Reader Suggestions On How To Stay Motivated While Working Toward Longterm Goals
Today we’re discussing how to stay motivated when working toward a longterm goal (which you probably guessed based on the title… ). This is a special edition of doubly solicited Reader Suggestions! I first asked, in our Frugalwoods Facebook Group, what you all wanted to read about in upcoming installments of the Reader Suggestions series and then I selected a question and asked everyone to respond. I love hearing what YOU want to read about, so keep your suggestions coming! I plan to refer back to that conversation thread to select future Reader Suggestions. If you’re wondering what topics we’ve addressed in the past, check out the Reader Suggestions category. It’s important to me that I address the issues you all are struggling with and want to read about, so don’t be shy in letting me know what you’d like to discuss here together.
This month’s question was requested by a number of folks and I selected it because it’s a question I’ve received many, many (MANY) times over the years. I’ve never written a post on it specifically, but it’s something that’s always rattling around in the back of my mind, so I’m delighted to explore it today! Here’s the question:
How do you stay focused and motivated when you’re working toward a longterm, big financial goal? When you have quite a few years before you achieve your goal, what do you do to make the day-to-day more bearable and less of a slog?
Hmm, how indeed… is what I always wonder when people ask me this question (which happens a lot).
Welcome to my monthly Reader Suggestions feature! Every month I post a question to our Frugalwoods Facebook group and share the best responses here. The questions are topics I’ve received multiple queries on and my hope is that by leveraging the braintrust of Frugalwoods nation, you’ll find helpful advice and insight. Join the Frugalwoods Facebook group to participate in next month’s Reader Suggestions!
How I Stay Motivated
Over the years, Mr. Frugalwoods and I have worked toward a number of major goals–financial and otherwise–and my approach to staying motivated in these endeavors is always three-part:
- Practice gratitude
When I’m in pursuit of a goal, or waiting for time to elapse, I derive comfort from researching the topic exhaustively. It’s the perfect antidote because it helps me feel like I’m making progress toward my goal, while also giving me more information about how to reach that goal. Plus, it’s usually free! An all-around win.
When Mr. FW and I established our goal of leaving the city and moving out to a homestead in Vermont, we knew we’d need to save money for several years before making the move. Several years is not long, so I’m not qualified to speak to extremely longterm goal motivation, but fear not, the readers will below! In that timeframe, however, every month felt like an eternity since we knew we didn’t want to live the life we were living anymore.
To assuage our desire to get out of town (literally), we did extensive research into homesteading and rural properties. We checked out tons of books from the library on permaculture, gardening, forestry management, food preservation, and more. We watched YouTube videos from modern-day homesteaders and immersed ourselves in some hilariously intense shows about gardening (people have some strong opinions about mulch, let me tell you… ).
Another aspect of this research was into rural properties and real estate. We learned about septic systems, wells, forest assessments, and more. We went on a timber cruise with an experienced forester to learn how to analyze a forest for commercial value. We visited Vermont frequently and toured dozens of potential homestead properties. I analyzed school districts in Vermont and community vibrancy. Mr. FW reignited his love of cartography and went wild with rural property mapping systems. Although we were essentially treading water during this time–and just waiting for our savings to pile up–all of this intensive research made us feel close to our goal. More importantly, it helped inform our eventual decision and rationale for purchasing the property we did, when we did, and where we did. By the way, if you’re curious about this process, I documented most of our research in the early posts of my Frugal Homestead Series.
Most of our research was free and largely conducted online and at the library. No matter what your goal, there are likely books, blogs, and resources that can help inform your decisions. Additionally, thanks to the wonders of the internet, this research will likely put you in touch with like-minded communities of people working towards similar goals (such as our Frugalwoods community right here!). We’ve found helpful online forums for everything from tractor maintenance to fruit tree pruning to parenting. I can almost guarantee there’s an online community for your specific interest area that’ll be helpful to you on your journey. At the very least, you’ll have others to chat with who can empathize with what you’re going through.
Speaking of empathy, another major life goal that challenged my capacity for patience was our journey to conceiving our first baby (who is now a galloping 2.5-year-old and a big sister to our six-month-old second baby). I wrote a few years ago about the pain we felt in fearing we were infertile prior to getting pregnant with Babywoods. Our journey to parenthood ended up being very easy in the end (we got pregnant on our 13th month of trying), and I empathize deeply with people who are on challenging fertility journeys and I know that my brief inability to get pregnant doesn’t compare at all. But at the time, we didn’t know how it would end or if we’d ever have biological children and I experienced a lot of grief around this.
