Once we understand why we get stuck, we can get unstuck!
Lacking fulfillment despite “having it all” is a pervasive discrepancy that rears its head as we approach mid-career. We live in a culture that celebrates leaps of forward progress, awards and status symbols. So we continually strive for the next milestone. And the pursuit leads us to moments of debilitating exhaustion where we are left thinking that we’re in desperate need of more time… and more money… and more time.
What we really need is to get real about adding purpose to our personal finances and investing more in meaning so that we’re mobilized to connect with happiness. The challenge is, we’re so overwhelmed by day-to-day demands that it’s hard to see how it’s possible. There are strong, seemingly invisible, forces working against us that prevent us from making the changes we need.
Psychologists and behavioral economists have conducted endless scientific studies evaluating the gap between intention and action. But this isn’t academics. It’s time to tackle the real-life reasons we feel stuck—so we can stop dreaming and really start doing.
Reason 1: Money Mistakes Are Stealing Our Freedom
Volunteer. Read more. Travel to see more of the world. Start a lifestyle business. Spend more time with family. There’s a 99% chance you’ve mentioned one of these activities (or something similar) as part of the phrase, “When I have more money, I’ll…”
Money is an easy excuse for not pursuing our dreams. There are two major money mistakes that are often behind the scenes secretly crushing our dreams of greater freedom and a balanced life—so it pays to acquaint ourselves with these!
Big Fat Financial Goals
When it comes to saving money, most people only have a few financial goals in life: pay off school debt, buy a house, support a happy family, and retirement. Even if we put aside some extra cash to make other big purchases along the way, it’s rarely tied to an actual financial plan with well-defined goals that enrich our lives. So, the typical personal finance strategy involves (over)investing time to make enough money for today and fund sweeping financial goals that lack clear value.
When ‘more money’ becomes the goal itself, then that’s what we’ll always be working toward. We get caught in an endless chase for the next dollar while satisfaction from what we can afford gets pushed to the wayside. Our time and energy is drained. And we still feel like we don’t have enough money. It’s no wonder studies show that personal finances and jobs are leading causes of anxiety!
The toll money-making takes on our emotional and mental health can further be seen in the strong inverse correlation between stress and feeling happy in life—both of which tend to hit their respective highs and lows around our middle-aged years. Life as a 30-something and beyond mid-career becomes overwhelmed by climbing the corporate ladder, pressures of keeping up with the Joneses, and saving ‘more money’ for the future. But, financial and work-related stress are interrelated problems that can be alleviated (or even eliminated), starting with setting more meaningful financial goals.
Milestones should be defined by what brings us greater meaning and happiness and quantified by how much is really needed to make them possible. Adjusting our mindset to treat money as a tool for how we spend our time (re)focuses our attention on what really motivates us. While everything we want in life requires some trade-offs, a goals-based approach to money management provides the freedom to be more intentional and content with how we accomplish them.
Buying into A Strict Daily Budget
Many of us are wired to assume penny-pinching as a means of great financial fortitude. Because, if we stick to a strict daily budget, then we can afford those things that will make us happy. But, there is a difference between being in control of your money and micromanaging it to the point of burnout.
Listening to tv talking heads squawking about the daily ups and downs of the stock market has been shown to lead to poor investment decisions driven by emotions. Similarly, scrimping to try to save a few dollars on every purchase exhausts our willpower for the bigger financial decisions. We end up constantly feeling anxious about spending and that what we want is out of reach. Even the best personal finance software doesn't help if we’re concerned with the wrong details and overwhelmed by small choices.
The important part is understanding how our purchases impact our ability to achieve financial freedom. Identifying the few measurable categories that are essential to our goals, and setting-up the formulas that get us there, helps us to focus on saving and spending more effectively and easily.
Seeing that we can enjoy greater freedom through the financial security and flexibility to pursue a meaningful life makes our dreams attainable. So, ditch the daily budget and systematize getting the big stuff right. It’s no big deal if some of the little things get lost along the way.
Reason 2: We Fail At Investing In Ourselves
In our always-on culture, lack of self-care has become a bad habit that’s inseparable from stress and burnout.
Our versions of making more “me time” actually turn us into our own worst enemies. We spend vacations responding to emails, staying up late to work on side hustles, scrolling through social media to “socialize” and so on. But our future selves rely on the innovative skills, social capital and (especially) mental health we carefully nurture today.
We need to break the cycle of over-investing in others—other characters, other projects, other tomorrows besides our own. Even great employers are vulnerable to changes in the marketplace and rapid advancement of technology could cut our well-paying positions from the budget quicker than we think. So it’s time to wrestle control from outside influences that hold us back from making the most important investments for a richer life.
Carving out a space to identify our own personal goals—unique to you—might be something we thought we had already done. Moreover, the process can feel selfish and unnatural. But selfless self-investment is not an oxymoron! This is about investing in ourselves in a way that will make us more productive and a more positive force for greater good.
Because We’re Scared Of Success
Our harshest critics in life tend to be ourselves. This is especially true for ambitious people who are driven by accomplishment. We take care of our commitments to bosses, coworkers, family and friends. We respond to all the popups, pings and buzzes. Then we fill the space in between with self-judgement and a (often subconscious) fear of doing what it takes to create our own success.
Instigating this predicament is our impressions of failure, and all the baggage that comes with it. The thought of failing evokes emotions that can easily distort the prospects: we underestimate our ability to tackle the widely varying expectations associated with success, and we overestimate the damage we’ll endure if the endeavor doesn’t work out.
