The power of focus: Why you should tackle one goal at a time

I used to be the sort of guy who loved to have a list of goals. At least once a year -- usually around New Year -- I'd sit down and make a list of all the things that were wrong with me, all of the things I wanted to change.

In 2007, for instance, I made a list of 101 things I wanted to accomplish in 1001 days. (It took me longer than three years to finish that list, by the way. In fact, I still haven't done everything on it because my priorities have changed. But now, ten years later, I see that I have completed nearly all of the ones that still matter.)

Eventually I realized that making a long lists of resolutions is a sure path to disappointment -- at least for me. There's a reason you see newspaper and TV stories every spring about how most people aren't able to maintain the resolutions they set at the first of the year. It's because most of us try to do too much. (And, I think, because we try to set goals that aren't truly aligned with our primary purpose in life.)

Nowadays, I do something different, something that's actually proven to be successful. Instead of trying to change many things at once, I've learned to change only one thing at a time.

One Thing at a Time

In 2010, for instance, I focused on fitness. In fact, I dubbed 2010 "The Year of Fitness". My aim was to lose fifty pounds. Every decision I made, I made with that goal in mind. You know what? It worked. Though I didn't lose fifty pounds that year, I did lose forty. (And I lost the final ten by the middle of 2011.)

[Weight Loss Progress]

I was able to do this because for the entire year, my only goal was to get in shape. I was focused. Nothing else mattered. I didn't have any other big goals clouding my view or competing for my attention. I set one goal, and I worked hard to meet it.

In 2011, my one goal was to learn Spanish. And I did it. Three times a week, I paid a Spanish tutor for ninety minutes of personal instruction. In my spare time, I watched Spanish movies and listend to Spanish music. I read Spanish books. I consumed Spanish podcasts. Within a year, I'd achieved reasonable fluency in the language. I could carry on converstations in South America, and I could read Spanish-language novels. (Though not all Spanish-language novels.)

In 2012, I tried something a little different. Instead of one big goal for the year, I chose to work on one goal each month. Some examples:

  • In March, I had lunch or dinner with a different friend every day. This let me reconnect with people I'd been missing.
  • In April, I embarked upon my Extreme Dating Project. I'd just been divorced, and my goal was to meet as many women as possible. (April was a fun month! And it led to my current relationship with Kim.)
  • Next, my goal became to make it to the gym every day in May. I didn't quite succeed -- I only worked out 28 out of 31 days -- but I came close.
  • My next goal was "no junk in June". I focused on my diet, which helped me lose five pounds and two percent body fat.

Sometimes I spend a year on any given goal. Sometimes, I spend a month. And sometimes I spend even longer! After Kim and I decided we wanted to take an RV trip across the United States, for instance, I spent the next eighteen months devoted to that project.

During the first part of 2015, we shopped for and purchased a motorhome, then prepped it for life on the road. We left Portland on 25 March 2015 and spent the next six months exploring the U.S. We paused for six months in Savannah, Georgia, before beginning our homeward journey this time last year. On 29 June 2016, we made it back to Portland. We had a blast -- because for those eighteen months, we were committed to one thing and one thing only.

You get the idea. At any given time, I'm concerned with only one major goal.

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Small leaks sink great ships: How little habits can have large consequences

If you've spent any amount of time reading money blogs over the past fifteen years, you've heard of the latte factor. In fact, you're probably sick of hearing about it.

This concept -- put forth by David Bach in his best-selling The Automatic Millionaire -- is based on the idea that daily spending on small things has a big impact on your future wealth.

"We don’t even realize how much we're actually spending on these little purchases," Bach writes. "If we did think about it and change our habits just a little, we could actually change our destiny."

The latte factor is nothing new. More than 200 years ago, Benjamin Franklin cautioned, "Beware of little expenses. A small leak will sink a great ship." Jesus urged his disciples to not let anything go to waste. The stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger wrote, "With parsimony a little is sufficient. Without it nothing is sufficient. But frugality makes a poor man rich."

Yes, the best way to spend less is to cut back on the big stuff. Yes, it's important to earn more money. But frugality is an important part of personal finance too.

Today, I want to share a real-life example of how small, daily habits can have a powerful effect on your ability to build a wealth snowball.

A Tale of Two Brothers

I've been back at the box factory for over two months now. It's been fun. (It's also been hindering my ability to work on Get Rich Slowly, but that's another story.)