My solution for this was yes, to research. But after awhile, reading books on fertility and parenting started to depress me. I felt like I’d never be able to employ all of the parenting and pregnancy advice I was consuming and was sick of looking at pictures of glowing, pregnant women. Researching the homestead never felt depressing because I was confident we’d achieve that goal, but since I didn’t know if we’d ever get pregnant, I started to hate pregnancy research.
So, I turned to distraction.
I threw myself into two totally non-baby-related pursuits: yoga and writing Frugalwoods. I started volunteering at the front desk of my yoga studio (and taking out the trash every week) in exchange for free classes and I went to yoga all the time. I was in fabulous shape and I felt physically awesome. It was a perfect outlet for my excess stress about how my body wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do. If I couldn’t get pregnant, I could at least treat my body well. The other benefit of all this yoga is that I made friends at the yoga studio and created another community of people to hang out with, which all served to bolster me up and make me feel more positive about my life, even if I wasn’t pregnant. It was something I did just for me and that had a transformational impact on my mental and physical health.
My other distraction outlet, writing Frugalwoods, did much the same. It gave me something to focus on, something to enjoy thinking about, and something to do other than stress about not getting pregnant. I also discovered my abiding passion for writing and helping people with their money and ended up growing a business in the process.
All that to say, sometimes the extreme focus of research helps as you work towards a goal and other times, you just need to get your mind off of it. Especially if it’s something you can’t do anything to hasten. I usually find that a balance of research and distraction is what I need, but it evolves with each new longterm goal I tackle.
Layered over research and distraction is my most imperfect approach to motivation: the practice of gratitude. I would love to say that this is an effortless outpouring of my naturally compassionate brain, but, uh, it’s not. I will say that my husband is a naturally optimistic, grateful person and I have learned much from him. In order to practice gratitude, I actually sit down and enumerate all the things I’m thankful for. I list them out and then savor each one, recognizing my immense privilege, good fortune, and luck. Doing this helps me realize that my life is already wonderful and that whether or not I reach a certain goal won’t impact my overall happiness. It’s easy for me to get caught up in the mindset of “I’ll be happy when…. ” which is a dangerous, limiting way to live and one that doesn’t acknowledge the wonders of the present moment.
This was an especially tough practice for me while trying to get pregnant with our first baby. But Mr. FW and I made lists of all the ways in which our lives were great even without children and how they would continue to be great whether we had kids or not. That was one of the more difficult reckonings I’ve done, but it was a valuable exercise that made me recognize the abundance and the joy inherent to my life. Don’t tether your happiness solely to whether or not you’re able to achieve a goal. I try to encourage myself to think “it would be nice if X happened, but I am fulfilled and content either way.”
How Frugalwoods Readers Stay Motivated
This is a more nuanced question than we often address in Reader Suggestions, but you all tackled it with your usual aplomb and excellent insight. I hope that these ideas are useful to anyone in the throes of longterm planning.
Heather suggests, “Break big goals up by setting mini goals. Is your goal to pay off your $100k mortgage? Figure out how much you can realistically put toward it each year and celebrate that victory. And never compare your chapter 1 to someone else’s chapter 12. Remind yourself of where you are – on a journey. You may not be where you want to be, but you are not where you were before either.”
Madison wrote, “While paying off $44,000 in family debt (parents lent money to get into the housing market; I would never accept that gift again but glad I got in when I did haha) and over the 4 years that I paid it off I always made sure I budgeted enough for one dinner out a week with my friends because that was our favourite thing to do and if I had tried to pay it off any quicker and sacrificing that one dinner it probably would’ve taken way longer. I think you have to know yourself and work within the things that you know could potentially cause you to falter and recognize that in the end that may push your goal further back then if you just recognized your values at the start.”
Amelia says, “Leaving some fat in the budget for things you enjoy stops you feeling miserable about the other areas you have constrained.”
Brian shared, “I’ve gotten a big boost from my yoga training lately. I’m learning to stay in the moment more and thinking less about the past and future. This doesn’t mean not planning, it’s more like knowing you have your plan, your goal and then leaving it to do its work while you focus on your day. Saturday I went to a local farm with my sister, picked berries and made a jam out of what I picked. Delicious, very low cost and healthier than anything I could buy in the store. I was frugal, helping to contribute to my goal, without really fixating on that future freedom. I think it’s about enjoying the journey, not just being fixated on the destination.
