So often, we think of investments as being purely about dollars in and dollars out. If you put $10,000 into an investment with an average return of 7% a year, how much do you make after 10 years? Is it better to pay taxes on that money now, when you put it in, or when you start withdrawing later?
That’s great, of course, but I like to think of investment in broader terms. For me, an investment is when you spend some resource – money, time, energy, goods, personal capital, etc. – and receive something in return for that resource – money, time, energy, goods, personal capital, etc. In other words, almost everything we do in our daily lives can be perceived as an investment of some kind.
I tend to view a good life as being one that’s full of good investments. If you use your resources (money, time, energy, etc.) in a smart way, they’re going to give far more value back to you in return.
This post actually started as a conversation with my children, where I was explaining to them how some of the things you do in life have at least some value that comes back to you later on, and that the best things in life tend to happen when you’re reaping the rewards of having done a lot of those things and you can live in the moment on the crest of that wave. I’ll give you an example of that down in the conclusion.
First, however, I want to share a list with you of my 10 favorite “investments” that I feel give me the best return on what I invest in them in my life. All of these involve spending some resource that I have, but the benefit I get out of spending that resource is far greater than the cost.
Investment #1: Getting a good night’s sleep, one where you’re not awakened by an alarm clock
The best night of sleep that you can get is one where you fall into bed and sleep until your body decides it’s recharged and wakes you up naturally. That’s in almost direct opposition to the sleeping pattern of a busy person, which usually involves inadequate sleep and being awakened by an alarm clock that disrupts normal sleep patterns.
The cost: The cost of doing this is losing out on the last hour or two of your day. That’s generally time when you’re pretty tired anyway and aren’t doing anything particularly productive. You might miss out on a window of time to watch a television show or something, but it’s time where many people doze off on the couch or march through some household tasks at a really low rate of productivity.
The benefit: After a day or two of adjustment, you feel substantially better in terms of energy level, awareness, and clarity of thought. The way I describe it is that I swapped 18 waking hours in a day for 16 hours with almost double the energy and much clearer thinking. You also lose that miserable feeling of hearing an alarm go off when you’re really not ready to wake up yet, which means that days start off a little better.
Investment #2: Spending some time outside doing something where you move around
What I often do is go on a walk with my earbuds in my ear, listening to a podcast or an audiobook. I go outside, let a bit of sunshine hit my cheeks and hands and arms, and simply move around. I’ll just walk around the block at a steady pace, admire the environment, and then wind up back home half an hour or an hour later, usually having absorbed some of that podcast or audiobook, and feeling a whole lot better. If I can afford it, I’ll go to a park instead and go on a short hike in the woods – it takes more time but it pays even higher dividends.
Why? There are a number of factors. A small amount of sun exposure each day is very healthy as it promotes natural vitamin D production and good serotonin balance in your body. Mild exercise is also incredibly good for you – serotonin pops up here, but there are lots of additional biochemical and psychological benefits. Here’s just a taste of the benefits. You can spend that time learning and keeping your mind active, too.
If you actually have an outdoor task to take on, even better! Get to it! Mow the yard. Rake the leaves. Clean out the gutters. Trim the hedges. Plant something. Detail your car. Anything that gets you outside and moving a little bit each day is a good thing.
The cost: It burns 30 minutes or an hour where you could be doing something else. If that other thing is more valuable to you, then there is a cost to choosing this.
The benefit: There are a ton of biochemical and psychological benefits, as noted in the article above. Vitamin D production, eyesight benefits, serotonin production, improved sleep patterns, psychological health benefits, and the raw benefits of exercise in terms of losing weight and building muscle strength are all part of this. To sum it up: you’ll feel better in almost every way, especially if you make it a pattern, and there are some long term health benefits, too.
Investment #3: Eating simple but varied meals that are mostly fruits and vegetables
There are tons and tons of studies and theories out there on this topic, but there are a few essentials that they all agree on: eat a variety of foods, make the majority of them fruits and vegetables, and try to eat mostly unprocessed stuff. The arguments about whether to avoid wheat and about carb levels and so on are infinite and change all the time, but those core rules seem to stay pretty much the same. So stick to them.
It’s not real hard. Just eat something different at every meal. Switch it up a lot. Try new stuff sometimes to make your palate even bigger. Make sure you’re eating plenty of vegetables and fruits. You don’t have to eat stuff you hate, either. Try to avoid overly prepared or processed stuff, like fast foods or premade freezer meals, but you don’t have to go to absurd lengths to do it.
The cost: I’m hard pressed to think of a cost here. You can’t just endlessly repeat just one or two favorite meals, I guess? It can increase the length of meal prep if you mostly rely on takeout or fast food, too.
