There are no shortcuts

Every Tuesday and Thursday morning for the past four weeks, I've awakened early and driven to the gym for a one-hour workout with a personal trainer. This is awesome but it also sucks.

Why does it suck? Because:

  • I am old.
  • I am fat.
  • I am out of shape.

Plus, who likes getting up at five o'clock? Not me! I can handle 6:30 no problem (and left to my own devices, that's when I'll naturally rise) but crawling out of bed ninety minutes earlier destroys me.

At the same time, this change has been awesome. Eight years ago, when I was at the heaviest weight of my life, I forced myself to get up early and go to the local Crossfit gym. After two years, I'd left peak fatness behind and achieved peak fitness. I was in the best shape of my life! Now I have a long way to before I get back to that point, but the key is that I've started.

Aside from improving my physical fitness (I've noticed positive changes already), this move has improved my mental fitness. Honestly, that's actually what prompted me to get back to the gym. After admitting to myself that my depression was messing up my life, I resolved to make changes.

At first, I wanted some magic instant cure for the depression. There isn't one. As with most things in life, there are no shortcuts to solving mental illness. (Perhaps a pill might be considered a shortcut, but pills come with side effects.) To get better, I need to do the things I know help me fight the disease.

Chief among these cures is fitness. When I'm active and fit, my mental state is much better than when I'm fat and sedentary.

I'm taking other steps too, of course. I've been spending more time with friends. And I've come to the realization that my sleep has been a huge culprit these past few months. I've been getting shitty sleep due to my weight and alcohol consumption. So, I'm (once again) working to reduce the alcohol, and I did an in-home sleep study that revealed my sleep apnea has returned. I'm waiting for a mouth-guard to be manufactured, which should improve my sleep quality.

Notice that none of these things are shortcuts. Drinking less, eating better, exercising more, and addressing my sleep issues all take time, money, and effort. I can't beat the depression by simply wishing it away. Thinking about getting better will solve nothing. Only action matters.

Magical Thinking

This morning while my trainer was leading me through proper form on the push press, he talked to me about his current financial situation. He just lost a few hours at another gym, and it's putting the pinch on his budget. (Cody also happens to be one of my best friends, which is why he was sharing this info.)

“So, I applied for a new job,” Cody said. “It's something completely different. It's an online sales position. I met a gal the other day who's doing the same thing and she made $9000 last month while working only twenty hours per week!”

“That's great,” I said. “It'd be awesome if you got the position.” Then the conversation turned to the motorcycle trip we're taking next weekend. Which route should we take from Portland to central Oregon? Where should we stop? What should we do?

Later, though, I got to thinking. While it is awesome that Cody has applied for this new job and I hope he gets it, I worry that he's exhibiting what I call “magical thinking”. Instead of pursuing mundane work in a field he knows (and is good at!), he's looking for a shortcut. That shortcut is a high-paying job in an area he knows nothing about.

This is the sort of thing I used to do all of the time. Back when I was deep in debt, I was always looking for shortcuts. Instead of doing what I knew needed to be done, I was constantly searching for ways to get rich quickly.

Just the other day, I found an example of the sort of shortcut I used to be drawn to. In the mid-1990s, I read an ad in a magazine about how you could make big bucks just by reading books. Holy cats! I liked reading books. I sent away for info. In return, I got this pamphlet that promised publishers would pay me $100 (or more) for every book I read:

Get rich quick book

Index of get rich quick book

I can't recall if I tried to follow the pamphlet's advice or not. I suspect “not”. It took effort. I didn't want to solve my problem by exerting effort. I wanted it to magically go away. I wanted a shortcut to success, a shortcut to debt elimination.

As regular readers know, I eventually surrendered to the fact that there aren't any shortcuts to getting out of debt. I did what I needed to do to cut my spending and increase my income, then spent 37 months repaying my $35,000 in consumer debt.

There Are No Shortcuts

Last Thursday, I joined Douglas Tsoi (who runs Portland Underground Grad School) to present a three-hour workshop we called Financial Freedom 101. (If you'd like, you can view our slides for the workshop here. I'm not sure they'll make sense without context, though.)

“Money is a game,” Douglas said at the start of our third hour. “And there are rules to the game. Some folks try to make the rules more complicated than they have to be. Others try to find ways around the rules. Still others believe the rules are a mystery, that they're hidden and have to be uncovered. The reality is the rules to the game of money are simple. They're not easy but they're simple. And you already know them.”

The rules of the game

Douglas and I walked the audience through “the rules of the game”. The final rule, which we added to the slide moments before we started the presentation, was this: There are no shortcuts.

If I want to beat my depression, I have to get fit. I have to eat right. I have to drink less. I have to spend time with friends. And so on.

