Posts Tagged ‘priorities’

Carrot Or Stick?

Take a look at this year's resolutions — do you see the word “stop” more than “start” and “don't” more than “do?” If the majority of your goals begin with a negative word, you may have a self-defeating trend going on here. Certainly, it's admirable to try and quit smoking or cut back on working late. But sometimes the way you state a resolution can impact your capacity to accomplish that goal. For example, if you want to improve your nutrition, telling yourself that you will “stop eating sweets” may not be the best way. It sounds punitive, like a punishment for being bad — and with this sort of absolute ultimatum you're likely to experience feelings of resentment. The last thing you want to do with a resolution is focus too heavily on the fact that something you enjoy is being taken away from you. But what if you were to replace the “bad” thing with something “good?” Promising yourself that you can “eat a big bowl of fresh fruit when a sugar craving comes on” sounds like a reward, and you'll be a lot more likely to follow through. Just that small shift can mean the difference between success and failure with your goals.

If you're accustomed to setting goals that browbeat you into behaving the “right” way (and you're also used to your efforts failing), why not try a different approach this year? Give up the stick and try a carrot instead — it works well for a wide variety of goals:

  • instead of “stop working late,” try “go home on time each day to spend some quality time with my family”
  • instead of “stop eating so much junk food,” try “eat a full serving of my favorite fruits or vegetables with every meal”
  • instead of “stop smoking,” try “give myself a gift (a walk in the sunshine, a hot bath, a good hot cup of coffee) when I get a nicotine craving”
  • instead of “stop biting my nails,” try “treat myself to a manicure and a polish when ever I feel the urge to gnaw”
  • instead of “stop leaving piles of paper on my desk,” try “set aside time at the end of each day to put everything away, so I can start the next morning with a clean desk and a clear mind”
  • instead of “stop being late for everything,” try “leave the house 15 minutes earlier than necessary so I can arrive at each appointment relaxed, and without rushing”
  • instead of “stop crashing in front of the TV all evening,” try “meet a friend for an hour of  walking and quality time each day after work”
  • instead of “stop being so negative,” try “start each day by thinking of one thing I'm grateful for”
  • instead of “stop criticizing my husband,” try “give my husband a compliment first thing each morning and as soon as he comes home each afternoon”

Changing Your Mind(set)

I'm a veteran at figuring out precisely what I want, then getting stuck partway along the path. Wink At that point, ya gotta decide if the thing you thought you wanted is really what you still want — or if you needed something entirely different, and that's why the roadblock popped up in the first place. At first, you might have a hard time accepting that shift, because it feels like you didn't know what you were doing in the first place. But getting derailed or changing your mind is not failure. We've developed a counterproductive idea in our society that deciding to go in a different direction means admitting defeat — when often, it's the smartest decision you can make. As W.C. Fields said, “If at first you don't succeed, try try again. Then quit. There's no use being a damn fool about it.” Knowing when to say no is a valuable skill!

My career is a perfect example of the winding, unpredictable, and thoroughly satisfying road my life has taken. I started out as a Social Worker, but hit a wall when I wasn't being allowed to fully serve my clients (and I realized that I was going to turn into a government bureaucrat if I didn't get the hell out of there!) I had to make a decision to stay and be miserable or walk away and do something else — but what? This was my “calling.” Where would I go? What would I do? It was hard, but I made the leap and started my own business (first as an organizer, now also a photographer and blogger). In time, that decision has also allowed my husband to quit his job, and for us to become full-time RVers — I don't regret having “quit” for one second!

My life and career continue to branch and shift (and I'll share stories about these changes in later posts), but my larger point is that being willing to say “no” to something that wasn't working for me opened up a whole new world of possibilities — opportunities that I wouldn't have even dreamed of it I had just “stuck it out”, the way we're often taught to do. That quitters-never-win-and-winners-never-quit thing is a bunch of malarkey!