The benefit: Consumer Reports sums up the benefits really well: lower blood lipid levels and higher levels of short-chain fatty acids in the gut, which results in lower risk of heart disease, inflammatory diseases, and type 2 diabetes. There’s strong evidence of better brain health in a varied diet that includes fish, too. You’ll feel better and think better in the short term, in other words, and it’ll significantly improve your long term health outcomes.
Investment #4: Apologizing when you mess up rather than passing blame
Think about the last time you heard a blatant excuse from someone who had made a mistake and didn’t want to accept any blame or consequence for it. Did it make you think more highly of that person? What about the last time someone genuinely apologized for a mistake and put it squarely on their shoulders? How did that make you feel about that person?
Now, transition those feelings and imagine you’re the person who made that mistake. Your decision about whether to apologize for your mistake or not is going to decide how exactly they feel about you. Are they going to feel like you do when you witness someone blatantly passing the buck? Or are they going to feel the surprise and respect that you do when someone genuinely apologizes for their misstep and looks to make amends?
The cost: It’s hard to do it. It is really hard to confess that we’ve made mistakes to others. It feels far easier to just pass the blame or kick the can down the road. Apologizing for a mistake you made requires swallowing a lot of pride and it may mean some consequences for the error you made, though the penalty is usually substantially reduced when you make an honest apology.
The benefit: Respect. A lot of it. Almost everyone tends to gain respect for someone who admits a personal error or failing and asks what they can do to fix the problem, especially when they do it sincerely and directly without even a hint of passing the buck. Virtually every relationship in your life moves in a better direction if you apologize for a mistake rather than passing it on, even if you don’t see it on the surface. That type of respect is the foundation of strong relationships. People who respect you will help you in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, and you earn that respect through simple actions of strong character like apologizing for your errors.
Investment #5: Genuinely listening to people and responding to them
People like to be listened to. People like to be valued. People like to be remembered. People like to feel important. When you can do that for people, they like you. Period.
It’s not even hard to do. All you have to do is listen to someone when that person is talking. Don’t stand there thinking about what you want to say next. Just listen. Focus on what they’re saying, try to understand it to the best of your ability, and ask follow-up questions to get them to expand on anything that’s unclear.
When you do that, the person you’re listening to and talking to will naturally like you. They’ll value your presence. They’ll usually start asking for your thoughts on things. They’ll respect you a little and will become predisposed to respect you more.
The cost: It takes some time to just listen to someone. It also means you don’t get to contribute as many of your own thoughts to a conversation as you might otherwise, though when you do contribute, that contribution has more value.
The benefit: It strengthens virtually every personal relationship you have. Listening is like magic for building the strength of relationships. It helps your reputation, as well. Furthermore, you often learn quite a lot about things when you’re listening rather than talking because people give out a lot of useful info when talking.
Investment #6: Living in a place with easy access to work and food and social connection
If you live close to your workplace, you can walk or ride a bike to work, which in itself fulfills the second investment above. It’s also far, far cheaper than owning and driving a car. You can even potentially divest yourself of a car. If you live close to a good discount grocer and, even better, to your social connections, those same features repeat themselves. You invest less time and less money going to the places you need to and want to go. That’s a huge thing.
The cost: You might have to give up some other elements of what would make an ideal place for you to live. It might mean a smaller living space or an area that isn’t your perfect ideal. You might have somewhat higher housing costs, too, depending on where your workplace actually is.
The benefit: You slash your commuting costs. You slash the time devoted to tasks like commuting and getting food. You slash your time devoted to meeting up with friends. You slash your social costs because it becomes much easier to just hang out at each other’s houses or apartments. Simply put, this choice saves a lot of money and a lot of time.
Investment #7: Writing in a journal about what’s troubling you in life
Whatever aspect of your life that you happen to be struggling with, time spent seriously evaluating that problem, figuring out what the true source of that problem is, and then developing a plan to fix the source of the problem is incredibly valuable time spent. It costs you virtually nothing other than a bit of paper and ink and it can help you to resolve or eliminate all of the largest stressors in your life.
The cost: It takes some time on a regular basis. You have to be able and willing to criticize yourself.
The benefit: Your stress is lowered. Almost every major problem in your life is reduced, either in a reduction of the size of the problem or in a reduction of its impact on your life. You feel far more in control of things and feel far more ready to handle things that might come at you.
Investment #8: Building a relationship with a mentor
A mentor is simply a person who serves as an example on how to live and can help guide you along the path of your life. A mentor might be a professional mentor, helping you guide your career or business, or that mentor might be a personal mentor, helping you navigate your personal life or spiritual life. Having a strong relationship with a mentor is incredibly useful, as it becomes someone that can help you steer your ship through rough waters and can point you in the right direction at life’s crossroads.