And that’s all fine and meme-worthy, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy, and that doesn’t mean I still don’t fall into the trap of looking at my investment account and shouting, “grow, damn you, grow!” Just like meditation, it’s not about perfectly separating from your thoughts, it’s about making the effort. But I recently had a punch in the face moment where I realized I was way to over-fixated on the end result of being financially free and ignoring enjoyment of my present life. I need to focus on this chapter while I’m in it – I can focus on the financial freedom chapter when I get to that point of the book! After all, there are only so many pages… ”
Stefanie wrote, “I keep a spreadsheet with all of my end of month account balances. I started it a year and a half ago, and when I feel like I’m not making progress, I can compare my current balance with where things used to be. There’s another sheet with my plan/goals written out, and I cross them off when they’re done. It’s great for reminding me how far I’ve come, though I do tend to stare at it a little too long some months or try to wish the numbers into being bigger.”
Nicky shared a similar approach,”I do the monthly balances too (I even have graphs 😉). Regular reminders that you’re doing really well keep me motivated, and I note any big or unusual spend so we can understand whether variances are due to that or to general spending ‘drift.’ I find tracking the smaller amounts rather than thinking about a huge target much more motivating.”
Caroline wrote, “For me it’s about being really honest with myself, scheduling in some small wins or a break, and not letting perfect become the enemy of good. This is nowhere near as huge as a mortgage, but I recently completed my 3.5-year master’s degree while working at least full time (for a while I was working two jobs to avoid taking out student loans, because I refused to take on debt!). So it was partially a financial goal and partially just impacting my time freedom and stress levels. Along the way I had to really revel in each milestone (class) completed, so I printed out a little chart with my curriculum grid and empty squares for the number of credits in the degree, and keep it on my wall in my office where I’d see it every day. Then every time I finished a class, I checked it off my grid and colored in that number of credit squares so I could always visually see how far along was. I LOVED coloring in those squares! About halfway through though I was feeling really tired; it felt like I’d been going full tilt (working 50+ hour weeks between two jobs on top of classes, homework, social life, and no partner at the time to lean on for the cooking/cleaning/adulting slack), and I looked at my curriculum grid and realized I couldn’t just grit my teeth and “power through” another two years at this pace.
I’m a perfectionist and it hurt that “on paper” I had the time and the means to keep going… but I couldn’t. So I took a semester off, truly reveled in all my free time and my fulsome paychecks, and then put my nose back to the grindstone 4 months later and finished up–and graduated with high honors, I might add. Without that break I am sure I would have burned out and let some balls drop. Obviously a purely financial goal doesn’t have those built-in milestones, but my partner and I are now single-mindedly saving up to buy a house and I think I will use the same tenets… I am an eager budgeter and love to watch that house fund grow, but after a certain point throwing every possible dollar at it is just going to wear on me, and I will need to give myself a “reset month” where I don’t worry about the house goal at all. Nothing can be a Number 1 Priority all the time!”
Jackie suggests, “Celebrating every victory or anything we could make a victory. Under $10,000 in student loans left to pay? Milestone! Let’s cheer! Made it to 75% of debt paid off? Yeah! Hit $30,000 paid? Woot woot. We got paid weekly while we were paying off debt and every week we paid something towards the credit card/student loans/car, whatever the current “attack” was. So we got to see the balance fall each week. That was motivating.”
Blair wrote, “I make a list of the things that I’m looking forward to in early retirement, then figure out how I can either do some of them now OR prepare for them. I can have dogs and a garden now (and I do!) in my house in the city, so I already have part of my mini-farm dream. I can also have bees and chickens here, so I’m learning about those through books and workshops so that it can be my next goal. I can’t have goats or stargaze on my own land for awhile, but I CAN learn about goats, visit someone else’s farm, go to the free astronomy events at the Science Center, etc. Basically, it’s the frugality substitution rule applied to what I’m most looking forward to about early retirement.”
Ali said, “I try to take small actions now that will yield big results later on. For example, I added $100 to my mortgage payments, which doesn’t feel like a huge amount, but actually adds up to $13,000 to pay off the principal in the five year term. Add a little bit extra onto your payments and savings amounts, and you’ll soon be debt free or have a good savings account!”
Julie wrote, “Having several different accounts to save for different things simultaneously is what works for me. When I’m feeling like it’s taking a long time, I think about how far I’ve come and how different my life is because of being frugal.”
Amanda said, “I couldn’t do it without my husband. We have three current long-term financial goals (buying a truck, starting to try to have our first child, and the down payment in a second home to rent this one out as income so one of us can stay home and raise our child) and we encourage each other and talk everything through that makes it easy and brings us closer.”
Melanie shared, “As we paid down our $100,000 in student loan debt I kept a large hand drawn picture of a castle with boxes. We colored in the boxes as we paid it off. This reminded us of our ‘why’ behind paying down our debt. Another way was to share our story with others who helped cheer us on. If you have kids include them in the process. Nothing keeps you motivated like knowing your kids are watching. My son could talk about why we wanted to be debt free from a young age. He is now 7 and celebrated harder than my husband and I when we became debt free.”