Evolving And Growing

My sister once said to me (in a rather derisive tone), “Every time I see you, you're a completely different person. I never know who you're going to be from day to day.” Thank you! I actually take that as a compliment — continuing to change and evolve and adjust as circumstances in your life shift is the only way to grow.

I can't imagine staying stuck in one place your whole life — one job, one town, or one way of thinking. And while change can be a little scary, it's also kind of exciting not knowing what's going to happen tomorrow. I can be anyone I want to be at any point in time — I just have to be willing to let go of who I am today to get there.

Given the chance, are there situations and circumstances in your life that you would like to change? Maybe a relationship that isn't working, a job that wears you out, 10 pounds you want to lose, or even just a pile of clutter that is driving you up the wall. Who do you want to be tomorrow and what changes are you going to have to make for that to happen?

A House That Costs Less

If you're like most people, your home is your major monthly expense. It's not unusual these days for rent and mortgage payments to eat up a third or more of your disposable income. Of course, when you've got empty rooms, there's a strong urge to fill them with “stuff” — and once you start shopping, it's often hard to stop! You may have even accumulated so much over the years that you're paying for a couple of off-site storage units, as well. Then when you add in utilities, property taxes, maintenance and repairs, homeowner or condo association fees, and all those “extra” services required to keep your home looking nice (lawn care, housekeeper, the pool guy, landscaping, decorators, etc.) — you might be spending half or even three-quarters of your paycheck on a place to live. A lot of folks are finding themselves “house poor,” with every penny they make going toward their living environment. That's just crazy! But the good news is that every single one of these expenses can be reduced — you just have to think a little differently about that roof over your head.

