One maxim I have learned from every challenging goal I pursue – hitting the gym, eating healthier, doing taxes, saving for retirement, etc. – is that it is always better to do something than to do nothing.
When planning how to tackle an important goal or reach a significant milestone, we often run into 'analysis paralysis'. There are so many ways to start, so many paths that might lead to the desired outcome, that it can be difficult to get started. And without fail, a quick internet search can provide information on why one choice is perfect – and other information on why it could be the worst!
Instead of focusing valuable (and irreplaceable) time, effort, and energy on making sure that your first step is exactly the correct one, I recommend instead choosing any of the possible first steps that seem viable and adjusting as needed along the way. Initial choices – even if not absolutely perfect – can generate the momentum that will carry you closer and closer to the desired outcome. Small initial successes encourage more action and enthusiasm, which will allow for larger and bolder future actions.
Let’s say, for example, my goal is to run 5 miles a day. I know from personal experience that going from a 0 miles per day to 5 miles per day will lead to some serious struggle and pain, so it seems really difficult. But I also know that I can run 1 mile a day pretty easily without a lot of preparation or thought. If I increase my daily distance by 1/2 mile every week, which I know from experience I can do without a lot of extra effort, I should be up to 5 miles per day in just over 2 months! Sure, it is likely that there is a smarter, better way to reach that 5 mile target in less time. But my approach requires almost no preparation, insight, or special technique, and has a very manageable path to get started.
As another example, I hate preparing my annual income tax filing. HATE it. Setting aside 12 hours with TurboTax staring me in the face is a bummer and I can put that off indefinitely. However, I know that I can manage an hour of tax prep each day without sprouting gray hairs. After about a week and a half, I will have waded through all 12 boring hours of taxes without ever feeling overwhelmed or overworked. Again – there is likely a better and quicker way to get the same result, but my method requires very little effort, foresight, stamina or frustration.
Another example: I know I can’t do 100 pushups in a row. It would be embarrassing to try. I do know, however, that I can confidently do 10 today. I am also confident that I could go up to 11 tomorrow and 12 the day after that. If I add only 1 extra rep each day, I should be up to 100 a day in under 3 months.
And so on and so on and so on. The central theme – one that I embrace fully – is that some positive action that you can and will take today is magnitudes better than another, more clever approach that sounds great but requires a lot of extra time, effort, and mental dexterity. The same approach works for managing your money.
If you have some credit card debt and you need to build an emergency fund and you want to save for retirement and maybe enjoy your life once in a while, it can be a lot to think about. It feels impossible to tackle all of that, or to even know where to begin!
By starting with only one part – without worrying too much about being "perfect" – and making the best decisions you can with the information available, you will break your mountain of goals into manageable chunks. Those initial first steps will lead to more and more action on your part, which will increase your momentum and enthusiasm for moving onto the next chunk.
It’s better to pay down your credit card every month than to pay only 50% of the balance. But 50% of the balance is probably a lot better than the minimum payment and, if you can manage it, start there.
It’s better to have 12 months worth of expenses in an emergency fund than to have 3 months worth. But 3 months is better than nothing, and if you can manage it, start there.
It’s better to set aside 20% of your income for long term investing than it is to set aside 5%. But 5% is better than nothing and, if you can manage it, start there.
If you feel like any of those areas – paying off debt, building an emergency savings account, planning for retirement – are too much for you to tackle, focus on one easy to understand and accomplish task and see if you can do a little bit more the following month. Do the best you are able right now, do more when you can, and in a year or two or 10 you will see the tremendous progress you have made.
Timothy Iseler, CFP®
Founder & Lead Advisor
Iseler Financial, LLC | Durham NC | (919) 666-7604
Iseler Financial helps creative professionals remove stress while taking control of their financial futures. As both advisor and accountability partner, we help identify current strengths and weaknesses, clarify and refine your long-term goals, and prioritize understandable, manageable, and repeatable actions to bring long-term financial well-being. Reach out today to take the first step.