Jennifer wrote, “I stay motivated by reading success stories. I can’t get enough of them! You can find them all over the internet. This probably explains why I’m currently reading ‘Meet the Frugalwoods‘ for a second time… ”
Merry said, “I’ve tried to turn the pull of more from stuff to a pull towards more savings. As humans its hard not to try to keep up with the Jones’s but if you can use this to increase your savings rather than your stuff you end up better off. Every time I hear someone’s savings rate I try to figure out how they achieved that and then see if that is possible for me. I try to keep up with the savings Jones’s rather than the spending Jones’s. This keeps me on track towards my bigger goals.”
Amelia relayed, “We allow fun money still. We’re aiming to pay off our mortgage in 4 years, but in doing so, we’ve still allowed a budget for travel and dining out – we’re going hard, but not “spend nothing else” level hard.”
Jennifer wrote, “I started off with $83K in student loan debt. I have paid on it for 11 years! I have another 52 months to go. I now pay over $1,000 a month on the student loans…. I have $52K left to pay. I DREAM of the day that they are paid off…What I will buy…what I will do! Every month that I make and extra payment even if its $100 gets me closer to me being debt free. This is my focus… 52 more months… ”
Carolyn said, “Two things that have helped me: 1) Having graphs of goal progress up on the fridge (spending by month, net worth!). I get to see the progress every day. 2) I reframe this ‘work time’ in my mind as ‘planning time’. While I’m saving towards my goals, I’m checking out travel books from the library, learning about visas, etc.”
Lauren advises, “Try to break it down into smaller goals. If you need to save $5,000 for something, celebrate each $1,000 goal along the way.”
Sarah wrote, “This is a really awesome question, and one my husband and I talk about frequently. As far as staying focused goes, we frequently talk about our goals and savor moments that remind us of them (for example, we’d like to eventually own land. When asked to house sit for friends who own land, we enjoyed the opportunity to have a taste of what it might be like). Crunching the numbers in a spread sheet is also always inspiring.
We struggle more with making the day-to-day bearable. My best tip is keeping a gratitude journal. It helps you identify the moments that are worth savoring, and then build them into your life. For us, that means evenings spent playing candle-lit chess (with red wine, if I wasn’t pregnant), long Sunday morning hikes with our dogs, and homemade breakfast out on the back porch. Meditation also plays a huge role in helping me appreciate the now.”
Laurie suggests, “Break it up into smaller goals and at the end of each give yourself some sort of a reward. If your main goal is years away that is just too long. We all need to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Also reading other people’s stories help me to stay motivated.”
Leonard wrote, “Using a mortgage (15 or 30, doesn’t matter, it’s long either way) as an example, automation takes focus and motivation, both difficult to maintain over the long term, out of the picture. Having the monthly mortgage payment taken automatically out of savings, versus writing a check monthly, not only achieves the same goal, but without the dread of having to write that big check out every month (apart from saving on stamps, envelopes, etc… with really is immaterial). The same can be applied to student loans, or even shorter term things like a vacation. Automatic deductions or transfers into a specific account/fund takes away some temptation to “skip a month” or otherwise change focus.”
Holly said, “I surround myself with positive motivation. I’ll listen to a financial podcast on my commute to work & it gets me fired up to keep on the path toward reaching our goals. I also keep a monthly tally in my journal of our savings & investment accounts and on the 1st of each new month, I total them up and look at the difference in just 30 days. It’s all part of moving forward.”
Vivek wrote, “I keep on reaffirming the importance of achieving the goal and keep on mentally visualizing the achievement of the goal and the sheer amount of happiness it will give me on that day.”
Nina relayed, “Everyday I remind myself of my goal. Verbalize a positive affirmation. Sometimes put a picture of goal on fridge or vision board to focus.”
The Joys Of Longterm Planning
As I read through all of your advice, I was struck by the fact that you all are some serious longterm planners! I was inspired by your determination to achieve big things and I realized that setting a longterm goal is an unusual undertaking in our frenetic culture of instant gratification.
Focusing on something beyond the immediate horizon takes grit and it requires forgoing short-term pleasure in order to get there. I think the very act of longterm planning is commendable. It’s not easy to look past this month’s spending, let alone next month’s and next year’s, but when you’re able to do that–to visualize what you really want–you put yourself in a position to achieve something remarkable. Sure, you can slog through month to month without direction or purpose, but my hunch is that you all, as a group, don’t do that. So be bold in your plans and then make them happen (and share your good news here!).
How do you maintain your motivation when working toward a distant goal?
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