Is This All There Is?

“Matthew” writes in with a thought-provoking concern:

I’m only 37, but lately I’ve come to the realization that I may be having a mid-life crisis. To even write it down feels stupid and cliche’, but I think it best explains what I’ve been feeling. I don’t want to bore you with the details. How this pertains to you & your site is that over the years I’ve had various goals, such as graduate college, earn my CPA license, get a great job etc. Most of them were achievable within just a few short years. My next goal is to become debt free and I’ve come to the realization that it will take some time for that to happen. Beyond that, the only real goal I have for myself is retirement and that is pretty far down the road. Ultimately those distant goals have been the source of my depression. The feelings of ‘is this all there is’ starts to sink in and then I started disliking going to a job that I love. I spend my thoughts thinking about how things are pulling me in directions I don’t want to go. I’ve recently decided that I need to focus on my goals and create some shorter term goals to help get through my depression and frustration.

I think Matthew hits upon the real problem with long-term goal setting – there’s no immediacy.

Humans are hardwired to focus on the short term. The vast majority of our thoughts are in the present or extreme short term future. We’re thinking about what we’re reading right now. We’re thinking about our to-do list for today. We’re thinking about the birthday party we’ve got planned for next week.

Rarely do our thoughts focus on events more than a few months in the future. These events, for the most part, don’t feel quite real to us. They feel trapped in the mists of time, so we don’t see them clearly – and thus rarely think about them in a concrete fashion.

This gets us back to Michael’s problem. If all of the things we’re looking forward to in life are shrouded in the far-off future, we’re left with little to look forward to in the short term. This, unsurprisingly, leads to unhappiness. We feel aimless. We wonder if this is all there is in life. And sometimes we can become depressed.

The solution, I’ve found, is to keep busy in the short term, both with short term things and with smaller projects that fit in as part of the bigger goals I have in life. Here are some suggestions to chew on.

Keep a full social calendar. Organize your time so that you’re busy with something most evenings instead of sitting at home. A wise old friend of mine used to say that “the devil makes work for idle hands.” I think she meant that the more free time you have, the more time you have to dwell on things and convince yourself of negative thoughts. This has certainly been true in my experience.

In Michael’s case, why not get involved in community organizations that interest you? Many such groups would love to have a CPA as a treasurer for the group and it would allow you to keep busy, meet interesting people, and so on. If this doesn’t fit, seek out groups that revolve around your personal interests. Or, if nothing else, pencil in a weekly dinner party and invite friends to it.

Develop – and accomplish – month-long projects. What would you like to accomplish in the next thirty days? Pick something audacious but not back breaking, yet something that will genuinely improve some aspect of your life. Recently, a friend of mine read the entire Bible in one month and is now following it with the Qu’ran in one month so that she could better comprehend some of the social conflicts between Christianity and Islam. Another friend worked towards being able to do 100 pushups in one straight stretch at the end of the month.

Michael, sit down and make a list of five or so things that, if you accomplished them in the next month, you’d really be proud of and happy with yourself. Choose one or perhaps two of them and focus on them intently. Keep that goal central in your mind throughout the month and put continual effort towards it. At the end of the month, you’ll find you’ve improved your life in some regard. Then do it again. In a larger context, such “thirty day projects” really serve to improve a person over time, albeit in a piecewise fashion. (I’ve got a great post on this coming up soon.)

Seek out smaller projects (one to three months) that fit in the context of your larger goals. For people in Michael’s shoes, they have long term goals in place but the stepping stones to reach them are sometimes unclear. They might know what kinds of things they need to do to get there (spend less! network more!), but making that into something tangible is tricky.

This is a perfect time to stop and ask yourself what sort of building blocks you could have in place that would make reaching that big goal easier. For example, if you’re trying to get a promotion at work, a new certification might be useful – or a serious upgrade in your presentation skills. If you’re trying to save for a big, long term goal, a major project that results in something that will save you significant money can be really worthwhile.

Michael has a long term goal of debt freedom and he likely has a “number” he wants to hit each month in terms of extra debt payments, but that’s not really a project per se.

Instead, he should try something else big and audacious. Michael, why not start a three month project to make your home as energy efficient as possible? Air seal your entire home. Install a programmable thermostat. Check the insulation and install more if it’s recommended. Put all of your home electronics on smart energy strips. Switch all of your light bulbs to CFLs and LEDs. Perhaps even replace your windows, doing them yourself, of course. This is a huge project that involves a lot of work – it’ll eat up a lot of your spare time – but at the end of it, your energy bill will drop by half or more and you’ll likely increase the resale value of your home.

Another project: learn exactly how your car works. Teach yourself how to do every single maintenance task that needs to be done for your car yourself. Not only is it less expensive, but once you know how to do these things, you can do them for pretty much any car you come across. It’s another skill in your belt that’s a direct money saver for you and might be a skill that you can utilize to help friends.

These are just a few examples. There are many more floating around out there.

Find a personal passion or hobby to channel yourself into. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time? Most people can name some things. The lucky among us names one or two big things with a huge smile on their face – those are the people that have found their passions.

Seek out your passion by trying lots of new things. Go to single meetings of lots of different community groups. Try out activities you’ve always wanted to try but never seemed to find the time. Learn how to play a musical instrument. Teach yourself a foreign language and travel to that country. Take up golf – or competitive Scrabble. Learn woodworking. Whatever it is that itches inside of you, give it a shot and see where it takes you. If it fizzles, try something else. But always seek your passions – and when you find them, you’ll know. They’ll flip you upside down and change your life.

Good luck.

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