One of the best parts about going back to work has been interacting with other people. Working from home is a lonely, lonely endeavor. I've enjoyed reconnecting with my brother and cousin and our company's employees.

The daily chit-chat has proved a rich source for future article ideas. As people talk about their daily lives, money is a frequent topic. Plus, we all observe what our co-workers are doing and how their choices affect their financial health.

Here's an example of how a seemingly innocuous choice is costing one of our workers a couple of thousand dollars per year.

  • To encourage employees to get to work on time, we use positive reinforcement at the box factory. If you clock in by your start time every day in a pay period, you get a $50 bonus. We run payroll semi-monthly, so this adds up to $100 per month or $1200 per year if you're on time every day.
  • Two of our employees -- let's call them Joe and Gus -- are brothers. They've both been with us for nearly twenty years. They're good guys. Right now, Joe and Gus live together in a house that's roughly twelve miles (and twenty minutes) from the shop.
  • Despite living together, Joe and Gus drive to work separately. Why? Because Joe likes to get his on-time bonus. He's always on time (and, in fact, often early). Gus, on the other hand, likes to sleep in. While his brother always clocks in by 7:00 (and frequently by 6:45), Gus usually doesn't show up until 7:05 or 7:10. He's getting an extra twenty minutes of sleep each morning.

On the surface, this isn't a big deal, right? Gus likes to sleep in, so he's willing to sacrifice $100 each month to do so. In reality, I think Gus is paying too much for a few minutes of sleep each day.

Let's crunch some numbers.

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The cluttered lives of middle-class Americans

Long-time readers are familiar with my decade-long war on Stuff. I was raised in a cluttered home. From a young age, I was a collector. (Some might even say a hoarder!) After Kris and I got married, I began to acquire adult-level quantities of Stuff. When we moved to a larger house, I found ways to acquire even more Stuff. I owned thousands of books, thousands of comic books, hundreds of compact discs, and scads of other crap.

Eventually, I'd had enough. A decade ago, I began the s-l-o-w process of de-cluttering.

While I still bring new Stuff into the house -- Kim would tell you I bring too much Stuff home -- I'm not nearly so acquisitive as I used to be. In fact, for the past decade I've purged far more than I've acquired. And that process continues, week by week, month by month, year by year.

The Cluttered Lives of the American Middle Class

Turns out, I'm not the only one fighting this battle. Many Americans struggle with clutter. This is one reason for the popularity of the simplicity movement. When I visit my friends who live in tiny houses, they rejoice at the lack of Stuff in their lives. And it's why books like Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up become popular bestsellers. (That book is great, by the way. Here's my review from my personal site.)

A while ago, I stumbled on a video that documents the work of a group of anthropologists from UCLA. These researchers visited the homes of 32 typical American families. They wanted to look at how people interacted with their environments, at how they used space. They also wanted to look at how dual-income, middle-class families related to their material possessions. They systematically documented the Stuff people own, where they keep it, and how they use it.

This team produced a book called Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century, which records their findings. They also produced this twenty-minute video that provides an overview of the results:

"Contemporary U.S. households have more possessions per household than any society in global history," says Jeanne E. Arnold. That's both shocking and unsurprising all at once.

Her colleague Anthony Graesch notes that our homes reflect this material abundance. "Hyper-consumerism is evident in many spaces," he says, "like garages, corners of home offices, and even sometimes in the corners of living rooms and bedrooms."

Graesch continues: "We have lots of Stuff. We have many mechanisms by which we accumulate possessions in our home, but we have few rituals or mechanisms or processes for unloading these objects, for getting rid of them." All of this stuff causes stress. It carries very real physical and emotional tolls.

One interesting finding? Clutter bothers women more than men. This might be because the responsibility for cleaning the clutter generally falls to women.

"The United States has 3.1% of the world's children but consumes 40% of the world's toys," notes Arnold. In households with children -- or, in my case, puppies -- the toys can take over the home. Children's toys and objects spill out of their bedrooms into living areas, kitchens, and bathrooms. The push to become consumers, to value Stuff, starts at an early age.

Why do modern kids have so many toys? It may be because there are so many playthings available so cheaply. There's more Stuff available for kids than there was fifty years ago, and that Stuff costs less. Plus, priorities seem to have shifted. Modern parents see spending on kids as a priority; parents fifty years ago did not.

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Just solve the problem!

While the contractors were working to replace the siding on our new home last summer, they discovered a termite infestation outside the bathroom.