The cost: It takes time and effort and sometimes some money to build a good relationship with a mentor. You’ll want to repay some of the value they give to you, and the way you’ll often be able to do that is through spending time and giving genuine conversation, though occasional errands and gifts may be appropriate. It really depends on the relationship that forms.
The benefit: You have unparalleled personal guidance through almost every challenge that life deals you, from career crossroads to personal challenges, from figuring out your destination to figuring out how to dig yourself out of a mess. A mentor makes every knot in your life a lot easier to untie, and that’s incredibly valuable.
Investment #9: Building a skill that you don’t have but that you desire
No one in the world has the full set of skills that they need to handle all of the challenges that life throws at them. I’m absolutely awful at starting conversations with people I don’t know, for example. There are some professional skills that I definitely wish that I had, such as faster editing skills. I can name a dozen skills I wish that I had, but that I simply do not have.
The cost: It takes time and effort to master a skill, and it sometimes also takes money when you need to hire a teacher.
The benefit: You add a new skill to your repertoire. That skill, if well chosen, will frequently serve you in your personal and professional life, enabling you to take further career steps, build better relationships, complete a wider variety of tasks, and so on. The benefits very much depend on the skill learned, of course. Also, the process of learning a skill improves your aptitude for self-learning, making it easier to continue to add skills.
Investment #10: Taking a day off but using it meaningfully
Time off almost always reaps benefits. It allows you to relax and unburden yourself from a seemingly endless string of responsibilities, at least for a while. However, it’s very tempting to just waste that day off in idleness. There’s nothing wrong with leisure or hobby time, but that’s when you’re actively choosing to do something meaningful to you. Idleness is time spent doing nothing meaningful to you at all. Choose meaningful things, whether it’s personal tasks, hobby time, genuine leisure, or something else – whatever brings the most overall joy from the day.
The cost: You lose a day that you could have devoted to other tasks.
The benefit: It kills stress and worry like nothing else. It can still be quite productive, depending on what you choose. It can absolutely destroy the temptation to buy things, because the desire to buy often springs out of an unrequited desire to actually do something.
For me, the absolute best that life has to offer comes together when a bunch of your investments pay off at once. Let me give you an example.
A few days ago, I was able to spend an afternoon playing a board game with some old friends. It’s a game we all know and love. I have good relationships with all of those people (investment #5 and, to an extent, #4). I was well rested (investment #1) and felt energetic but not full and bloated (investment #3 and, to some extent, #2). I felt in control of most of my major life worries (investment #7), so I wasn’t stressed out. I was spending that day in intentional leisure with those friends (investment #10) who lived close enough so that they are a frequent part of my life (investment #6). I felt good, I had no real worries, and was surrounded by people I cared about doing something that I enjoy. It was an absolutely marvelous day, built on the back of those investments.
Want another example? How about a professional one, directly tied to not only my income, but the quality of my professional life?
Back in 2007, I was really struggling with the direction of my life. I had started The Simple Dollar in my spare time and it was becoming successful, but it was nowhere near enough to be able to support my family. I was dealing with a lot of frustrations with my main job/career, too; I liked the people and about 20% of the work, but the other 80% was killing my soul and it was straining my family relationships with travel and other responsibilities.
So, one day, I gave my mentor a call (investment #8). He offered to go to lunch with me the next day, so I spent some time the night before gathering my thoughts (investment #2 and #7) and getting a good night of sleep (investment #1) so I could talk to him as clearly as possible. We went out for a healthy lunch (investment #3) and a long back-and-forth conversation with a lot of good questions (investment #5). He gave me the advice I needed to hear, which was basically to make sure I had the skills necessary to build my side gig up (investment #9) and then make that leap and give it all I had.
That lunch changed my life. About a year later, I went full-time with The Simple Dollar, mostly inspired by wanting more time with my family, and I couldn’t be happier with the choice.
The real truth? Those individual investments really didn’t cost me much. I didn’t sacrifice a whole lot to get a good night of sleep or to build good relationships. I didn’t really sacrifice too much to build skills or to practice better listening.
Over and over again, though, the small investments I have made in my life have paid off tremendously. Those little contributions of time and energy and a little money when needed have transformed into some of the best days of my life, some of the best personal and professional choices I’ve made, some of the best personal and professional relationships I have, and so many more things. Without those investments, I would not have the level of personal, professional, or financial success I have been lucky enough to achieve.
Making great financial choices is a powerful step in life, but it becomes even more powerful when you pair it with good choices regarding all of your resources: your energy, your time, your attention, your personal capital, and so on. Invest all of them wisely and they will pay out dividends far beyond your wildest imagination.