  • ask yourself how much home you really need (more is better in America, at least that's what the advertisements tell you! Wink — here are some interesting facts from the National Association Of Home Builders and the National Census — in 1950, the average American home in was 983 square feet and household size was 3.37 people, which translates into 292 square feet per person — by the mid-2000's, home size had risen to 2,349 square feet and household size had dropped to 2.61, leaving folks with 900 square feet per person — of course you want enough room to be comfortable, but there comes a point when a large home is simply too big for you to maintain on your own — chores like housecleaning, yard work, and repairs become unreasonably time-consuming, possibly even unmanageable without paying for outside help — wouldn't it be nice to devote less energy on the upkeep of your living environment, and more on actually living? — Thoreau was quite comfortable in 150 square feet on Walden Pond, intentionally simplifying his material world so he would have the freedom to contemplate and philosophize and suck the marrow from life — are you sucking the marrow from your life? — do you have enough time for all the projects and activities and people that you claim are a priority to you? — or are you always too busy with that “honey-do” list to get around to the really important stuff? — and don't forget that, with increased home sizes, prices have gone up, too — again according to the Census, that modern-day home costs about 3x what the 1950's house did, in inflation-adjusted dollars — if your casa feels like a burden, the way ours did, it might be time to ask yourself if you have more house than you really need)
  • reconsider your layout (what is it that makes houses so dadgummed big these days? — Matt and I are perfectly content to share less than 200 square feet — but then again, we haven't set aside entire rooms of our home just for games or watching television or entertaining — our spaces are multipurpose — for example, in an Airstream, the living room converts to an office during work hours, then to a dining room at meal times, then to our bedroom at night — this might seem like an extreme case of downsizing, but it's actually not that unreasonable, when you realize that most people spend the bulk of their time in one or two rooms of their home — I'm not suggesting that you need to move to an efficiency or an RV in order to simplify! — but think about how much of your home is unused on a daily basis, saved for special occasions or special activities — why? — where is it written that you must have both a breakfast nook and a “formal” dining room? — a den and a “formal” living room — who lives that formally these days?? — take a second to do a quick inventory — make a list of all the rooms in your house, and then estimate how much time you spend in each during an average month — you may discover that you've got a lot of wasted space, parts of your home that really do nothing except store furniture, need to be cleaned, and cost money — and in the course of simplifying, you may consider downsizing to eliminate those unnecessary rooms)
  • look at your location (have you become disenchanted with your neighborhood? — maybe you were willing to pay more for a good school district back in the day, but now your kids are grown and gone — perhaps the cost of living has slowly crept upward over the years to the point that you can barely afford the property taxes — you might have changed to a job on the other side of town, and your commute has grown to 3 hours round trip each day — or you think about how this used to be such a nice quiet place to live, but now it's noisy and overdeveloped and just not where you want to be — it's not at all unusual to find that your neighborhood just doesn't meet your needs anymore — places change, people change, priorities change, and it's amazing how much a simple geographic shift can positively impact both your quality of life and your wallet — if the country club and the homeowner's association are no longer worth the cost to you, ditch them — if you're being priced out of the market, go find a cheaper house in an up-and-coming transitional area — if the commute is driving you crazy and costing you a fortune in gas, move closer to your job — we did that in the 90's, going from a 2BR apartment in the burbs to a 1BR condo in-town, a block and a half from Matt's company — he got up about 5 minutes before he had to be at work, walked to the office, and was able to come home to exercise, eat lunch, and even take a nap — the convenience, reduced stress, and cost-savings more than balanced out the smaller living space, and our quality of life shot through the roof — if you could change just one thing about your location, what would it be?)
  • clear out the excess (it's a fact of life, clutter costs money — you pay when you bring something new into your life — you pay every time you have to clean or store or repair it — you pay when you insure it against loss or damage — and you're paying big time for the square footage in your home that is given over to things you never use and don't really need — let me emphasize again that living frugally is not about going without — if you love it, keep it! — I'm never going to suggest that you get rid of something that adds value to your life just for the sake of saving money, but why keep a bunch of stuff that serves no purpose? — the reason it's hard for people to clean out is because so much of our clutter comes out of good intentions and plans for the future — it's that “I'll use it someday” syndrome — but the goal here is to take a good hard look at how you actually live your life and only keep those items you truly need — are you honestly ever going to use that exercise equipment that's been gathering dust in the basement for the past 5 years, or are you more likely to work out if you go to the gym? — you thought it would be cool to own a pool table, but now it's just a another surface on which to pile papers and laundry and stuff to put away — and no matter how many cookbooks you buy, you still can't convince yourself that you enjoy spending hours in the kitchen preparing a gourmet meal — it's time to face facts! — besides, you might even find a new source of income in selling those things that you never use — most people have an absolute goldmine cluttering up their closets and attic and basement — how much could you get for those water skis you haven't touched in 20 years? — or that silver you got for your wedding, used once, then packed away? — or that bread machine that you haven't even taken out of the box? — what if cleaning out valuables that you never use could fund your enjoyment of life today? — would it be worth letting a few things go?)
  • be happy with what you have (of course, clearing out the clutter is just the first step — the harder part is keeping it from coming back! — many people have become caught up in a vicious cycle that I call “search and consume” — we're always looking for the most efficient time-saving gadget, the coolest toy, the sexiest technology, the latest fashion, or the newest trend to make our lives “complete” — last year's TV has an inch-smaller screen than the model they just released, so I need to buy a newer, bigger, shinier one — oh no, flowers are “out” and stripes are “in” this season, I'd better hurry up and redecorate! — and how will my family ever survive without a refrigerator that makes ice cubes?? — as a society, we're suckers for whatever the media tells us is hot and hip and happening, buying into this false sense of urgency and lack created by Madison Avenue — and in the process, we've managed to become perpetually discontented and broke, always thinking that the next purchase will make us “happy” — why can't we just be satisfied with what we already have? why do we always need more? — here's a challenge for you — Matt and I are currently trying to go a full year without making a single consumer purchase, aside from things like food and toilet paper and cleaning products — we decided that we've got everything we need for the coming 12 months, plenty to keep us busy and entertained, clothed and comfortable — we just want to see if we can stand strong in the face of constant consumer pressure to buy, buy, buy — want to join us, even just for a month or two?)
  • cut back on some services (these days, I don't know too many middle class people who attend entirely to their own household needs without hiring someone else to help out — in fact, some of my peeps literally have teams of “professionals” coming in every week to water the flowers, clean the bathrooms, pay their bills, make their meals, repaint the guest room, and look after their children — for many folks, the knee-jerk response when a chore pops up is “hire someone!” — I certainly understand consulting an expert if a task requires tools/skills you don't have, but so many of these little jobs are things we could do for ourselves but can't seem to find the time to tackle — we bring in plumbers to unclog our drains, auto mechanics to change a tire, and lawn care people to cut the grass, but it's a vicious cycle — we hire people because we don't have the time to do the job ourselves, because we're working so many hours to pay the bills for having people do these things for us — try tackling a few of these tasks yourself, enjoy the sense of accomplishment, then spend the time and money you've saved on your true priorities!)
  • get smart about energy usage (folks love to moan and groan about high utility costs, acting as though they are trapped by their power and gas bills — but it actually takes very little to keep these expenses under control, just a small bit of advance planning — for example, it costs almost nothing to install a programmable thermostat, then set the air for 78 degrees in the summer and the heat to come on at 60 degrees in the winter — changing your air filter regularly also keeps your unit from having to work as hard or use as much energy — and why waste money “climate controlling” areas of the house that you aren't using? — a small space heater or a ceiling fan is perfect for heating/cooling one room at a time — and if you're living in a canned environment 365 days a year, you'll save money and probably feel better if you open the windows and enjoy the fresh air Wink — washing your clothes in cold water and allowing them to air dry on a rack or clothes line will not only save on utilities, but your wardrobe will last longer — and if you're feeling really squirrelly, you can also clean your refrigerator coils to improve cooling efficiency, plug up air leaks around doors and windows, lower the temperature on your hot water heater, and wrap the entire unit in an insulating blanket — last but not least, did you know that any item plugged into a wall socket draws electricity even when it's turned off? — installing surge protectors on EVERY socket and turning off the main switch when those items aren't being used prevents them drawing “phantom electricity” — you just cut your power bills by 1/4 to 1/2 with barely any effort — see how easy that was?!)