Termites

Further investigation revealed that the floor under the tub was not only wet and damp, but had actually completely rotted. So, we hired somebody to repair the damage. On the first day he was here, I went into the bathroom barefoot. Oops. I stepped on a shard of glass tile. That splinter was stuck in my foot for weeks.

At first, it didn't really affect normal activity. If I wore sneakers and socks, I barely felt it. But if I wore sandals, I got a sharp stabbing pain in the side of my left foot. If I tried to run, the same thing happened. And forget about going to the gym!

Now, the obvious response here is, "Why didn't you remove the sliver from your foot?" Great question!

On the very first night, Kim did try to remove the sliver, and we thought she got it. But the next morning when I took Tally for a walk, I realized the sliver was still there. But I didn't do anything about it. I lived with it for weeks, a constant source of low-grade irritation.

This, my friends, is a perfect example of a couple of things.

  • First, it's my family's mentality in action. For some stupid stupid reason, we Roths don't like dealing with medical issues. When we're sick, we suffer for days (or weeks) before going to a doctor. When we're hurt, we just suck it up. When I was young, my mother sprained her ankle. She limped around for months before seeking medical attention. In college, I broke a finger playing touch football over Thanksgiving. I dealt with the intense pain until Christmas break, at which time I finally decided to see a doctor.
  • Second, this a perfect example of putting up with a problem instead of finding a solution. Most people -- myself included -- are willing to tolerate a great deal of dissatisfaction and discomfort before deciding to remedy whatever is wrong in their lives. I'm not sure why this is the case, but it's true.

With the glass shard in my foot, most of the time I barely noticed. But sometimes the pain was especially bad. I remember one morning while walking the dog, it felt like somebody was stabbing me with a needle. "I just need to solve the problem," I thought to myself -- and that reminded me of some wise advice I once received.

Just Solve the Problem

About a decade ago, I worked with a life coach. Each week, we'd have an hour-long phone conversation about the ways I was trying to become a better person. I made great progress in some areas, but little progress in others.

One day, we were talking about my inability to eat a healthy breakfast. I've always been the sort of guy who knows he should eat a nutritious breakfast but doesn't actually do so. My coach had been encouraging me to make this a habit in my life, but I kept complaining about all the reasons it wasn't possible. Eventually, she'd had enough.

"J.D., you're being ridiculous," my coach said, exasperated. "This isn't rocket science. Millions of people eat a healthy breakfast every day. You can too. You need to stop making excuses. You need to identify the problem and solve the problem. Just solve the problem!"

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Developing self-reliance: Personal empowerment lessons from 1951

Earlier this week, I encouraged readers to become proactive by developing an internal locus of control. In that article, I wrote:

You are the boss of you. You don’t need anybody’s permission to get out of debt or to buy a house or to ask for a raise. And nobody’s going to come to you out of the blue to explain investing or health insurance or your credit card contract. Take charge yourself.

"I get it," you might be thinking. "Self-reliance is great. But how do I change? How do I get from where I am to becoming a more self-reliant person?"

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The power of personal transformation: Change your self, change the world

Note: On July 8th, I gave the closing keynote at World Domination Summit 2012. After listening to Brené Brown talk about vulnerability, Susan Cain talk about introversion, Scott Harrison talk about building wells in Africa, and Chris Brogan talk about bravery — after listening to all of these professional speakers, I took the stage. I'm just an average guy. I shared what I've learned about how to change your life. This is the text of that talk.

My name is J.D. and I am an introvert. Or at least I used to be. As a boy, my introversion created problems. I was awkward physically and I was awkward socially. I was strange.

My awkwardness only increased as I grew older. I hung around with the other strange kids. We were nerds. There was a band of us, about six boys, and as we progressed through the grades, we gravitated toward each other. In our free time, we'd hang out to read comic books or play Dungeons and Dragons.

This was back during the late seventies and early eighties, and we were among the first to have computers. While other kids were doing what other kids did, we were home learning to write our own computer programs, reading Superman and Spiderman comics, or pretending to be barbarians or wizards or trolls.

At the time, I didn't know I was different from other kids. It didn't matter. All that mattered was that I liked what I was doing and I liked my friends. Life was good.

Things changed, though, when I got to junior high school. Gradually I became aware of a certain social hierarchy. What's more, I became aware that my friends and I were at the bottom of this social hierarchy.

