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Monday, July 30, 2012

One Key to Happiness: Let Go of Some Long-Term Goals


Carl Richards is a certified financial planner in Park City, Utah, and is the director of investor education at BAM Advisor Services. His book, “The Behavior Gap,” was published this year. His sketches are archived on the Bucks blog.

We've all heard how important it is to set and track goals.

We're encouraged to write them down, tape them to the mirror and review them daily. It's now common to hear people refer to their “bucket lists.” But after setting all those goals, we're often faced with a hard truth: we will not have enough money to reach all our goals.

Not now. Not ever.

It can feel incredibly painful to discover that you spent years expecting to do certain things but ended up being limited by a lack of money. I often refer to this feeling of disappointment as the gap between our expectations and our reality.

For some, this disappointment comes when we real ize that the retirement we planned is no longer an option. Years of working and saving just didn't turn out the way we'd hoped. So it's no surprise that if we spent a decade or two attached to a certain outcome, even delaying life because we're so focused on that outcome, we're really disappointed when it doesn't happen.

A few weeks ago, I spoke with someone about her bucket list. With tears in her eyes, she told me she finally realized that she might not ever have the money to do some of the things on her list.

Yet this same person appeared to live a life that many would consider a dream. She participated in her community and enjoyed meaningful work. Life wasn't bad in any measurable way. But while that's easy to say, it was clear from our conversation that the pain of her unmet expectations was very real.

The question is what do we do about it? Can we avoid it?

I suggest something radical. I believe it's time we let go of outcome-based goal setting and instead focus on the process of living the lives we want right now. Letting go of outcome-based goals can bring us freedom. We can start by:

1. Letting go of expectations.

Just in case life hasn't already shown you otherwise, the world doesn't necessarily owe you anything. Goals are great, and they can help us focus our efforts toward doing and being better. But you need to focus on having them remain goals and not turning them into expectations.

2. Letting go of outcomes.

Focusing on the process is a far better way to set goals. When I wrote my book, I hoped that in some small way it would help people make decisions about money that were more aligned with what is really important to them. My goal wasn't to write a New York Times best-seller but instead to help people. Even starting out with the right intent, I sometimes forgot that goal and instead focused on a specific outcome out of my control. And no surprise, it led to anxiety and often disap pointment.

3. Letting go of worry.

I know how hard it is to stop worrying about money. After all, there are so many money things to worry about. What if it all goes away? What if I can't afford to send my kids to college? It's a hard habit to break, but it doesn't do us any good. Can you think of one single thing that got better because you worried about it? Obviously it's different from sitting down and crafting an action plan to solve a problem. All worrying does is create an uncomfortable rut.

4. Letting go of measuring.

We're competitive. We like to compare ourselves to other people. We love to race to see if we're good enough to win. As I wrote earlier this year, we're all striving for happiness. But we don't have units of happy we can measure. I think in some instances we've substituted measuring money for happiness even though few people have set the explicit goal of having more money than the next person.

5. Letting go of mindless tracki ng.

A bit different from measuring or comparing yourself against others is letting go of tracking every penny in and out. For some people, there's a belief that spending should be painful. And I'm all for tracking your spending habits to learn about yourself and your relationship with money. After doing it for eight years, however, my wife asked me what good it does to know down to the penny how much we spend on gas in a month. In this case you don't want to confuse the process with the goal. The goal isn't to track every penny but to know where your money goes.

Goals can be a great things. We just need to do a better job making sure they don't turn into expectations that leave us disappointed and unhappy.