Why my last year of work before FI is turning out to be the hardest…and how I’m surviving it.

After a decade of working the career ladder, spending conscientiously, running the numbers, and daydreaming about the day I get to call it quits, I’m now one year away from reaching my financial independence goals.

It feels really good. But, it also makes for a serious case of Senioritis. I’ve spent the last six months in a state of extreme negativity towards my job. My job was always a means towards an end, but in the past I found satisfaction and even enjoyment in parts of it. Now, the work week is a source of dread. And instead of my stress-levels dissipating as I near the end, they’ve skyrocketed. Every incoming email or additional responsibility becomes yet another thing I have to get through before I get to move onto my “real” life.

It’d be natural to accept that this last year is just something I have to grind through. But I’ve decided that’s not good enough for me. First, a year is still a long time. I spend too many hours at my job to accept that there’s no option but to suffer through it. Second, I firmly believe happiness is a choice. It’s not my job itself that makes me suffer; it’s my attitude towards it. And whose to say that even after I remove my job from the equation, I won’t face other things in life that I wish I weren’t there?

Happiness comes from embracing reality as it is in this moment. So how I am embracing my current reality, which includes showing up at an office every day to a demanding job?

What I’m doing to not only survive, but thrive, in my last year of work:

  • Find “one thing” you want to accomplish in your career before you leave, and let everything else go. My one thing is to be a kick-ass manager, which means helping my team grow professionally and personally. At this point, delivering project X or achieving business goal Y really has no meaning to me. But people always matter, and I still have an opportunity to make a meaningful impact in my remaining year as their boss. The hard part is letting the rest go, because it WILL get uncomfortable if you’re used to always being on top of everything. But embrace the chaos. It’s the way to peace.
  • Change up your work situation so you can find new challenges to be excited about. I really couldn’t bear the thought of dragging myself through the same 1hr+ commute, to the same campus, and in the same business unit as I have been working for the last decade. So I took an international transfer to Zurich, Switzerland. On top of giving my family a whole new adventure and an opportunity to live in Europe, I also got a 30% bump in salary for cost of living adjustment. Awesome!
  • If you can, reduce your hours. It’s probably better financially to stay at your job and work part-time than quit prematurely because you just can’t take it anymore. Last month, I moved to 90% time which means I work from home Friday mornings and take off Friday afternoons. While it’s only a 10% reduction in time and pay, it’s made at least a 25% increase in my everyday happiness.
  • Start living your post-FI life now. After writing my “Ten Year Plan for a Remarkable Life,” I realised that my ideal life is actually quite simple and achievable today. So instead of daydreaming about everything I’m going to do with all my post-FI free time, I try to live that life now as much as possible. These include: Daily time for exercise and meditation. Luxurious breakfasts with the family. Reading and writing (including this blog) for pleasure. World travel (yes for Switzerland!).

Life is too short and unpredictable to defer your happiness to post-FI. What are you doing to find joy in your situation today?

January 2016 Financial Report Card

How’d we do in our first month against our 2016 budget goal to reduce spend by 30%+ compared to last year?

We went over budget by 11%, or $360. This was mainly due to an intentional overspend in gifts given and dining out (Baby ModelMinority is coming soon and we’re enjoying our last nights out), and a way-too-high heating bill that I’m going to be much more careful about.

Our net worth tanked along with the market, dropping -4.9%. While it hurts, I’m feeling relatively okay about it. We’ll stick to the plan and keep our money in the market in accordance with our asset allocation. I may even put some more in later, depending on how we’re progressing against our value path (more on how to use value-path investing to mitigate risk in another post).

Expenses

January 2016 budget

We went over unintentionally on utilities, due to a $198 heating bill that is 2x(!) our average bill. I worked from home most of January and it was unseasonably cold, so the heat was kept on nearly all day. Oops, time to turn off the heat and put on a sweater!

In contrast, our dining over-spend was done consciously. Baby ModelMinority is due in early March, and we’re trying to get out with friends as much as possible before life gets a lot more complicated. February will probably also go over. Compared to the $795/mo. dining spend that we averaged in 2015 though, this is still an improvement.

Groceries was slightly over. We’ve been trying out Green Chef and Blue Apron, which are meal services that deliver fresh ingredients to your door that you cook yourself according to their easy-to-follow and delicious recipes. Clearly, this is not the cheapest way to cook at home. But it is still cheaper and healthier than eating out, which is what we’re trying to wean ourselves off of. After trying both services, we’re sticking with Green Chef. It’s slightly more expensive ($80/wk vs $59/wk for Blue Apron), but it’s organic, the portions are bigger, and the food is tastier.