When we convince ourselves that the potential reward doesn’t seem worth the (exaggerated) risk, we stay where we’re comfortable. We become our own worst enemy. And what we actually fail at doing is pursuing meaningful experiences that would help us grow and enjoy greater fulfillment.
But, once we give ourselves permission to try something “risky” and adopt greater self-forgiveness, we unlock a whole new world where we can spend more time trying new things. We transition from fearing failure to learning how to embrace it, and become more creative and resilient in finding value in our defeats.
The first attempt at any new undertaking is unlikely to succeed. And our interests will regularly change over time. What we can predict with certainty, however, is that each venture is a way to discover more about what we’re good at and enjoy. Otherwise, without those (mis-)steps, we just stay stuck.
Because We Let Someone Else Set Our Goals
Humans are social creatures, which means we find comfort being with the pack. Our instincts steer us along the path shared by those who precede and surround us. This herd mentality can help us, but it can also hold us back in modern day work and life.
Following the career herd can lead us to displace our own professional goals. So too often we work 60+ hours a week committed to achieving the business interests of an employer, in lieu of everything else. The way we spend our time and money can also be (too) heavily influenced by the expectations of keeping up with the Joneses. So we take out a jumbo loan to put on the facade of success. But, when we stop to think critically about whether what we have is meaningful to us, it’s unsurprising to feel adrift.
The point here is not to suggest that we should only focus on ourselves—quite the contrary! But, we connect with greater purpose when we pursue our own goals to guide our resources toward creating real personal meaning and shared value.
Jumping off the conventional career ladder could involve taking a step sideways to work with companies addressing a global problem you care about or carving out time committed to passion projects. Straying from the mainstream lifestyle herd may mean foregoing a $10k 10-day resort vacation to spend 12 months enjoying a meaningful mini-retirement (two years from now) instead. These are intentional choices that can shepherd greater rejuvenation and fulfillment.
When we feel burnt-out and/or stuck, confusing others’ ambitions as our own is often the insidious culprit. We’re working hard to accomplish goals set by someone else at the expense of investing in ourselves. Meaningful work-life balance is possible, but you have to be your own sheepdog!
Reason 3: Inertia
The physics lesson conveyed in Newton’s first law of motion also applies in work and life. For most of us, once we establish a life trajectory, we continue on that course unless acted on by a greater force.
When we feel stuck, in many cases, we’re actually just stuck going through the motions. Life inertia is a challenging resistance to balancing money, meaning and happiness. Once we recognize how to overcome it, we unlock the potential to be our most valuable source of inspiration and connection to a lifestyle that actually provides greater fulfillment.
Staying in Place
So many of us linger in counterproductive environments—from the offices we work in, to the houses we live in and the cities where we’re based. Choosing where we dwell is rarely actively pursued as a top priority even though it’s shown to be directly correlated to our personal financial success and wellbeing.
The effects of remaining in a particular circumstance may seem like it’s limited (or irrelevant). It can be hard to recognize. But, especially if we’re feeling stuck it’s worth taking a step back to determine if location inertia is cramping our ability to achieve personal growth and goals.
From the time we wake up to the time we go to bed, so much of our life is deeply-seated in routine. This pre-programming gives us the comfort of knowing whose familiar faces we’ll see, what bills need to be paid, where to park the car; so on and so forth. The risk in this consistency, though, is that it can shroud the drawbacks of complacency.
Humans naturally adapt to their environments, which means habituation can cause us to overlook the joy and inspiration in everyday moments. And, going through the same motions everyday is usually accompanied by a hum of busyness that becomes an excuse to procrastinate on actually following through on things that we say are most important to us.
While daily comforts help smooth the way, the path to personal growth and greater life satisfaction requires embracing discomfort and reversing the inertia that propels a life lived on repeat. Moving (physically) outside of our comfort zone breaks ground on accomplishing ambitions that are influenced by the people and places that surround us.
Hanging With The Same Old Crowd
Understanding that we’re a social by nature, it’s not surprising that research shows that people who have supportive relationships are happier, healthier and live longer. What is surprising, though, is how commonly we neglect to seek out companions who will help us nurture greater money, meaning and happiness in our own lives.
The quality of our connections is both determined by and has an impact on our position in life. Yet we often let inertia confine the company we keep to where we were born, where we went to school, and other situations that are chosen for us rather than by us. In our digital era, social media can also reinforce complacency by drowning our attention in infinity pools of curated vignettes of our “friends’” experiences. And, when the majority of our time and energy is spent in one sphere, our lives invariably orbit around a relatively small circle.
While consistent close ties are important to our fulfillment, greater personal growth comes when we expand and diversify our relationships. As the pioneering social network theorist, Mark Granovetter, became famous for pointing out in the late 70s, our weak ties matter too! The increasingly popular way of espousing this principle is in saying that our character is shaped by those we engage with most often.
This mantra underscores the value of actively seeking out the people who are successfully doing what we’d like to do!
Our globally connected world makes it easier than ever to go beyond physical proximity to engage with people who have similar interests. Expanding our networks (and horizons) is especially valuable when we want to make a change or need help getting unstuck. So, instead of staying within the social groups that happen to be nearest to us and binging on anxiety-producing “noise media”, we can overcome inertia by purposefully nurturing relationships that help us to be better versions of ourselves.