If you want to achieve your financial goals, you have to spend less than you earn — you need a positive saving rate. That's how the math works.

  • If you want to earn more, you have to do the things that lead to greater income: ask for a raise, work a second job, change careers.
  • If you want to spend less, you have to find ways to reduce your consumption: choose a cheaper home, drive less, limit your luxuries.
  • If you've begun to set aside savings and want to create a wealth snowball, you have to invest wisely and you need to be patient. There's no magic investment that's going to turn your $1000 into $100,000 in less than a year.

As a life-long shortcut seeker, I completely understand the appeal of magical thinking. It took me months to realize that's the approach I was taking to defeating my depression. I was doing nothing and hoping that things would simply turn around on their own. But you know what? Things never turn around on their own. (If they do, the improvement is coincidental and generally short-lived.)

There are no shortcuts.

If you want to achieve anything in life — whether it's getting out of debt, writing a book, or shedding your beer belly — you have to put in the work necessary to make it happen. That's not what people like me want to hear but it's the truth. The good news is that, as with the game of money, the answers are usually simple — even if they're not easy.

Footnote: While finishing this article, I realized that many of the spam comments I deal with are targeted at folks looking for shortcuts. Here's a typical example:

A typical spam comment

“Click this link and watch all of your troubles wash away.” That's the very definition of magical thinking.

More about...Psychology

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Accidental FIRE
Accidental FIRE
2 years ago

Preach.

But I have news for you – there is a shortcut. The shortcut is finally realizing the fact that there are no shortcuts!

Because once you do that, and you really understand it, you’ll immediately spend all of your time putting in the hard work the old fashioned way. And you’ll waste no time looking for dead-end shortcuts. So by saving that wasted time, the knowledge that there are no shortcuts is in itself the ultimate shortcut.

Donna L Freedman
Donna L Freedman
2 years ago

“I met a gal the other day who’s doing the same thing and she made $9000 last month while working only twenty hours per week!” But you’re not her, Cody. Maybe she’s a better salesperson, or maybe she has better social media contacts to help boost sales, or maybe people to whom she’d previously sold keep coming back to buy more. That’s not to say that you won’t have the same success rate. But assuming you can earn $9k a month through 20-hour weeks just because someone else did really IS magical thinking. A woman I know told me she’s… Read more »

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
2 years ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

I don’t mean to pick on Cody, either. I just think people need to remember Murphy’s Law.

Could he hire himself out as a personal trainer who goes to the homes of rich people who have their own equipment or even their own home gyms? Were it possible, that would bring in a TON of extra cash. Working at an expensive/exclusive club would certainly put him in that position.

As for WP, well, beats me. It’s your world — I’m just visiting.

Jack
Jack
2 years ago

And as you noted on your latest travel posting, there are no shortcuts on Interstates or country roads, or engines. You have to pay-the-piper if you do.
I tell people all the time, “think”. If something is going to be easy- everyone would be doing it. Ain’t gonna happen. My son wanted to get involved with Amway years ago. He would have his “own” business. He would get rich. I said it “ain’t gonna happen. If it were easy everyone would be an Amway rep”. Fortunately, he got the message.

Jack
Jack
2 years ago
Reply to  Jack

I meant to add that the reason “work” is a 4-letter word is that all the other 4-letter curse words were already taken.

Geoffrey Sadler
Geoffrey Sadler
1 year ago
Reply to  Jack

Jack you’re right – for many wealthy people work is a 4-letter word. A nasty option for them to even consider. But they better darn well be super rich to avoid that 4-letter word! Mr. Roth is very, very wise man – there are no, repeat no, shortcuts to success, or real wealth. Most Americans want to find that shortcut – but hey, unless you get lucky in the music biz, or win the lottery… or inherit a fortune you gotta work hard and long to get anywhere in this world. And I’ll look more closely at that statement –… Read more »

Frogdancer
Frogdancer
2 years ago

I now have half my morning coffee snorted all over my keyboard when I read your reasons as to why going to the personal trainer sucked.

Amy
Amy
2 years ago

JD, best of luck to you in working out of your depression. As always, I really admire your honesty and transparency. I really enjoy reading your posts and am glad you have kept them coming. While common sense, the idea that there are no shortcuts, as you point out, is deep and far reaching. I think the easy access to credit that has pervaded society in the past 30 years is a great example of how damaging shortcuts can be in the long run. We are endeavoring to steer clear of credit going forth!

