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The Magic Ingredient in Frugality, Financial, and Personal Success
That’s it, right there. The rest of this post is details.
Success in almost anything you attempt in life usually includes forethought as a major element in that success.
How do you decide where you want to go in a particular area of your life? Forethought. You’re thinking ahead to where you want your life to be in the future.
How do you make a good choice in the moment? Forethought. You’re usually thinking of the pleasure and fun in the moment, but people stay on target with what they want out of life because they’re thinking ahead and considering how this choice – and many others like it – will impact what they want out of life.
Goals are about forethought. Good day-in-day-out choices are about forethought. Building the life you want is about forethought.
Forethought is simply the ability to think about your life beyond the short term and to be able to understand the impact of your ordinary daily decisions in terms of how they’ll affect that life.
Forethought happens when you sit down and make a plan for the future. You’re looking down the road to where you want to be and charting a course to get there.
Forethought happens when you are struggling with a plan and need to make some changes to it so you still make forward progress. You’re looking down the road to where you want to be, see some obstacles on the path, and are figuring out how to get around them.
Forethought happens whenever you’re making a purchasing decision. For example, is this store brand item a better buy than this name brand item? You’re thinking about whether the store brand will do the job that you want out of this item as well as the name brand, because if it does, then it’s the better buy because it costs less.
Forethought happens whenever you’re tempted. You see an item you really want to have. Your mind immediately switches to how good it will taste or how much you’ll enjoy it. But are there drawbacks? The more complete that picture, the better your forethought is.
I have found that, time and time again, the stronger my forethought is in a particular situation, the more likely it is that I’m going to make the right decision for my life as a whole. At the same time, the weaker my forethought is, the more likely it is that I’m going to make the decision that generates the most pleasure in the very short term without any consideration of anything longer term than that. Almost every time, decisions I make with limited forethought are going to be regretted more than decisions I make with plenty of forethought.
This begs the obvious question: doesn’t that mean that every decision ends up being bogged down in analysis paralysis, where every decision is overthought and excessive time is invested?
No, it doesn’t, as long as you’re cultivating good instincts that incorporate forethought into your quick decisions. If your instinctive responses to situations have some forethought baked right in – forethought beyond the next week or two – then you’re more likely to make really good snap decisions that are in line with your goals.
A person with good forethoughtful instinct is going to say no to a lot of impulsive purchases that really don’t offer anything beyond a momentary burst of pleasure. A person with good forethoughtful instinct is going to turn down most junk food and impulsive snacks, choosing to indulge only in exceptional things at a reasonable level. A person with good forethoughtful instinct is going to sign up for a 401(k) and bump the contribution up regularly until they’re at a level that will shoot them right to their retirement goals, even if that means a smaller paycheck.
The trick, of course, is cultivating those forethoughtful instincts. What exactly can you do to cultivate instincts that incorporate your long term future and goals? How can you naturally draw upon what’s best for you in the long term in the heat of the moment, when you’re mostly making a decision based on your gut reaction?
Here are some strategies that work well in my own life.
Sketch Out What You Want Your Life To Look Like in the Future in Great Detail
Just spend some time thinking in detail about the future you’d like to have five years from now or ten years from now. Keep it optimistic but realistic – you’re not going to be worth $50 billion in five years, but it’s realistic that you’ll have a better job and better career opportunities. You’re likely not going to be an astronaut or an NBA star, but you may have achieved a lot of realistic ambitions.
What will my life look like in five years if I put in the work and things go relatively well in each area of my life? My physical life? Mental and spiritual? Marital? Parental? Professional? Where will I be living? What will I be doing?
I try to add lots of details to this picture, not so much in terms of overplanning but in terms of trying to make it seem real and really flesh out where I want to be going. It’s those details that give life and shape to the picture.
For example, when I visualize my life five years from now, I envision my children as older teenagers, on their way out of high school and into college. I visualize them in detail and think about what I want my relationship with them to be like, much like my relationship with my parents now.
I think about my professional life and some of the things beyond merely writing articles for The Simple Dollar I’d like to achieve. What projects have I completed and feel proud of?