Gifts was another conscious over-spend. We had a couple of baby showers and my brother’s big 30th birthday.

Clothing & Personal Care spend should go down after this month, as we still owed one last payment on the massage club subscription that has since been canceled.

Net Worth

January 2016 net worth

Ouch! This represents a $60K loss in January, and that’s painful to see. My asset allocation helped to mitigate some risk relative to the stock market, but it did not help that my company stock  tanked by 10% over the month.

Se la vie. Good thing my meditation practice and gratitude journal seems to be working in keeping me grounded. After all, money can always gained back. Time, on the other hand, can never be recovered. And with Baby ModelMinority due in a month, my remaining time as a dependent-free adult is truly precious!

 

 

 

My 2016 goals and why early retirement isn’t the point

“You don’t need more free time.” This was the thought-provoking conclusion of a NYT article on a study of the daily emotions of 500K+ people.

The study’s first finding was unoriginal: People have the lowest levels of well-being from Monday through Thursday which rise on Friday and peak on the weekend. The obvious conclusion is that the workweek brings stress, and the key to greater happiness is to get rid of having to work. This belief is the basis for most people’s dreams of early retirement, including my own.

But, the poll also uncovered a second much more surprising result: The weekly cycle of well-being levels held true for all people, whether they were employed or not!

The researcher’s conclusion is that free time is most valuable when your friends and family are also free and you can spend time with them. If you don’t have a job, you end up spending your workweek doing errands and tasks by yourself. Like employed people, your “fun” time ends up becoming limited to weekends when other people are also off.

Of course, this study doesn’t distinguish between people who are unemployed because they can’t find a job versus people who are unemployed by choice. My assumption is that results could be quite different if we looked specifically at early retirees.

However, it was enough to give me pause and reiterate a truth that I know in my heart of hearts but still need to be reminded of: The most important work of my life is not to achieve financial independence. Rather, it is to figure out what to do with my life when it is fully my own. 

Every new years, my wife and I set aside a few days to reflect on the past year and set goals for the upcoming one. This year, in between decluttering our house Konmari-style to make room for a nursery and our impending new lives as parents, we took some time out to get our mental and emotional ‘house’ in order as well.

My simple guide for a spiritual retreat:

1. Reflect on the past: 

  • Grade yourself: Looking at goals set from previous year, what went well? What didn’t go well?
  • Examine your beliefs: What beliefs/attitudes did you hold that enabled you to succeed? What beliefs/attitudes did you hold that were not helpful?

I can’t stress enough how important this second step is of looking at your beliefs. I went through Tony Robbins’ Personal Power program last year, and one of my biggest takeaways was this: My beliefs are what lead to my success or failure. If I think that willpower alone is going to get me to my goals, I’m a fool. When I shifted my belief from “If I have a lot of nice stuff, I will be happy” to “If I have a lot of free time and energy to spend with the people I love doing the things I love , I will be happy,” I naturally wanted to stop shopping. This made sticking to my budget goal so much easier. An area that I am still struggling through is how to get in control of my mornings, which always seem to get away from me and cause me unnecessary anxiety and self-loathing. I realized that this is because I carry a lifelong negative belief that “I am not a morning person.” To combat this, I’m working on instilling a new morning routine and changing my belief to “I have the power to change my attitude in the morning, and therefore the outcome of my day, in spite of how I may feel.”

2. Envision your best life: This year, we decided to create vision boards after watching this inspiring (albeit cheesy) video on the power of visioning your dreams. Another great tool that I’ve used in the past is the Passion Test, which provides a super simple method for helping you identify your core passions.

