Mary wrote in with a great question:
Loved your article about personal finance and time and philosophy. I had a question about the last part, about figuring out what you want out of life. I know what I want my life to be like but it feels like an impossible leap from where my life is right now. What do you do if the life you have now and the commitments and financial situation make the life you want impossible to reach?
This is a common problem that happens to people when they start to really figure out what they want out of life. Often, they’ve already made a lot of fundamental life decisions that have given them a lot of responsibilities. They’ve committed to a career path and invested a lot of money in training for it (by going to college). They might be married. They might have children. They might have very limited financial resources.
What exactly do you do if you know what you want out of life but you’re so far away from it that you don’t know where to start?
I can really empathize with this. The point at which I really started to figure out what I wanted out of life saw me very, very far away from it. I knew what I valued most in life and what I wanted to do with my life, but everything seemed to be as far away from it as possible. I was working in a drastically different career path with an investment in education for that path. I had very little in terms of financial resources. I didn’t have a lot of great relationships in my life. In short, I felt extremely far from where I wanted to be.
I frequently hear and read stories about people who feel like their life is being swept along in a river running in the wrong direction. Many aspects of their life are very far away from where they want to be going and it feels like each day, each week, each month is carrying them further away. They’re getting older with each passing day and it makes that destination feel even further off.
What do you do first if you find yourself in that kind of situation?
The First Step: Figuring Out What You Control
The first thing you need to do is to understand what things you actually have control over in your life. That sense of being “swept along by life” or being so far away from what you want in life is a result of not taking advantage of what you have control over in your life.
I want to point out some of the big pieces. You’ll probably think of others.
The money you spend. You control virtually every dollar that comes out of your pocket. Yes, you have some required bills due to contracts you’ve signed and debts you’ve taken on, and you do have to meet some basic minimum requirements for nutrition and water and shelter, but aside from that, you have complete control over every dollar you spend.
How you spend your time. Aside from moments actively attending to basic life functions – eating, drinking water, sleeping, hygiene, and acquiring those things – you have complete control over how you spend your time.
The place you live. You chose wherever it is that you live. Sure, this is somewhat influenced by the amount of money you bring in, but for most people, all that does is set an upper bound on what you can afford and most people push that upper bound, going for the most expensive (“nicest”) place they can afford. In reality, you have a very wide range of choices, from sleeping in a car or a tent to renting a single bedroom to renting a larger apartment to having roommates… on and on and on.
The people you spend time with. Outside of your work, the only situation where you have to spend time with someone is if you’re the guardian of a child or if you’re committed in some way to someone’s care and they’re unable to do it on their own. Aside from that, you choose who you spend time with.
What you do for income. You choose what job you work at. If your current job is making you miserable, choose something different. If you “can’t” do this because of money reasons, you’re perhaps not exercising control over your spending.
The things you say and do in response to your feelings. You are in control of how you respond to your feelings. You choose what to say and whether to say it. You choose what you do. If you feel angry, it’s your choice as to whether it bursts out of you. If you feel sad, you choose how it impacts your behavior and words.
Saying and believing you’re not in control of these things is ceding control of your life to someone else. You’re ceding control over yourself to the nebulous idea of what other people might think of you. You’re ceding control over yourself to the whims of your emotions. You’re ceding control over yourself to people who just want to manipulate you for your own benefit.
And, along the way, you’re losing the opportunity to be who you want to be, because you’re giving away all of these resources. You’re giving away your money, your time, your focus, your words, your relationships, your energy … you’re giving it all away. Whenever you use those things you control in exchange for other things that aren’t in line with what you want out of life, you move further away from what you want out of life.
So, what can you do about it? You have to start trading all of those things you have for other things that move you toward your life goals, not away from them.
A Long Journey Ahead
Imagine that your life is like a giant map. Currently, you’re somewhere in the West, in some rural area, without a whole lot of resources to your name. You want to get to New York City – the life you want. How do you get there?
It’s easy to say something like “get in a car and drive there,” but that leaves out a lot of things you need to have in place to be able to do that. You need a car. You need money for gas. You need food and water along the way.
In other words, to get to where you want to be in life, a lot of pieces have to be in place. It’s not just a matter of having one giant goal. In fact, if you just look at that one big goal without having a lot of pieces in place to get there, it looks impossible.
That’s where I was at ten or so years ago. That’s where Mary is at, too.
So, the next step in the thought process is that you can make a big list of what you need and start acquiring those things. That’s goal setting, and it’s a very powerful next step.
I’ll use my own story as an example. As I said earlier: “I knew what I valued most in life and what I wanted to do with my life, but everything seemed to be as far away from it as possible. I was working in a drastically different career path with an investment in education for that path. I had very little in terms of financial resources. I didn’t have a lot of great relationships in my life. In short, I felt extremely far from where I wanted to be.”
I needed to seriously fix my financial situation. I needed to make a career change. I needed to make a lot of relationship changes. I needed to make a lot of other changes, too.
That translates easily into a list of medium-term goals.