I try on lots of different variations and changes and see which one feels the most exciting.
I go on and on and on like this, through each sphere of my life, and not just at the five year point, either. I look at ten years and twenty years, too.
As I tell my kids sometimes: “Some people like to dwell on their past. I like to dwell on my future.”
Consider Carefully What You Need To Do To Get There – What Has Changed?
You have this great picture of the future that excites you. Now what? Now it’s time to develop a five year plan to get from here to there.
How do you change your life from the way it is now to the way it is in your vision? Make a list of the things that are different between your life right now and what’s in your vision, and then start asking yourself how you achieve each of those changes.
For me, those changes become five year goals, which I start breaking down into progressively smaller pieces until they become daily steps.
How does that work? Well, let’s say that my vision for the future five years from now includes me having written a book; in that vision, I have a book that’s been recently published and is doing reasonably well.
That sets a five year goal for me: write that book and get it published. Then I start breaking down that goal. What do I need to do in the first, say, year? Probably collect a lot of research. The first month of that year? Settle on a clearly-defined topic that I’m going to write about.
What ends up happening from this practice is that you end up defining a list of to-dos to take care of in the next few days and a bunch of daily habits to work on and add into your life. This whole thing becomes a feedback cycle, too, where you review your progress regularly and adjust according to what’s working and also according to how your vision for the future changes.
Again, the magic ingredient here is forethought. Much of the value in doing all of this is that you’re loading up much of your day with things that have a long term perspective. You’re not looking for the quick win in a lot of what you do in a given day if you follow this approach.
Think in Terms of Systems and Small Daily Steps
When I wake up on a given day, I try to look at that day as an opportunity to become slightly better in the areas I care about and to move slightly closer to a big goal that I have. Achieving those little steps is all that really matters, and those little steps are often very little, indeed.
If I want to reach and maintain a healthy weight, for example, I’ve witnessed in my own life that hard dieting doesn’t work. Rather, what does work is understanding that there’s a good balancing point between fulfilling one’s hunger and overeating and I simply aim for that balancing point. In other words, my daily practice is to simply drink a lot of water, eat good food when I’m hungry, eat slowly, and stop eating when I no longer feel hungry. That might not result in rapid weight loss, but it’s real and consistent and sustainable.
If I want to build a better financial foundation, cutting out all pleasurable spending isn’t going to do it. Rather, I aim for having most days be “minimal days” – meaning that my ordinary routines are as optimized in terms of money and resource use as I can make them – and to have a monthly hobby budget for things outside of those “minimal days.” For the most part, I don’t have grand financial plans – most of my actual savings is completely automated so I don’t even think about it most of the time other than a monthly review.
I can do this for any area of my life. If I want to be in better physical shape, I need to do some form of exercise every day. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as I devote a minute a few times a day to strongly exerting myself in some way. I’ll do a plank for a minute or do fast jumping jacks for a minute or something like that – I have a big list of things I might do. What I find is that when I choose to devote a minute and complete it, I usually want to do more so I keep going, but when I don’t feel like doing it any more, I stop. The magic of this is that I don’t feel miserable when exerting myself, but over time, I’m gradually able to exert myself more and more. It feels good rather than dreadful and it moves me slowly toward where I want to be.
I’ve been working on a book for a while. My daily step for this right now is to simply find one useful resource to add to my pile of research, along with a note about what’s valuable in it and how I might use it. Some days, I’ll add several (if I have time and I feel filed in), but my routine is to just add one.
It’s all about systems and daily steps, not big plans and broad strokes.
Think About Ordinary Decisions Outside of the Moment
All of us make thousands of ordinary decisions in a given day. We choose what to do. We choose how to react to things. We decide what to say to people.
Sometimes, those decisions are good ones. Other times, they’re bad ones. The key going forward is to make sure you keep doing the good ones and stop doing the bad ones.
The best method I’ve found for making that happen in my own life is to do regular after-action reviews and then visualize myself executing the good routines I come up with out of those reviews.
So, let’s say I made a couple impulsive spending mistakes. I spent money when I really shouldn’t have and I regret it and I don’t want to do it again.
