It can be easy to lose sight of the big goal when you’re constantly enmeshed in smaller steps, and when you start losing the big picture, it can become really easy to just give up on the entire plan.

For example, let’s say you’re working toward financial independence because you have some big dreams about what you want to do with your life, and you’re making a lot of good steps and achieving a lot of smaller goals in line with that goal (like eliminating debt and putting money away for retirement), but the big picture starts to seem elusive. Why are you doing all of this? You eye the treats your friends have and suddenly it all seems… not as worth it.

One key strategy that comes from marathon training is to keep the big goal in mind. Keep it fresh, so that the big vision continues to inspire you. Here’s how to practically do that.

Think regularly about your big goal in a detailed way. Don’t just think about how it would be nice to be debt free. Think about specific things you’ll be able to do when you’re free of debt. Your monthly bills will be so much lower! Maybe you can finally move out of that tiny apartment, or maybe you can quit this job and move to something more meaningful. The background stress of debt will be just… gone! The more details you add to that picture when you think about it, the more real and meaningful it becomes.

Put up visual reminders of your goal and refresh them regularly. Find images that represent those details you thought about and put them up in various places in your life. Your cell phone lock screen. Your bathroom mirror. Your refrigerator door. Your car dashboard. Taped to your credit card. Rotate the pictures regularly and try out new locations. The goal is to keep those inspiring details present in your mind as much as possible.

Read inspiring stories. Find out about people who have achieved what you’re trying to achieve and read their stories. Look for stories online of people who have achieved debt freedom or who have achieved financial independence or were able to buy a home on a relatively small income. Their stories won’t be exactly like yours, but they’ll be close enough to remind you that what you’re aiming for can be done, and that’s a powerful inspiration.

… But in Practical Terms, Think About the Next Step, Not the Finish Line

No matter how big or how small your goal happens to be, it will never succeed if you don’t execute the next step to the best of your ability. Nothing matters more than nailing the next step. Nothing matters more than this morning’s run. Nothing matters more than the next spending choice.

How does that relate to financial goals in practical terms?

Focus on making a good spending decision right now. You’ll probably want to spend the money on something fun… but, at the same time, you know that not spending the money is the right choice. Make the right choice in the moment.

You can always reevaluate that decision later on and decide whether you did come to the right conclusion, but in the moment, make the good long term choice. You usually won’t regret it, but if you do end up feeling like it wasn’t the right decision, you can do it different the next time.

Give thought as to when you can afford to splurge in advance, so you know when the opportunity comes that you can do so without disrupting your progress. There are times when we all want to splurge, but the problem with splurging is that it can often disrupt and damage our big goals. It can feel like a tension between what we want in the short term and what we want in the long term. The trick is to think about situations where you might be spontaneous now, outside of the heat of the moment, and set some limits and discretion in advance.

Trust me, this doesn’t ruin spontaneity. It just ensures that spontaneity doesn’t run through your life like a wrecking ball, destroying the progress you’ve been making. My approach is to give myself a spontaneity/hobby budget each month which I can spend how I wish. Within that, I usually plan out a fair amount of the spending, but I do leave some of it for spontaneous expenses.

Final Thoughts

A big personal finance goal is a lot like a successful solo marathon. It’s often a very lonely road. It requires a lot of sustained effort. You aren’t lauded and rewarded by others. There’s a lot of preparation involved, and it takes a lot of effort to really pull it off.

Still, people pull off big solo journeys all the time, and the core strategies behind how to pull it off are consistent. The road may be lonely, but it’s far from impassable, and the goal at the end isn’t just a sign that you’ve done something, but a sign of improvement within yourself. That’s something worth aiming for.

Good luck.

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.