For most of my life, I've just drifted. I would work passionately at one thing for a while, then I'd burn out on that thing and move on to something else. I felt like I had a good grip on what I needed to do today, but in terms of thinking about the big picture of my life, I just didn't have any idea.
Photo by David Marcu via Unsplash.
I would often hear people ask questions like "What do you want to do with your life?" and I would come away with the conclusion that there was some sort of scam involved. I never really had any sense of what I wanted to do with my life.
That overall lack of direction went a long way toward fuelling my overspending back in the day. My general lack of any kind of life direction sort of bothered me, so I often covered it up with short-term pleasures. I spent money and did things at least in part so that I wouldn't have to consider my lack of life direction.
I think that feeling is common for a lot of people. If you don't have any sense of what you want to do with your life to guide you, it becomes really easy to just drift through life, living paycheck to paycheck and simply trying to get the most momentary enjoyment that you can from what life hands you.
Even when I started my financial turnaround, my idea of saving for the future was entirely based around the idea that, although I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life right now, I'd probably figure it out in the future and I wanted to give my "future self" plenty of resources for that moment when it all became clear.
My friends have had very similar experiences in life, actually. Most of them blanch at the question of what they want to do with their life. And, based upon the emails I've read from many, many readers, it's a common feeling.
I think that, in the end, the question of "what do I do with my life" and the fact that for so many it remains unanswered lies at the root of a lot of financial problems. People don't have a sense of what they want to do with their lives, so they stumble in random directions. They spend money on short-term fixes and pleasures and try to not think about it too much.
So, how do you answer that question?
Rather than talking about what my own answer is, I'm going to instead talk about what I went through to figure this out in my own life, so that maybe you can use the same steps to figure things out for yourself.
It Starts With You
Here's the truth of it: you are the only person who lives within your skin. At the end of your life, you really only have one person to answer to: yourself (and your god, depending on your theological beliefs, but that doesn't really qualify as a person).
Thus, the number one question that really matters above everything else is what do you want? What do you want out of life?
This isn't about what your wife wants or your husband wants or your kids want or your parents want or your friends want. This is about what you want. What do you want out of life?
Finding the Flow
That seems like a tough question on the surface, so I'm going to break it down into some pieces.
One, at what points in your recent adult life have you felt genuinely fulfilled and happy? There is no right or wrong answer here. For some people, it may happen when they're working. For others, it may happen when they're spending time with people. For still others, it may come when they're engaged with a hobby.
I find that the greatest moments of fulfillment in life tend to line up really well with the moments in which I've lost all track of time and space, and I've found that, through conversations with other people, a lot of people feel that way, too. When I'm doing something that I'm so involved with that I'll happen to look up at a clock and be completely confused by what the clock is telling me. Where did the hours go?
That, in my eyes, is the peak state of living — when you're so engaged physically and/or mentally with something that the constraints of your life — the clock being a big one — just kind of disappear. You're lost in the experience of the moment. To me, that's incredibly joyful; to me, that's why people were put here on this earth.
For me, it happens sometimes when I'm writing. It happens sometimes when I'm hiking. It happens sometimes when I'm doing things with my children or with my wife. It happens sometimes when I'm reading. It happens sometimes when I'm playing a game that makes me think in some fashion. It happens sometimes in the midst of a great conversation with a thoughtful friend or two. It happens sometimes when I pray or meditate. It occasionally happens when I'm cooking or when I'm gardening when I'm exercising or when I'm fixing or repairing something.
Those moments truly are the best moments of my life. I'm so lost in something that the stresses of my life tend to disappear for a while and I feel "whole" in a way that I never really feel outside of those moments. I feel incredibly fulfilled and happy when that happens. I call those periods my "flow state," because time and other aspects of life just flow around me — I don't even really notice them.
So, the next question I ask myself is this: what do I need to do in my life to maximise the amount of time I spend in that kind of flow state? What do I need to do to create a life that has as many flow state moments as possible?
Remember, as you keep reading, that I'm just using "flow state" to describe something that happens at the best moments for all of us: when we're so engaged mentally and physically and emotionally with something in our life that we lose all track of time and space for a while. That's all flow state is, and I'm pretty sure we all experience it sometimes.
To me, that's really the answer of what I want to do with my life. I want to create a life where I have as many of those flow state moments as possible, where my mind, heart, and soul are so engaged with something that I lose track of time and distractions and physical pain and emotional pain and I just get lost in doing whatever it is that's in front of me due to my deep love for it.
Here's the thing: the elements of your life that bring you into that flow state are going to be different than what clicks for me. I have a close friend that gets there when he's fishing; he even jokingly calls it his "fishing trance." I have another friend who can get there in the midst of doing lab work, as he's an incredibly passionate researcher. My wife says that she gets there sometimes during the middle of teaching a lesson to her students, where she feels so engaged with them that she's completely startled by the bell signifying the end of the period.
So, what brings out that flow state in your life? Keep that in mind for the rest of this article.
Preserving, Maximising, and Enhancing
We've established the basic premise that doing whatever puts you into a flow state is what you should be doing in life and that the best life is one that puts you into that flow state as much as possible.