*Minimalist Tip: We don’t have magazines or poster boards lying around the house, so we made virtual vision boards instead. This free vision board app was super easy to use, and you can save your board as a screensaver or print it out.
3. Turn your vision into actionable goals: Take your top ~5 visions/passions and identify actionable goals for each of them in the next year. For me, this looked like (in priority):

1. I am self aware and mindful of the present.

  • Take time every day to journal and reflect on affirmations and vision board
  • Set time 2x year for a quiet spiritual retreat
2. I am a joyful, kind, and loving spouse and mom.
  • Weekly date nights: explore new events, ideas, activities
  • Go on a family trip during maternity leave
3. I live in close community with family and friends.
  • Intentionally reach out and invest the time and work in my relationships
  • Set up a Personal CRM system to trigger myself to maintain relationships (more on this another time)
4. I have enough wealth to have freedom
  • Keep to the $60k budget and check in on progress monthly
  • Build on my investment skills (e.g. books, webinars)
  • Explore lifestyle business ideas
5. I am learning and engaging in hobbies that bring me joy.
  • Learn to cook a few dishes very well that I would be proud to serve, and get proficient enough to feed my family otherwise
  • Learn to play a dozen songs that I would feel comfortable performing
  • Blog regularly (1x/week) about ideas that I am interested in
6. I am fit, strong and beautiful.
  • Go outside daily and use my body in some way (e.g. walk, hike)
  • Reduce sugar intake and be conscious of how my body feels
  • Take care of my dress so that I feel good about how I present myself

4. Schedule those actions into your daily planner: Make it real! For me, I’m a believer in the GTD system as I wrote about here. So each goal becomes a Project, and each bulleted action goes into my Tasks and gets scheduled on my calendar.

I feel really good about my 2016 goals. Firstly, my topline goals have hardly changed from previous years, which means I’ve really honed into what matters most to me. Secondly, while financial independence is one of my goals, its fourth down in priority after growing self-awareness and building strong relationships.

I recently read an incredibly insightful post about How NOT to pursue Financial Independence from a FI blogger that I follow and respect, the Mad Fientist.  He talks about how his single-minded pursuit of FI lead him down a path of isolation and depression, and when he finally achieved his FI number he didn’t even feel happy!

The truth is that FI is only an enabler – it offers you the opportunity to use your time and energy to pursue what really matters to you in life. But it is useless as a goal by itself.

In the middle of my vision board, I have a beautiful quote from Pablo Picasso:

“The meaning of life is to find your gift. 

The purpose of life is to give it away.”

That’s my true 2016 goal and the end goal for my entire life.

5-min journal and my morning routine for the New Year

“Win the morning, Win the day.”

I’ll start by stating that I am not a morning person. It takes me a good half hour to warm up to the day, until which I am barely coherent, mostly mute, and altogether miserable. Small children who have made the mistake of jumping into my bed to wake me have been scared off for life.

Nor am I inclined towards daily routines. Force me to follow the same exercise routine or eat the same breakfast every day, and I’ll quit within a week out of sheer boredom.

So why do I nonetheless believe in developing a morning routine? Because I have experienced the consequence of too many crappy mornings leading to crappy afternoons and evenings.

Good habits are the cornerstone of a good life, and their powers are magnified if you can do them in the morning. Why? 1) You are more likely to keep habits if you do them first thing before anything/anyone can get in the way. 2)  You have the most willpower in the morning. 3) You start off the day feeling successful and good about yourself (this one is most compelling to me).

To make my morning routine sustainable, I had to allow myself room for variety. More importantly, it had to be a routine that I would actually enjoy (or I might never get out of bed)! And it couldn’t take more than 30 minutes, since anything more than that would be self-delusion on my part.

So here’s my morning routine:

  1. Clean up: Make the bed, wash up, and change into clothes for the day. This sounds like a given, but when you work from home I can’t tell you how easy it is to stay in your pjs all day and not bother brushing your teeth until you realize your spouse is about to return home from work in an hour. As for making the bed – I would generally do this at some point in the day, but there’s something about doing it as the Very First Thing that is critical to start the day right. A four-star Admiral and Hindu priest agree.
  2. Hydrate: Drink a glass of water, preferably cold. It wakes me up, and I immediately get to knock off one glass from my daily goal of 8.
  3. Energize: Do something that will stimulate my body. If I’m short on time, I do a few sun salutations. If I have the leisure, I go out for a walk or undertake a more ambitious workout routine.
  4. Breakfast well: Eat a hearty, fat/protein heavy breakfast. It makes me feel full and keeps me from eating junk food later. Bacon and eggs are a common choice, as is my green protein smoothie. Anything with a load of peanut butter on top also makes me happy.
  5. 5-minute Journal: Express gratitude and set your intentions for the day. I suck at journaling. In a recent purge of my house, I found boxes of old journals that have been started and never finished. While there are all kinds of proven benefits to journaling (including strengthening immune cells), I have never managed to keep it up as a habit. Enter new approach: The 5-minute Journal. In the morning, I fill out what “I am grateful for…”, “What would  make today great?”, and a daily affirmation. Before bed, I write “3 amazing things that happened today” and “how could I have made today better”? It takes so little time to do, and I honestly believe this has made a real difference in my everyday happiness.