We were always the last kids picked for kickball teams. Nobody wanted to be our lab partners in biology. When my pal Jeremy carried his Dungeons and Dragons books from class to class, the other kids would knock them to the floor if he got up to sharpen his pencil.

One day in algebra class, the girl behind me — Janine was her name — the girl behind me wrote something on the back of my shirt. I kept turning around to ask her to stop, but she kept writing. The other kids kept snickering. After class, I went to the bathroom to see what she'd written. There, in big block letters, was the word DICK. She'd written DICK on the back of my shirt.

That's who I was. I was the bottom of the junior-high pecking order. I was a nerd. A geek. A loser. The other kids thought I was a dick. And slowly but surely, I began to believe them. In fact, as eighth grade progressed, I sank into a deep depression. I missed school. I withdrew. I became suicidal.

I remember coming home from school after one particularly horrific day — maybe even the same day Janine wrote the word DICK on the back of my shirt — I remember coming home to our trailer house, searching the cupboards for something to eat. I opened one of the kitchen drawers, and there I found a sharp knife. I took it out and sat at the table. For maybe five or ten minutes, I sat staring at the blade. I ran it over my wrist once or twice. “I could kill myself,” I thought. “I could kill myself and this would all be over.”

Fortunately, I didn't have the guts.

Instead, I put the knife away and went to my bedroom to read X-Men comic books.

That was a turning point for me, a key experience in my young life. As I sat at the table with knife in hand, I made a decision. I knew I wasn't a dick. I knew I was a good guy. Why didn't other people? I decided to change. I decided that the next year, when I started high school, I'd do new things. I'd make new friends.

And so I did.

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Time Sinks and Passion: More Thoughts on Time Management

One advantage of bringing back the short afternoon posts here at Get Rich Slowly is it'll give me a chance to carry on more of a dialogue with you, the readers.

For instance, there was a good conversation over Friday's post about how I've become a magician of time. One reader, Alex, is a college student, and he wants to know how to tell is something is a waste of time.

He wrote:

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A Magician of Time

It's strange sometimes to see yourself through other people's eyes. Others see things — both good and bad — that you don't see in yourself.

"I see you as outdoorsy," a new friend told me the other day, which caught me off guard. I've never thought of myself that way.

Or a few months ago, a friend told me, "Every time I see you, you're doing something amazing." Me? I love my life, but much of it seems so mundane, so boring. But I only see this friend a few times a year, and through her eyes I'm always doing something new and different, like training for a marathon or traveling to South America or writing a book. (To me, these are the exceptions and not the rule. Mostly, I sit here at this desk, typing on this keyboard, writing about money.)

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Struggling with Time-Debt

I recently found myself, late one night, staring at my computer screen with a sinking, hard feeling in my stomach and a bad taste in my mouth. A familiar bad taste. The taste of debt. But I wasn't looking at my bank statement — I was looking at my calendar.

I'd borrowed a few hours from my normal work routine to do something special with my kids, and then cancelled a date with my husband to make up the work hours, and then tried to reschedule with him but ran into a doctor's appointment I'd forgotten about.

Time-management coach Thekla Richter says I'm not alone. “Everybody has that problem,” she says. “No matter how good we are at time managment. We want to do more things than we have time to do. It just means that we have lots of desire and lots of imagination.”

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Resisting the Time Suck

I usually have an idea of what I want to accomplish once I get home from work. It goes something like this:

  • Practice yoga.
  • Get some writing done.
  • Make a fabulous, healthy dinner.
  • Work on my business.
  • Read something thought-provoking.

But I never seemed to accomplish all I set out to do. Sometimes I'd accomplish none of it. Other activities would get in the way, and my evening would go something like this:

  • Check e-mail (for the 40th time that day).
  • See some Facebook updates in my inbox.
  • Log on to Facebook to leave my oh-so-clever comment on my best friend's page. ("She is going to LOL when she reads this!")
  • Check out some random person's page who is friends with my friend.
  • Check out random person's blog, which they haven't updated since last year.
  • Remember that I hadn't checked my blog feed since this morning.
  • And on and on.

An hour and a half would pass by, and I'd realize that I wasn't going to get as much done as I had planned. I'd start to practice yoga, but with my head full of e-mails, social media posts, and random bits of information, my practice wouldn't be as fruitful. Eastern traditions refer to this as the “monkey mind” that jumps from one thought to the next, and my monkey mind would be swinging in the trees. This led to a somewhat dissatisfying practice, which made me want to speed it up because I was unable to focus.

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