Let's look at some of the elements you need to put together to make this a reality in your life.
First, you need some significant blocks of time. It's hard to get into a flow state without having some blocks of time set aside for those things. Obviously, this means that time management needs to play a role.
Second, you need enough financial security so that you're not "living on the edge." If you're in a situation where you're stressed out constantly about money, you're going to find it hard to focus on other things for any significant period (and even when you manage to do it, you find yourself in a rough spot when you "snap back"). You're also in a position where you can't take a stand for yourself at work because there would be major problems if you lost your job.
Finally, you need enough financial security to afford whatever tools you need to achieve that flow state. This is achieved with budgeting, of course.
How do you get these things? Here are several strategies for achieving that.
Strategy #1: Be Frugal With Everything Else, as They're Relatively Unimportant Anyway
Everything in your life that isn't connected to that sense of "flow" should be enormously secondary to you. You should strive in every possible way to minimise the time and money you commit to those things.
The first and most obvious way to do that is to simply find ways to minimise your spending in all of those areas. If food doesn't bring you to a flow state, look for ways to minimise the cost necessary to adequately meet your nutritional needs and don't spend beyond that. If laundry doesn't bring you to a flow state, look for ways to minimise the cost necessary to dress yourself cleanly and presentably and don't spend beyond that. The same thought goes for every single thing in your life that you spend time or money on — if they don't lead to a great experience for you, minimise the money and time you spend on them.
There are countless frugal strategies you can adopt along the way. You can cut back on everything from housing (live in a smaller cheaper place — remember, does it help bring you to a joyful state?) to transportation to utilities to household supplies to entertainment (why spend money on stuff that doesn't bring genuine lasting joy into your life, especially when there is so much free stuff to do?). Just start cutting back on everything that doesn't bring you to that joyful flow state — if it doesn't do that, why are you spending money on it?
Strategy #2: Have "Compressed" Days and "Uncompressed" Days
This is a strategy I've found incredibly helpful in terms of finding blocks of time in which to get lost in the flow of things that I really care about. Without it, I don't know how I'd ever find, say, an afternoon to get lost in a great book or an evening to go to the community board game night or a day to go hiking with my family.
To put it simply, I have "compressed" days in which I fill basically every waking second with what I call "life management" — the tasks that aren't really very fun but are necessary for professional employment and day-to-day life. Laundry. Dishes. Work. Paying bills. Cleaning. Errands. All of those kinds of endless things.
Rather than spending some time each day "unwinding" — which is time basically spent not really doing anything — I try to pack some days so full of little tasks that I basically don't "stop" for the entire day. I go to bed feeling utterly worn out, and that's a good thing because it means that I'll have a day (or part of a day) in the very near future where I can devote real blocks of time to the meaningful things in my life.
Those "uncompressed" days serve as an incredible motivator to get me through my "compressed" days. I might be tempted to just kick back for a while and not do much of anything in the evening on a "compressed" day, but if I do that, I'm directly sacrificing time that I'd set aside for the big hike this weekend or for a Sunday afternoon curled up and getting lost in a book.
Strategy #3: Slowly Decommit From Less Important Things in Your Life
Most of us have life commitments and relationships and other things in our lives that we've committed to over the years, only to realise later on that they're really not something that brings lasting value into our lives. They just take up time and energy, but we still keep chugging along with them.
The truth is that, in most cases, if you've reached a point where you're just "chugging along" and you don't feel any real commitment to something, you're probably turning in a pretty poor performance at that thing and that someone else will probably bring much more to the table than you do.
For those commitments, commit instead to winding down your commitment. Do everything you can to prepare that commitment for transition to someone else and then find someone to hand that commitment to.
Naturally, this doesn't apply to every single responsibility and commitment in your life, just the ones you can sensibly hand off to others. What about the ones you have to follow through on?
Strategy #4: Treat Your Responsibilities Not As "Downers," but as the Essential Things You Need to Do for More "Flow Time"
Many people look at their life responsibilities in a negative light, as things that have to be joylessly done. The truth, however, is that the vast, vast majority of your life's responsibilities only are responsibilities because they directly support the things in life that you want.
For example, I really don't enjoy doing laundry. It's a task that is just... drudgery for me if I look at it in isolation. Sorting clothes, putting them in the washer, moving them to the dryer or putting them on racks, then folding them and putting them away... it's just not something I relish. At all.
However, when I put it in a different context, it's not bad. It's that laundry task that makes it possible for me to have clean clothes to wear. It's doing the dishes that makes it possible for me (and my family) to have clean dishes to eat and drink from.
In other words, I focus on the outcome of the drudgery and how it helps me to do the things I most want to do in life. I don't think about how un-fun the actual task is; instead, I look entirely at the result. The end result of laundry is clean clothes in my drawer, which means I can just grab a shirt during an "uncompressed" day and jump right into doing something meaningful, thus doing laundry really supports that task.
What about things like parenting? Many people have children but don't find deep meaning in being parents. What if you have a real responsibility in life that doesn't lead to something deeply meaningful?