*A frugal tip: The official journal costs $28.95, but save yourself the money and just follow the same outline in any old notebook.

5min journal

Source: 5-minute Journal

6. Get Things Done: Review my goals, set tasks for the day, and tackle the most important task first. I have been a faithful adherent to the GTD method of time management since it first changed my life a few years ago. Seriously – please check out these 5 simple steps that will apply order to your chaos. For the longest time, my efforts to convince my wife to GTD her own life were rebuffed. But then after months of complaining of overwhelm, she let me set up a simple GTD system using her existing Google calendar and the $5.99 app GTasks Pro, and she’s now a convert as well.

So every morning, I review my Project List (e.g. actionable goals from my 90-Day focus plan), set my tasks for the day, and tackle the task that will make the most meaningful impact on my life first.

Easy, right?! No actually, I’m sure it won’t be when I wake up tired and cranky, which is certain to happen shortly (especially with new baby due in just 9 weeks, eek!). Hence, the most important thing that has to happen to make this morning routine work is to change my attitude about who I am in the morning.

The old me thinks: “I am not a morning person. I cannot overcome my  feeling of fatigue and physical discomfort in the morning.”

The new me says: “I have the power to change my attitude in the morning, and therefore the outcome of my day, in spite of how I may feel.”

Retiring by 2018: Our Journey to Financial Independence (with breaks in between)

Ever since a grueling stint in my early 20s as a junior banking analyst in which I watched my colleagues trade in their lifeblood for wealth and career progression, I’ve been determined to escape the same fate. My initial plan was to look for a job with a much more manageable work/life balance, avoid financial commitments that would keep me obligated to work (e.g. taking on a big mortgage or getting a MBA), and take periodic sabbaticals like my year-off in my mid-20’s to volunteer in Asia and again with my wife-to-be in our round-the-world trip from 2011-2012.

I’ve managed to stick to this plan for the last decade, and I was feeling pretty good about my gradually growing net worth thanks to a reasonable budget (at least compared to the standards of high-wage earners in the Silicon Valley). I figured that things would go like this for more-or-less the next two decades, until I could fully retire at the still-respectable age of 50: Put in my hours at a well-compensating 9-5, take a long sabbatical every 5 years, and live within a reasonable budget.

But then two years ago, my mind was blown when I read Extreme Early Retirement: A Philosophical and Practical Guide to Financial Independence.  While my plan is already quite radical to many in my circle who could never imagine departing from their careers to take a year off or retiring short of 65, it was not nearly radical enough once I got exposed to the ideas in the EER community.

The problem with my plan was that it still required me to keep holding a job in my current field in order to keep bringing in high wages. Now, my job isn’t bad by any standard – work/life balance is great, colleagues are lovely, there’s plenty of intellectual challenge, and it pays well – but it’s still a job. It means that’s 50 hours per week that I can’t spend with the people I love or undertake a hobby or explore a new career path that could be more fulfilling (but less compensating). It also means physically tying my family to a location, which is difficult for a wanderlust like me.

Hence, I’ve embarked on a path to full Financial Independence by the end of 2018, or age 37 for me and age 39 for my wife. Our net worth has gotten a huge boost in recent few years, thanks to a meaningful stock grant from my employer that then doubled in value. And since 2013 and my enlightenment in EER, we’ve also worked on reducing expenses by ~15% every year and increasing our savings rate. But our expenses are still way, way too high to sustain post-retirement, and our focus going forward will be to cut these even more radically.

ModelMinority’s Path to Financial Freedom

Financial independence plan

The red line are my actual expenses excluding tax, which will be dramatically lower after retirement given loss of income. While I’ll still have some kind of tax bill post-FI, it should be minimal if I play my cards right so I’m just taking taxes out of this equation for simplicity. The green line is my projected passive income, based on 3% withdrawal rate from net worth. This is more conservative than the typically accepted 4% safe withdrawal rate, but that’s what I feel comfortable with given how early we’re trying to retire. The blue line (which is graphed on a different axis) is our net worth.

The point of freedom is when the red and green line intersect, and my goal is to have them intersect at the black line which marks my goal expense budget and my goal passive income. This means I need to continue socking money away to build up my net worth, while decreasing my expenses further.