Success Is A Trade-Off

When life doesn't go the way we planned, we become big-time excuse-makers — it's human nature, a defense mechanism. People often blame “circumstances” for keeping them from achieving their dreams. This is code for “I would have had to do things differently to make it happen, and I just wasn't willing to pay the price.” What they're really saying is that they didn't want it badly enough to work for it. Want to be president of your company? How do 80-hour work weeks sound to you? You can be debt-free, but you'll have to put a moratorium on unnecessary spending for a while (no eating out, no movies, no impulse buys) — can you do that? Do you want to write a book? It will only if you turn off the TV. Wish you were in better shape? Are you ready to sweat — every single day of the week?

It's like that famous quote about the world-renowned pianist. At a concert someone said, “I wish I could play like you.” The pianist replied, “If you knew what I had to do to get here, you wouldn't.” You can have anything (and I mean ANYTHING) you want in life, as long as you're willing to make space for it to happen. But most people settle for what life hands them, instead of going after what they really desire most — usually because they have a hard time recognizing their long-term goals in the hustle and bustle of daily life.

Knowing What You Really Want

The big question is what are you willing to give up NOW to have what you want most? It's easy to become shortsighted — with so many immediate responsibilities and distractions (delayed gratification is not most people's strong suit!) But when you fail to see beyond the end of the week or the end of the month or even December 31st, you're giving your future happiness a short shrift.

My husband and I have given up a lot of things — the huge house, the hot sexy car, and a lot of expensive “playthings” — because we have our eye on the bigger prize. Our goal is freedom — the ability to do what we want when we want it, to be able to travel endlessly without having to ask for time off, and especially financial freedom (which we define as having enough money to cover our daily expenses without having to hold a full-time job). We're looking at a longer timeline than just what we do for enjoyment “today”.

