Breaking down your big goals into smaller ones and implementing strategic practices like the Pomodoro technique is the first step towards achieving your dreams in any area of life, including artistic and economic goals. But you still need a system to keep track of these short-term activities, and assess how they are contributing to your long-term goal. And that is where the second part of this series on motivation comes in.
In the previous article, we looked at how these strategies can help you stop procrastinating and start achieving goals as enormous as paying off a mortgage, or writing a novel. In my own experiences of paying off our mortgage and writing my own first book, as well as observing the postgraduate students I used to supervise, I’ve come across a number of tips and tricks for maintaining motivation over big projects.
Ten ideas to keep you motivated long-term
Some will appeal more to some people than others, some will work better for some projects than others, but here are ten ideas for you to experiment with:
For your mortgage (or any other debt) you could write your total debt at the bottom, and $0 at the top. Then, fill in the gaps with 5% increments. So, if you have a $200,000 mortgage, you would use $10,000 increments. Each time you pay off another 5%, you can colour or highlight that amount. If you have a creative goal, replace these financial figures with word counts, number of minutes practised, etc.
2) Advent calendar.
Draw up a chart with $10, $100, or $1,000 increments, (or any other amount that suits your goal). Put this on your fridge and remind yourself of how far you’ve come, and what you’re aiming for. You might even reward yourself with chocolates on certain squares!
3) Vision board.
A small plastic sleeve at the beginning of your financial journal, or a Pinterest board of creative ideas is a great way of maintaining motivation.
4) Put it out there.
Make yourself accountable by telling other people about your goal. If they laugh, so much the better. You can prove them wrong! But if you can, find a supportive community of like-minded people.
5) Use tickers.
If you’re a member of any websites related to your goal or comment on blogs, why not create a ticker you can link to or post? Even if you only use it yourself, it’s a great way to visualise your progress. (If you don’t want others to know your personal details, simply set the ticker to display percentages rather than dollar figures). Tickerfactory.com has a nice range of free tickers you can use for savings, debt reduction, and other goals, like writing, number of paintings completed, hours of music performed, etc!
6) Use a calendar.
If you have a monthly savings or creative goal, divide it by the number of days in the month and write that figure (e.g. 1667 words, one painting complete, no spend day, or $100 of debt gone) on each day. Give yourself a big tick or sticker for each successful day.
7) Decorate your spending plan or creative space.
We kept a photo of our house in our budget spreadsheet to remind us of why we were being so stringent about planning our spending.
8) Have a once-a-month meeting.
Although my husband and I ran (and still run!) a pretty tight ship when paying off our mortgage, our one big treat was a once-a-month dinner out during which we discussed (and celebrated) our progress. You can do the same with a writer’s group or other supportive group of fellow creatives.
9) Use apps.
There are lots of mobile apps that can help you visualise your savings or to track your creative goals.
10) Keep a reminder.
Put a photo of what you’re aiming for somewhere like your wallet or keyring so you see it frequently.
Of course, I don’t necessarily recommend using all of these methods at once, but I strongly believe celebrating achievements is more effective than feeling bad when you haven’t achieved a goal.
And that brings me back to the second reason why it’s important to break big goals down into small goals: too often, we focus on getting something perfect instead of just getting it done.
Why avoiding perfectionism is important
Perfectionism plagues many people. While it’s sometimes talked about like a good thing – in fact, we’re often even encouraged to mention our perfectionism in job interviews, as if it’s a flaw that is actually of benefit – in reality, it can be crippling.
During my years as a lecturer, I taught many students whose desire to be ‘perfect’ resulted in them almost giving up on courses, or almost refusing to hand in assignments.
And you know what?
Most of them were way off the mark when it came to assessing their own capabilities.
I can’t count the number of times I encouraged a student to submit an essay they assured me was terrible and definitely going to fail – only to discover that not only was it not bad, it was among the best pieces of writing submitted. High distinction quality.
The same is true of financial goals. I have spoken to intelligent, well-educated and well-paid people who have essentially given up. I’ll never be able to pay off my student loans, or my mortgage, they tell me, so I’ve given up trying.