 

ModelMinority’s Annual Expenses

I’m embarrassed by these numbers, but I’m putting this out there to show our ongoing rehab from the high-spending life. 

Annual expenses

ModelMinority’s Budget Breakdown

Again, rather embarrassing. Highlighted line items are especially atrocious (how are we spending that much money to feed a family of two women?).

Budget

What we have to do between now and our 2018 FI goal: 

  • Reduce our annual spend to $60K. This means a 30%+ reduction in costs, compared to our spend for 2015. There are some big expenses that will naturally fall off, but we still have a long way to go when comparing our budget to that of other FIers. Also by 2018, we hope to be a family of four so we need to take into account added cost of the kiddos. Our plan for meeting the new aggressive budget:

Dining: This is honestly the most difficult bucket. We truly enjoy good food and even moreso when it’s enjoyed with good friends. Given that the end goal of this entire exercise isn’t to accumulate money, but rather to enjoy life more fully – we refuse to let money prohibit us from dining out with friends or on special occasions. However, what we can cut is all the mindless dining out we do because we failed to bring lunch to work or because we were too lazy to cook (which accounted for at least $1K in 2015). We’re also receiving a fancy espresso machine from a relative who is moving, so no more excuse to casually spend at Starbucks either! Our bottom line philosophy on this one: We will still dine out, but we’re committed to dining out mindfully.

Home/General: We’ve been fostering a dog for a friend this past year, and when the dog goes in January that will naturally reduce $1800 in costs. Also no dog means a cleaner house, so we’ll reduce housecleaning from 2x/mo. to 1x/mo., another $500 savings.

Clothing/Personal Care: We’re cutting our subscription to a massage club where we both have been getting monthly massages, which saves us $1157. I’m also on the hook to cut my personal care expenses in half ($250 savings), and we’ll cut our clothing budget from $350/mo. to $100/mo. Still very beefy compared to the truly frugal budgets I’ve seen from other bloggers, but a dramatic reduction from where we’ve been.

Gifts Given: In 2015 we went nuts with a lavish gift for my mom’s 60th birthday (a helicopter volcano tour in Hawaii) and numerous other gestures of financial generosity to our friends and family. This is another tricky one – we feel incredibly fortunate to be in the financial position that we’re in, and we don’t want to become Scrooge McDuck just to accumulate more wealth for ourselves. We’ll see how this one goes but we are committed to making more homemade gifts and gifting experiences rather than things, which will make the gifts we give more meaningful and less expensive.

  • Get our net worth to >$2M. Based on a 3% withdrawal, that’s how much we need to sustain $60K/year spend. Even with my wife planning to leave the workforce next year to care for our first kiddo (we’re expecting in March ’16), I feel like it’s possible to achieve this by our 2018 deadline assuming the market does not crash.
  • Live life to the fullest in the meantime! I could consider these next 3 years as a deferral of pleasure for the sake of future rewards. But life is too short, and the future is never certain (e.g. the market could crash, our health could be compromised). We need to enjoy the moment, because we’ll never have them again. To this end, I’m turning my maternity leave next spring into a 6-month mini-sabbatical which will include a RV roadtrip across North America and a trip to Mexico. In reality, we could get to FI much sooner by having my wife stay in the workforce and cutting my leave short – but we want to enjoy parenthood, and these first years will fly by only too quickly.

 

Learning to fight for my joy

Let me be real. I’ve been doing terribly in my attempt to rest. In large part, I can blame this on too many good things happening to me at once. In the past 30 days, I got a big promotion at my day job, the wife and I successfully went through phase one of our IVF fertility treatment, we signed our first distribution deal on our film (more on this passion project another time), and…drum roll…we just got invited to speak at a TED event next month. 

As I’m writing this all out, it’s no surprise that I’m thrilled and totally overwhelmed at the same time. I’ve been working towards this promotion for the past year and half, but now that I finally have it, I’m worried about whether or not I can actually live up to my new position as a Director. The success of the first phase of our fertility procedure is a HUGE relief, but I still can’t allow myself to hope for more. And the TED invitation is the biggest thing to have happened to this passion project, yet of course I’m panicking at the thought of the speech itself. What’s clear to me is that if you don’t intentionally take time to celebrate your successes, it’s all too easy to allow the pressure of achievement overshadow your joy. 