Our Story

In order to do this, we've chosen a fairly unconventional life. Matt and I both used to work for someone else doing the 9 to 5 grind thing until we started our own business. It was scary, we worried that we wouldn't have enough money (thankfully that didn't happen) — but we can work in our pajamas, and take the day off any time we like. That's freedom.

Our lives are not as “tied down” as a lot of people's. We have cats instead of kids (but we never considered not having children a sacrifice!) Tried homeownership, didn't like it — so we're full-time nomads, living out of a 29-foot Airstream Excella instead. We travel the country, stopping to “live” for a while anyplace that strikes our fancy. That's freedom.

Matt and I try to live frugally, because we don't want to spend our lives working to pay the bills. We have no debt and we refuse to pay anyone interest for anything if we can avoid it (which means we have to save up to afford each purchase — no financing). We only have one car, when we need a new one we buy used (with cash), and then we drive that vehicle to death. We don't eat out every day of the week, I shop for most of my clothes at thrift and consignment stores, and we don't pay the exorbitant fees that most folks do for cable or satellite TV (we wait until the end of the season and get our shows on DVD from the library or Netflix. And we put money away in savings every month toward our goal of financial independence. That's freedom.

How About You?

The point is not to say “ooh look at how great we are” or brag about our lives — it's simply to point out that everything Matt and I “give up” is a conscious decision, and we do it because there is something else out there that we want even more. Some people think we're weird and wouldn't want our lifestyle for anything in the world, and that's fine — everyone has to decide what their dream is and what they are willing to sacrifice in order to achieve it.

So I guess I would ask — what kind of life are you leading now, what would you really rather be doing, and what would you need to give up in order to have that? How badly do you want your dream to come true? Are you willing to go there, no matter what it takes? And what will your first step be? It's all up to you!

Get Smart

We're going to do a little role-play, using the example of eliminating debt (a common concern) to take those S.M.A.R.T. goals to the next level! Pretend that you are carrying a pretty heft amount of debt — let's say, $20,000 on your credit cards, another $10,000 owed on your cars, a $50,000 home equity line from when you added on that extra room, and another $125,000 on your mortgage (this may sound like a lot, but it's actually a fairly typical scenario for your average over-extended American these days.) Your goal in the new year is to try to eliminate as much debt as possible, and to trim your budget so that you can pay the maximum toward these bills. A great idea in theory, but how do you turn a nebulous concept like “get out of debt” into a series of concrete, achievable steps? You get smart about it!