Vicki
Vicki
2 years ago

Spending time with smart people includes reading smart people’s blogs. I am so glad you are back writing these articles. (I was following you a decade ago).
A gentle suggestion: do not own the depression. Rather than saying “my depression,” say “the depression.” The change in verbiage will shift your energy and allow you to release it. Best wishes to you!

dh
dh
2 years ago

This is great. And of course what happens when you delve into personal finance and self-improvement long enough is you hit a wall. The dirty little secret is there really is nothing beyond working hard, saving, and investing in an index fund (VTSMX). If you really need something beyond the “wall,” I suppose one could take on the nightmare of a rental property. But this is the way it is for everything. When you study healthy eating, you quickly hit a wall and realize there really is nothing beyond Michael Pollan’s famous advice to “Eat food, mostly plants, not too… Read more »

olga
olga
2 years ago

Dang, my alarm is 5 am, and half the time I am up at 4:30. I am definitely a morning person:) Totally agree on “no shortcuts”. Really sets me off when folks comment how easy it is for me to be “thin, fit, whatever”, and others – “must be nice to be able to travel”. I do wake up and exercise first thing every damn day, and I log in every bite I take into the food diary to make sure my calorie intake stays where I need it to be. And I log in money and allocate priorities. There… Read more »

Ella
Ella
2 years ago

JD, this post hit me where it hurts, and that’s why I keep coming back to GRS. Thanks for the straight talk. No shortcuts – a new mantra.

Joe
Joe
2 years ago

Good job with exercising and drinking less. It seems to get harder and harder as we age, doesn’t it? Good luck to Cody. Maybe he’ll land in something he’s good at. Who knows?

Why can’t you wake up at 6:30 am and go to the gym first thing? Why do you need to go at 5 am? Seems a bit unreasonable. I think it’s better to just go at 6:30 am every weekday instead of 2 days/week.

RH
RH
2 years ago

Great article! To curb my leisurely ‘at home’ drinking habit, I did this: 1) No beer in the house 2) Have some grapefruit flavor sparking water (tastes kinda like an IPA). No calories, sugar, etc… I realized it wasn’t beer I liked. It was a cold, carbonated beverage. If I had one every other day, that was enough to satisfy my craving. To help lose weight, I tracked everything that went into my mouth by writing it down (I actually made a little cloud database and put a shortcut on my phone to access it). I also read the book… Read more »

Michael
Michael
2 years ago

Most who go on a “diet” to lose weight will eventually gain the weight back. IOW, failure is expected. The idea of permanent, successful weight loss is just not part of the equation. How many go on a diet and say, “yep, this is going to work, I’ve found the answer, this will be a permanent change”? Or perhaps this time willpower will truly win out. And that reasoning is logical. 99.9% will fail long term. Going to the gym, weight watchers, etc., is a way of saying one is doing something about their health, but in long-term health is… Read more »

MJ
MJ
2 years ago

JD – great article! I’m back to reading your blog (occasionally) after a what, 6-7 year hiatus?! Today I am 62, married 35 years to a lovely woman, raised 3 beautiful and now self supporting daughters, and after 24 years of living within my means just moved into a smaller, compact dream home on the golf course where I hope to live out the rest of my life. I am a small business owner who has worked extremely hard and am now enjoying many of the fruits of my earlier efforts. The one missing piece…? I am overweight (20 lbs),… Read more »

honey
honey
2 years ago

most of this article is great. However, calling antidepressants a shortcut is actively harmful to people out there who may benefit from them who might be dissuaded because antidepressants are often treated dismissively by others. if someone has diabetes, we recommend diet and exercise, but we don’t vilify them for taking insulin. If someone has high cholesterol, we recommend diet and exercise, but we don’t vilify them for taking statins. Similarly, if someone’s brain is not producing the appropriate amount of chemicals necessary for normal functioning, we should not vilify or ridicule them for taking medication that enables their brain… Read more »

The 76K Project
The 76K Project
2 years ago

I’ve spent the last 1.5 years (during which time we’ve been serious about paying off debt) looking for shortcuts… And you’re right. They don’t exist. The only sort-of shortcut I found was increasing my income after months of job searching. Higher income = faster debt payoff. But getting that higher-paying job took a ton of work, time, and effort.

Duke
Duke
2 years ago

Being a teacher all I could think about….3 hours of talk and slides….they were done after 20 min… Content was spot on… Take the 2nd hour workin on a project… look at https://www.bls.gov/cex/news.htm to get info. I teach middle school… so big idea is describe your life style and how you going to fund it? Got to fund it before you spend it… What were your learning goals…by the end of this cousre you should be able explain, create…punch mmm in the face and have him like it? They write an exit ticket…this what I know….this what I have questions… Read more »

Brooklyn Money
Brooklyn Money
2 years ago

You forgot the most important part of investing and exercise — TIME!! You need to be consistent over YEARS to see results.

WendyR
WendyR
1 year ago

I think of the habits I build as ‘shortcuts’. Once something is a habit you just don’t even think about it.

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