As a way to put some rigor and discipline around resting (yes I know it’s ironic, but that’s who I am), I adopted a few goals based on the 90-day action plan espoused by performance coach Todd Herman:

  •  Process goals: My goals here were to meditate 1x/day, go on a meditation retreat, and do something restful everyday. Meditation fell off the table for much of March and April, but I’ve been bringing it back here and there in the form walking meditation (typically post-dinner walks with the dog). I was hoping to go on an official meditation retreat, but the best I managed to schedule is a weekend getaway with some Buddhist friends which will include some scheduled meditation time. As for doing something restful everyday, I’ve been more mindful about this than ever, though execution is still haphazard. My most restful day was one that I had no choice over – after my fertility procedure, I was pretty drugged out and couldn’t do much other than play video games and eat ice cream for the rest of the day. And all guilt free – oh the bliss!
  • Performance goals: My goal here was to feel less guilty about taking a break. Emotional hang-ups don’t get cured overnight, and neither will my unhealthy preoccupation with staying productive. But, I have been reminding myself of all the reasons why rest is necessary for creativity and well-being. I’m doing a decent job of putting time limits around work so that I make sure to step away from my desk and do something rejuvenating every few hours.
  • Outcome goals: My goal here was to get restored and give myself space for insight and self-reflection. Hmmm…no, I can’t say I’m anywhere near feeling restored. In fact, it feels like my life is this roller coaster ride that looks like a lot of fun to everyone else, but really it’s all I can do to just hang on for dear life. For now, my main relief comes from cuddle time with my wife, quiet walks with the dog, and Trader Joe’s mini mint ice cream sandwiches.

Sometimes I also find relief by staring at the net worth number posted on my Personal Capital account to remind myself that the promised land of Financial Independence and infinite free time is only a few years away. But as much as the idea of the future brings me anticipatory joy, I also know that life is lived in these moments right now, no matter how harried and crazy they may feel. After all no one knows what the future may hold, and these may be my only moments.

So this weekend, I promised myself to take time out from the errands and obligatory social events to do something that I truly enjoy. I looked up a new hiking route just 20 minutes from my house, and I was delighted to discover a beautiful 8-mile mountain trail with postcard views of the rugged California coastline. So often, just making the small intention to enjoy the present moment can yield such surprising rewards.

90-day Focus Plan for the overly ambitious

I love having a lot of balls in the air. The idea of focusing on just one thing at a time sounds terribly boring. I get such a high out of starting new ideas, and I thrive on the challenge of juggling projects across a vast arena of interests.

At any given time, I might be training for an olympic triathlon, taking an online course on marketing, starting a new business idea with a friend, interviewing contractors for a home improvement project, going through a Tony Robbins personal growth seminar, researching real estate investment options, doing pro bono consulting work, working on my film documentary project, and taking piano lessons. All while holding a relatively-demanding day job at a Fortune 500 company.

My wife looks at this and thinks I’m crazy. She is of the disposition that you should “do one thing, and do it well.” While I love my way of doing things, I have to admit that lately I’ve been feeling a bit scattered and dissatisfied.

I want to do all these things, but I’m not sure that I’m doing any one of them very well. And all the time, I’m feeling guilty for the loose ends I’ve left.

This has led me to my current exploration of Focus. Reading Margaret Lobenstein’s The Renaissance Soul (highly recommended for you multi-passioned people out there), I’ve concluded a few things. First, there is nothing wrong (and in fact many things right) with thriving on many interests. Second, it’s possible to focus while still maintaining variety. Third, you need to focus if you actually want to get anything done without losing your mind.

Why focus will make you happier and more effective, even if you’re the type of person who loves variety:

  • Focus generates momentum. When you focus on getting something done to completion, you don’t waste time/energy switching between projects, you feel more in control of the situation, and you feel satisfaction at seeing achievement. All this helps make progress happen faster. Podcaster Pat Flynn calls the ability to take one thing to completion at a time the most powerful (and toughest) productivity tip to implement. Furthermore, if your project requires support from other people, your own focus will spur them on and generate even more momentum.
  • Focus offers relief. Once you choose your focus areas, you can let everything else go for the time being. That’s a tremendous relief. If triathlon racing is not my focus, I can stop feeling guilty about not getting enough miles of training in each week. I might still exercise for my daily well-being, but I can let go of the need for achievement in this area and put away my time sheets and training plans. If any guilt comes creeping in, I remind myself that it’s not that I’ve given up on these interests – I’m just focused on other priorities for now and I’ll come back to them at another time.

Okay so how do you focus, when you’re curious about anything and want to try everything?