  • specific (a resolution called “get out of debt” is too big and vague to be meaningful — you need something to work toward that feels more tangible and purposeful — a goal like “pay off $6,000 of my debt in the next 12 months and adjust my budget so I avoid adding to the balance” is going to resonate with you and motivate you in a way that “get out of debt” just doesn't — it gives you something solid to work toward, a light at the end of the tunnel that you can actually see)
  • making specific even smarter (redefine your goal in more specific terms, but don't just stop there — the next step is to break that one big goal down into a set of smaller mini-goals, making them easier to accomplish — goals like “pay off my highest-interest debt first” and “refinance my mortgage for less than 4% interest” and “stop using all credit cards until the balance is zero” are going to help direct your actions when it comes to accomplishing your bigger goal — the two work together in tandem, one providing the big picture, and the other clarifying the details)
  • measurable (the trick to accomplishing any goal is being able to measure your progress toward completion — how exactly do you quantify “improve my financial situation” so you know when you've achieved that objective? you can't! — your only hope of success comes from attaching a number to your goal so that you can tell whether you're on track, falling behind, or ahead of the game — when you change “improve my financial situation” to “pay off $6,000 of my debt and put a further $2,400 in savings for emergencies,” you're setting a much more measurable goal — and don't forget to actually track your progress each month on a spreadsheet or in an accounting program — measurable is only useful if you can actually see what you're accomplishing, and the impact will be even greater if you can convert your numbers to a graph or chart format)
  • making measurable even smarter (deciding on a measurable end-result of your goal is great, but breaking that down into monthly or weekly increments is even better — looking at that $6,000 payoff and $2,400 in savings might seem overwhelming — how are you going to accomplish that? — by paying $500 a month toward your debts and $200 a month into savings — and taking that measurement each week or month is not only going to help you stay better-informed about your progress, it will also keep you motivated to stick with it to the end)
  • action-oriented (too often, we set goals that are passive rather than active — it's almost as if we expect our wildest dreams to just materialize out of thin air, instead of recognizing that we have to work for what we want most — a goal like “be in a better financial position in December than I am in January” is meaningless — what's going to cause it to happen? — you're more likely to take the necessary steps when you create a goal with a lot of verbs in it, because those “action words” remind you that some effort is required on your part — go instead for a goal like “reduce my spending level so it falls below my income level and devote the difference to paying off my debt” and you'll have more success)
  • making action-oriented even smarter (a single action-oriented goal is better than nothing — but if you really want to blow your goals out of the water, break each one down into a series of action-oriented steps — ask yourself what exactly needs to happen in order to make that goal a reality, then turn each of your answers into its own mini-goal — so in balancing your spending and income levels so you can pay off debt, you might find a series of mini-goals like “review the past year's credit card, bank, and payroll statements” / “create a spreadsheet detailing my income and expenses for the past 12 months” / “review each cost category and look for specific ways to reduce those expenses until total outlay is less than total income” / “pay the difference between income and expense each month toward the highest-interest debt and the minimum on everything else” / “once that debt is paid off, move to the next highest-interest debt, adding the payment for the previous debt to it” / “continue until all debts are paid off” — now that's action-oriented!)
  • rewarding (people tend to set goals for themselves that are more of a burden than a joy to accomplish — but if you aren't having fun, or at least seeing some benefit from your actions, you won't stick with it — and when it's a goal that requires you to give up something that you enjoy like spending, because it's causing something detrimental to your life like debt, you need to replace the lost item with another reward — throughout the process, remind yourself how good it will feel to be debt-free, to have that stress lifted from your shoulders — and whenever you feel the urge to splurge, take a look at your spreadsheets and see how much progress you've made — you'll be less inclined to blow it all when you can see how far you've come)
  • making rewarding even smarter (keeping your eye on the big prize at the end is one thing, but giving yourself more tangible rewards along the way is going to feel a lot sweeter — create a plan right from the beginning for rewarding yourself as you achieve each of your mini-goals — when you pay off that first credit card, you will have some friends over for a nice dinner to celebrate — when you save enough for your emergency fund, you will spend a whole Saturday catching up on video rentals you've been dying to see — once you've refinanced your mortgage, you're going to repaint the kitchen the color you've always wanted it instead of that hideous yellow — it doesn't have to be an expensive reward to be motivating)
  • timely (the final step in achieving any goal is setting a deadline — ask anyone trying to complete their PhD and they'll tell you that projects can drag on forever if you don't have a specific finish-line you're aiming for — unfortunately, with most goals, there's no external task-master cracking the whip, so you have to be the one to choose an ending date — be realistic but also try to challenge yourself to really work for that deadline — of course you can eliminate your debt in 10 years, but why not attempt to do it in five? or even two?)
  • making timely even smarter (sometimes that final deadline can be a bit hard to achieve without a few intermediate milestones — saying that you're going to be debt-free in a year is one thing, but when will you need to accomplish each step along the way to make that happen? — pull out your list of steps and work backward from the end, figuring out a reasonable time-frame for each — if it turns out that you simply can't do them all in the space allotted, extend your final deadline — if you think that you can get them accomplished faster, move it up some — then at each step along the way, you only need to worry about the next milestone, rather than the deadlines for 12 other steps after it — this is a nice way to keep your eye on the prize without becoming overwhelmed)