The first thing I do is that I review what I actually did wrong, not to dwell on it and feel bad, but to try to understand why I did it. I walk myself through the situation where I made the spending choice. Where was I? How did I feel? Who was I with? Why was I tempted? I keep asking “why” over and over again, no matter how annoying and frustrating it might seem, until I have some answers.
Then, I visualize that situation again where I make the good decision. I imagine myself walking away from that potential spending mistake as vividly as I can, and I visualize a few similar situations, too.
That visualization trick is an attempt to reset my sense of what’s normal in that situation and in situations like it. I want my “normal” reaction to be walking away from a spending choice that I later realized was a mistake. So, I play that visualization over and over in my head.
It’s all about training instinct.
Reward Yourself Non-Destructively After a Number of Good Decisions
There’s nothing wrong with rewarding yourself after some positive progress toward your goal as long as that reward doesn’t undermine any of your goals. That’s often the problem with rewards – rewarding yourself with a large pizza and a a gallon of ice cream after two weeks of careful dietary choices undoes a lot of the effort, and thus it’s a pretty poor reward.
What I’ll often do is if I have a suitably long “streak” related to a particular goal or change I want to achieve in my life, I give myself a reward centered around free time. I’ll block off a full weekend day for some hobby-related thing, like playing an eight hour long board game with some friends or making a batch of craft beer or reading a book or something like that. For me, free time is really the best treat, as it relaxes me and brings pleasure and joy without detracting from my other goals.
Also, it’s more important to reward effort than outcome. Reward sticking to a daily routine, not necessarily the outcome of that routine. Don’t reward a number on a scale, for example; reward a month of sticking to a dietary rule without undermining it. Don’t reward a successful completion of a book; rather, reward a chain of days in which you spent an hour working on it. Don’t reward achieving a certain net worth; rather, reward a 30 day or 60 day chain of some daily step intended to improve your net work.
Track your efforts, not your results, and reward your efforts, not your results. Results are their own reward.
If You’re Feeling Unhappy, Step Back and Re-Evaluate
Almost always, when you’re trying to cultivate forethought and making changes to your life, you make a mistake, and that mistake usually comes in the form of recognizing that some new routine or practice is making you feel unhappy.
The second you realize this, step back from it. Don’t let it fester and grow or else you’ll find it blowing up in your face.
Rather, if you feel yourself becoming unhappy with a theoretically positive routine in your life, start asking yourself immediately why you’re unhappy with it. Almost always, a routine that makes us unhappy is one that’s eating up a resource – time, energy, money, something – that you’d rather be applying elsewhere.
I’ll give you an example of this. For a very long time, I found myself annoyed by exercise in the sense that I felt it was taking time away from other things I wanted to be doing. I would rather fill those thirty minutes or that hour with some other activity, not exercise, and that was often why I would stop an exercise routine. I found that when I combined exercise with some other element – social interaction or listening to a thoughtful podcast or audio book – I felt less like I was taking time away from other things I wanted to be doing, and now that’s my standard routine when exercising. I’m either doing something with a group or else I have a podcast or audiobook on my headphones or a nearby speaker. I find myself less annoyed with a minute spent doing a plank if I’m listening to an audiobook while doing it, for example.
That’s how I address a lot of discomfort in the routines I devise. I ask myself why I don’t like it, and keep asking why until I think I understand it, then I devise a new routine that incorporates my reason for discomfort so that it’s more sustainable.
You can’t always see when a change in your life is going to make you unhappy, but what you can do is react appropriately when it does. Don’t keep pushing yourself down an unhappy road; instead, address why you feel unhappy about it. This requires peering down that road a little bit.
The more you do the things described in this post, the more you’ll find yourself naturally thinking further down the road when you make decisions in the heat of the moment and the better those decisions will become.
In the end, that’s the magical ingredient in frugality and financial success and, well, any flavor of personal success. It’s about forethought. It’s about realizing how your little actions right now pile up into something big over a long period of time, and that’s enough to motivate you to do it and to stay on that path. It’s a mindset.