1. Look at your past and identify what’s made you lose focus as well as what’s helped you stay focused. If you want change your behavior, you need to understand how you’ve done it in the past.

What causes me to lose focus:

  • I hit a plateau in progress and it feels like hard work to get better (e.g. learning guitar beyond the initial 8 chords)
  • The initial thrill is gone and I’m getting bored (e.g. snowboarding same runs over and over again)
  • I’m afraid of failure, and I doubt whether any of my efforts will lead to anything worthwhile (e.g. starting a business)

What causes me to stay focused:

  • Make myself accountable to people: When I raised money from friends for my film documentary, I had to follow through.
  • Set hard deadlines for myself: In order to make progress on my business idea, I would set up meetings with my partners before the work was done so it would force me to do it.
  • Reaffirm why it’s worthwhile: I’ve stayed focused on investing and personal finance because I know that they’re the keys to financial freedom, which I deeply want.
  • Find a way to derive immediate benefit out of it: Establishing a fitness routine required immense willpower at first. But now that I feel immediate improvement in my mood and energy each time I work out, I’ve had no trouble staying committed to it.

2. Categorize all your interests into buckets, and understand why you’re interested in each bucket.

My interest categories:

  • Personal Growth: I want greater self-awareness and better relationships with others.
  • Financial independence: I want the freedom to spend my time as I please.
  • Music: I want to enjoy playing music for myself and for others.
  • Fitness: I want to have the physical energy and capability to enjoy life.
  • Learning: I want to grow in my knowledge about the world so that I can enjoy it more.
  • Adventure: I want to enjoy the beauty of nature with my own two legs (and arms, if I’m kayaking).

3. Choose a small number (I’m going with 3) of specific interests to focus on for the next 90 days. It’s also helpful to articulate why these are important to you now. The why is always more critical than the how, and it’s these reasons that will keep you committed when the next shiny object comes around to tempt you.

4. Build a 90 day action plan around those interests. Olympic athlete performance coach Todd Herman talks about making goals inevitable with 90 day sprints. The gist of it is to choose process goals (e.g. run 15 mi a week) vs. outcome goals (e.g. be top 20% in my triathlon age group), while still measuring for performance (e.g. improve my running pace by 10%). This way you’re focusing on what you have 100% control over (process goals).

5. Build in safeguards to keep you focused based on what you identified in #1

  • Make myself accountable: Promise a deliverable to someone, track your progress on a chart tacked to the fridge, write a blog to publicly share your journey! Whatever works.
  • Reaffirm why it’s worthwhile: In addition to accountability, this blog also helps me work through all the mumbo jumbo in my head and gives me greater clarity about the purpose of my goals.
  • Derive immediate benefit: Make sure you get something tangible out of your diligence right away. While FI is a long-term goal, I get the immediate benefit of a surge of excitement whenever I look at my net worth figure in Personal Capital because I know that freedom is truly within reach!

 

Why you need to change your beliefs about rest

What if I told you that there is something you could do that would lead to weight loss, improved creativity, and better performance – if only you could get over your guilt and let yourself do it?

I only came to this discovery through a recent session with my therapist (which I highly recommend getting, because an objective listening ear is an invaluable resource in life):

Me: I feel like a lump on a log.
Therapist: Why is that?
Me: I haven’t done anything this morning and it’s already 11AM. I should have responded to work emails. I should have researched those real estate questions for my parents. I should have at least gone on a run.
Therapist: How does that make you feel? (typical therapist question)
Me: I hate wasting time. I feel bad. I’m actually rather angry at myself for not being more productive.
Therapist: What would it feel like if you told yourself: “I needed the rest, this is good for me.”
Me: I don’t believe it. I don’t have time to rest.
Therapist: But what if you could believe it? How would it change things?
Me: What if I believed that rest was actually good for me, and I let myself do it?
<silence>
Me: …I think I would be a lot happier.

So at this point, I recognize that my inability to give myself any downtime is causing me unnecessary stress. The self-beratement I experience for “wasting time” is neither helpful to my life nor fun for anyone around me. I blame this on the fact that I was parented by a Chinese tiger-mom.

But, hasn’t my productive drive lead to much success in my life? If I let myself rest, won’t I lose my edge?

As it turns out, quite the opposite is true.