When shouldn’t you give up?
Let’s say you’re an English major, and you’ve written an assignment that you’re pretty sure is going to fail. It’s a big deal – worth 50% of your overall grade (the final exam is worth the other 50%).
If you submit it, and fail – let’s say you get just 30%. A pretty convincing fail. That’s very disappointing.
If you don’t submit it, you’re guaranteed to get 0%.
Both of these results are a ‘fail’ in most grading systems. But let’s consider what happens when you go to sit that final exam. If you submitted the assignment, you’ve already earned 15% of the overall course grade. If you study really hard and get 70% on the final exam, you will still pass the course.
On the other hand, if you didn’t submit the assignment, you now need to get 100% on the final exam or you will fail the entire course. That’s going to be a lot harder.
And who do you think is in a better position to do well on that final exam? The student who submitted their assignment, got some feedback from the teacher, and maybe even met with them for extra tutoring after the teacher noticed they were struggling? Or the student who submitted nothing, and therefore, got no feedback on what they were missing?
“The first draft of anything is shit”Ernest Hemmingway
Trying leads to improving
Maybe you’re not enrolled in any formal course. You’re just doing something for fun. The same principle holds. Who is going to be a better writer? The one who got something down on the page – even if it was terrible – which they can edit, get feedback on, and improve? Or the one who stared at a blank page?
Who is the better painter? The one who puts paint on canvas, or the one who can’t even pick up a brush? The better musician? The better sculptor?
“You can’t edit a blank page”Jodi Picoult
We can see the benefits even more clearly when it comes to economic goals. Even if you don’t completely eliminate your mortgage within five years, even if you don’t totally wipe out your debt (ever), you’ll still benefit from having less debt. Because less debt means less interest pay every month.
Motivation… and life lies
Finally, consider whether the lack of motivation you’re feeling might be related to life lies you’re telling yourself.
Is it really true that you’ll never finish that book? That you’ll never pay off that debt?
Or are you afraid to start, so you’re telling yourself it’s impossible?
You may even discover that some life lies, you can flip on their head and turn into a source of motivation. On my finance blog Enrichmentality, I describe an encounter I had with someone who said it’s easier to succeed financially when you don’t have kids.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to argue that having children makes things financially easier on people. I don’t think many would say that! But, just like it’s not impossible to write a novel in a month, and just like it’s not impossible to pay off a mortgage in five years, it’s not impossible to achieve financial independence with children.
There are plenty of examples of people with kids who have managed to quit their jobs. And there are even more examples of people without kids who haven’t.
An example: Retiring early with kids
In his book Cashing in on the American Dream: How to Retire at 35, Paul Terhorst devotes an entire chapter to ‘Retiring with kids’. This (now, sadly out-of-print) book begins its chapter on families with a very familiar and depressing picture of the ‘average’ family in the 1980s, with everyone living in their own bubbles (and we couldn’t even blame iPads back then!) It doesn’t sound as if things have changed much in the past 40 years.
Terhorst drives home the message that your kids need you now, and makes a good case for parents retiring early if at all possible. Influential blogger Mr. Money Mustache, who is both a parent and an early retiree himself, makes many of the same points in the current decade.
Transform your excuse into your inspiration
In short, if you have children, make them your inspiration, your reason to achieve financial independence, not your excuse.
The same is true of essentially any goal in life. If you want to be a writer. A painter. A singer. An actor.
Of course, your kids deserve time with you. They deserve the material necessities of life – food, water, shelter. They deserve to feel like the most important people in your life.
But they also need a good role model. Do you really want to model the kind of behaviour that sends the message that money is more important than fulfilment? That having material goods is more important than pursuing your dream?
Teach yourself well
And it’s not just kids. We train our own brains to recognise what is important by repetition.
If you spend all day at work, and all night thinking about work, that’s what you will find important in your life.
But if you use the big-picture motivational techniques referred to in this article, and and little-picture time management techniques referred to in the last, you’ll start to automatically prioritise the things that really matter to you.
Choose one or two of the motivational ideas listed above and apply it to the SMART goal(s) you identified previously.