The thing to remember in those situations is that you owe it to yourself and to the other people involved to take care of your responsibility to the best of your ability. Doing so means the best possible outcome over the long term for you and for the other people involved. For example (and this is just one aspect of a much bigger picture), it's pretty difficult to ever have a healthy family relationship with your adult child or a relationship with any grandchildren if you don't do your best to be a good parent. That's not just a benefit for you in the long term, but a benefit for your child as well.
Strategy #5: Treat Your Physical and Mental Health as a Major Responsibility
Almost everything you want out of life relies on a firm foundation of physical and mental health. Without those, it's often much more difficult — even impossible — to reach that joyful flow state.
I find that four things go a long way toward preserving and enhancing my physical and mental health foundation.
First, I get adequate sleep — not too much, not too little. I prefer to wake up on my own each morning, but I try to get out of bed as soon as I awaken. To do that, I try to have a consistent bedtime and minimise the light in my bedroom so that I go to sleep as quickly as possible. The time at which I have to wake up is at the very far end of how long I normally sleep, so I usually naturally awaken well before I need to be awake in the morning.
Second, I (try to) eat a well-balanced diet with tons of fruits and vegetables. That's pretty straightforward. I try to have more vegetables on my plate than anything else at meal times and I usually make fruits into my snacks. I don't go to extreme ends, but I think that those principles make for a pretty good dietary foundation. (My only weaknesses are portion size, craft beer, and cheeses, and I consciously try to minimise those.)
Third, I (try to) get some exercise every day, even if it's just a walk. I usually try to exercise for at least half an hour each day. Many days, this just takes the form of a two to three mile walk. I use that time to relax my mind and to brainstorm ideas. I find that exercise is good for both my mental and physical health.
Finally, I meditate. I try to practice mindful meditation each day, and I find that this is pure gold for my state of mind. I use guided mindful meditation routines like those found at calm.com; sometimes, I do them while I'm walking.
Strategy #6: Chart Out What Your Ideal Week Looks Like and Make That Your Goal
Imagine for a moment that you were in good enough financial shape to basically do whatever you want with a given week, and that your goal was to find yourself in a "flow state" as often as possible. How would you arrange that week? How would you open the door to as many deep and joyful activities as possible?
I'd fill my hours with big blocks of time for the things that bring me into a flow state. I'd go on a big half-day or full-day trail walk / hike twice a week or so. I'd spend at least a couple hours a day reading. I'd spend three or four hours early in the morning writing. I'd spend enormous chunks of time one-on-one with my children after school and on weekends. I'd make a lot of homemade meals from scratch. I'd make a much more formal exercise routine. I'd spend some time each week working for a local volunteer group that does gardening and gives away the proceeds. I'd be involved in several different community board game nights. We'd host a ton of dinner parties to boot.
That life sounds incredible to me. It's a life that would be deeply fulfilling to me, day in and day out. I want that life.
So, how do I get there? The key, to me, is to mix in some strong samples of that life — in my "uncompressed" days — with a concerted effort to live a frugal life and to do my best to earn a strong income during my "compressed" days. It's as simple as that — spend less than you earn and make that gap as big as possible. That way, I can reach that dream as soon as I can, giving me many many years to enjoy that life.
Some people might find it strange that I associate the "flow state" with the best life, but if you give it some thought, it makes sense. The most joyful moments in life are the ones where we lose track of time because we're so thoroughly engaged with what we're doing. There's no clearer sign that we're dissatisfied and unhappy with the moment than if we're looking at our watch or the wall clock or fidgeting with our smart phone or browsing some website. All of those things are signs that we're not mentally engaged with what we're supposedly doing in that moment, which I find is at the root of a lot of dissatisfaction in life. Satisfaction and joy comes from the opposite — complete engagement with whatever you're doing at the moment.
If you make it your goal in life to seek out those moments of "flow" — of complete engagement in the moment — you're going to find a much better life. The challenge, of course, is that the realities of life sometimes stand in the way of doing that. Financial independence is one big tool for overcoming that challenge.
For me personally, this is as close as I've come to the meaning of life — to be so fully engaged in something that the rest of the world flows around you. It means that you're using at least some of the things you have at your disposal to their fullest potential, and not only does that feel great, it usually has tremendous results as well.
All of the things I most want to achieve in life boil down to achieving that state in some form or another. Personal finance, time management, and many other things all work to make my life as open to those moments as possible.
I hope that you can find that central meaning in your life, too. I encourage you to seek out those moments of natural flow and see how meaningful they are for you. You might be surprised as to how powerful they really are and how they tie together big parts of your life, and if you can find that central principle, too, it can provide a really powerful foundation upon which to base your plans for financial independence.
This post originally appeared on The Simple Dollar.
Trent Hamm is a personal finance writer at TheSimpleDollar.com. After pulling himself out of his own financial crisis, he founded the site in late 2006 to help others through financially difficult situations; today the site has become a finance, insurance, and retirement resource. Contact Trent at trent AT the simple dollar DOT com; please send site inquiries to inquiries AT the simple dollar DOT com.