I did a bit of research and it turns out that real rest (versus mere distraction, like TV or People magazine or a glass of wine) has all kinds of benefits that can make you even more productive and help you live a fuller life, which ultimately is my end goal. What is real rest? While distractions seek to temporarily tune out life, real rest turns inward and anchors your awareness on the present.

Top 3 benefits of letting yourself get rest:

1. It stops you from resorting to unhealthy distractions to get a break: How often do you get up from your desk for a coffee or a pastry to avoid dealing with an unpleasant task? I’m pretty sure that this is a leading cause of my prediabetes. We need breaks, but because we’re not willing to allow ourselves to close our laptop without having another task to go to, we end up distracting ourselves with bad food, frivolous errands, and mindless Facebook browsing. If you just give yourself permission to rest for a few minutes whenever the desire to procrastinate comes a-knocking, you may find that you end up skinnier and wasting less time.

2. It restores you to perform at much higher levels, so you can achieve even more: In the must-read book The Art of Learning, chess champion Josh Waitzkin talks about the importance of pulsing between stress and recovery in order to achieve peak performance. Josh would use all kinds of techniques to relax between matches – stretching, deep breathing, play, washing his face. He writes, “By conditioning ourselves to move fluidly between intervals of tension and serenity…we become more able to rally our powers of intuition and creativity and call on our knowledge and skills at a moment’s notice.”

3. It facilitates insights and breakthroughs that only come when you step away from the problem: This one is really counterintuitive to me because my tiger-mom upbringing says that when I face a tough problem, the only way to solve it is by grinding through and not giving up. There’s no doubt that grit is critical for success (as proved in this TED talk by a Chinese-American psychologist), but there’s a difference between staying committed and bashing your head against the wall. Taking a break doesn’t mean you’re giving up. It just means you are giving yourself a chance to step away and find another perspective. I love this quote from essayist Tim Kreider: “The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

Okay all this is great, but how do you actually rest? This sounds like a silly question, but when I tried to think of an answer I drew a complete blank. The last time I could remember experiencing rest was at a spa day with my wife one year ago. This made me realize that I have a serious case of rest deficit. I turned to the internet and searched for “how to rest” for some ideas, and I found all kinds of advice from “go walk a labyrinth” to “try laugh yoga.”

I settled on experimenting with these 5 strategies that appealed most to me:

1. Have a private listening party: Listening to music with your full attention, as if you were at a concert, has been scientifically proven to bring all kinds of well-being benefits. Last night after dinner, the wifey and I set some mood lighting, snuggled up on our couch and listened to a Krishna Das album (we figured if we’re trying for rest, we may as well go for some mellow yogic chanting, but I’m sure this will work just as well with ‘regular’ music that you enjoy). I can’t remember the last time I just listened to music without doing something else, so it was quite a novel experience. And with a partner, it can be quite romantic as well.

2. Do an activity that brings you into “flow”: When you’re completely involved in an activity for its own sake, you are in a state of flow. Getting to flow takes effort, which seems at odds with rest, but when you’re in flow you forget yourself and begin to act effortlessly with a heightened sense of awareness of the here and now. I plan to explore this topic more in a later post, but for now I’m trying a couple of activities that I think might get me flowing: Playing guitar, going on a run and writing this blog post. Results vary, but I intend to experiment until I find an activity that can regularly get me there.

3. Get a massage or take a bath: This one’s an easy sell. Yet, how often do these things fall off your list of priorities when the to-do’s stack up? I’m back on my once-a-month regimen of massages, and I’m committing to more bath time in 2015.

4. Practice yoga and meditation: I already have a (relatively) regular practice of yoga and meditation. But to be honest, I’m not sure how restful they are. Most of the time, I’m struggling to keep my brain from wandering off into the wild blue yonder. A couple of tips that I’m trying out to stay more present: Take a deep breath. Feel every pose from head to toe. Focus on the small movements. And above all – be compassionate on yourself.

And above all, the most important strategy for getting rest:

5. Change your beliefs about rest: What is it about your beliefs that’s stopping you from closing the laptop and taking a break? For me, it comes down to self judgement. If I’m not striving and achieving, who am I then? If I’m not moving forward, where would I be? I’m afraid that if I sit with myself in the now, I might be sorely disappointed. The relentless inner critic mutters in my ear: I should be better; I should have done more. To combat the self-judgement, I’ve started repeating this mantra to myself: I am enough. I do enough. I have enough.

I’ll admit that this is extremely difficult for me. But what if I could truly believe that I’m good enough just as I am now?

…I think I would be a lot happier.