I needed to build an emergency fund and pay off my debts in 18 months.
I needed to come up with a plan to move from my current career – data mining (which I did enjoy when I was actually doing the data mining work, I had just become disillusioned with the bureaucratic and peripheral issues) – and move to the career I wanted since I was a kid – writing.
I needed to build a lot of social relationships in my community, ones that weren’t built on unsustainable spending habits.
I needed to build a really strong marriage with Sarah.
I needed to build a really strong parental relationship with my young son and with the kids that were about to become part of my life.
There you go – some very powerful medium-term goals, all of which fed into the life I wanted to lead.
Each of those goals can be broken down into a progressive series of smaller and smaller goals and tasks until I have something I can work on today for each of them. I’ve written about breaking down goals in this way many times before, but suffice it to say that this type of breakdown, in which those big lifetime goals translate directly into things on my to-do list for the day, is a huge part of my journey from the place I was to the place I am now, which is a lot closer to the life I’ve always wanted than I would have ever thought possible ten years ago.
It goes a little further than that, though, and it wasn’t something I really realized until recently.
What Does the Person You Want to Be Do Today?
When I look at the big vision I have for my life, it really breaks down into fulfilling several roles really well.
I want to be an excellent husband. I want to be an excellent father. I want to be a pillar of the community with a strong social network. I want to be a writer, writing things that have an impact on readers. I want to be a healthy person. I want to have the financial stability needed to nurture and protect all of those things. I want to do all of those things with a very strong sense of values.
This breaks down into a series of interesting questions.
What would an excellent husband for Sarah do today?
What would an excellent father for my children do today?
What would a pillar of the community do today?
What would a great friend do today?
What would an excellent writer do today?
What would a very financially responsible person do today?
In each case, those people would do good things in those roles as a matter of course.
An excellent husband pays attention to how his partner is feeling and responds accordingly. An excellent husband knows the ways his partner feels love and touches on those ways. An excellent husband appreciates his partner, privately and publicly. An excellent husband makes his partner feel desired and loved and attractive. Most importantly, these are the natural things an excellent husband does every day.
By doing those things every day as a natural course of habit, I’m developing into an excellent husband. I might be “faking it until I make it” at first, but if I stick to doing those things every day, I’m taking steps every single day toward being an excellent husband.
Let’s look at the money side. A financially responsible person spends significantly less than they earn. A financially responsible person puts money away for the future. A financially responsible person keeps the bills paid and keeps an emergency fund. A financially responsible person knows how to control their spending impulses.
By doing those things every day as a natural course of habit, I’m developing into a financially responsible person. Again, at first, I might be “faking it until I make it,” but I’m moving each and every day toward being a financially responsible person.
These things are more like systems rather than goals. They’re usually oriented toward behaviors and extremely regular habits rather than a concrete checklist of things to do. As of late, I’ve been using many of the strategies in Triggers and Atomic Habits to get better at this approach.
You Need Both Goals and Systems
The truth is that some things in life work better as a set of goals, while other things work better in life as a system.
There are some aspects of good personal finance behavior that work wonderfully as goals, like breaking down a debt repayment plan into actual tangible things you should be doing today.
At the same time, there are some aspects of good personal finance behavior that work wonderfully as systems, like simply mastering control over your spending impulses.
What they have in common is this: they both represent positive daily effort in an area of your life that you need to improve. That’s what really matters, that you’re doing something today that moves you closer to the life you want to live in every area that needs change and that you’re not doing other things to undo that forward progress.
In general, I think goals are really good for the “doing something” part, particularly when that thing is relatively standalone, while systems are really good at the “not undoing it” part and also the “highly repetitive steps” part.
Changing Your Life
So, if you want to change your life, you have to consider all of the things that you can control – your time, your spending choices, your emotional responses to things, your work, and on and on and on – and ask yourself how you can use them to move in the direction of the life you want.
Again, this is going to be a mix of the tools above, but I highly recommend trying to use lots of tools and see what works.
Try defining some big goals, then breaking them down into daily tasks.
Try figuring out what roles in your life need to be front and center in that “best life” you envision, then aim to be excellent in those roles.
Most importantly, try to do some things every single day that move you in that better direction and do your absolute best to not undo them with other behaviors.
This needs to be a constant force, like waves lapping up on a beach. It doesn’t have to be perfect force – you don’t have to be amazing and perfect every single day – but it has to be constant. If you have an imperfect day, shrug it off and go back the next day. If you have a few imperfect days, spend some time thinking about whether the things you’re doing are actually a good fit for you and whether you’re really using the resources in your life that you control.
You can build practically any life that you want. You can’t have everything, of course – not everyone can be, say, an NFL starting quarterback or something like that – but if you have goals, break them down into bits, and strive to be an excellent version of what you want to be in life, and you consistently do that every day, you will move in a direction you’ll be happy with. It won’t be tomorrow or the day after that, but you’ll start waking up and realizing that your life is better, and suddenly that amazing life you’ve dreamed of won’t feel so far off after all.