Why We Don’t Get Around to Doing Important Things

By Chad Hamilton, CFP

The beginning of a new year is a time when many of us want to turn over a new leaf by setting resolutions about positive changes for the year ahead.  Here are the top five resolutions in 2019 according to a survey of 2,000 people:

  1. Diet or eat healthier (71 percent)
  2. Exercise more (65 percent)
  3. Lose weight (54 percent)
  4. Save more and spend less (32 percent)
  5. Learn a new skill or hobby (26 percent)

The intentions behind these goals are admirable, but the results tend to be less than impressive. Fewer than 10% of New Years’ Resolutions succeed and 80% of Resolutions fail by February. 

While it would be easy to conclude that these resolutions are not worth the effort, (i.e., “They don’t actually work anyway so why bother?”), that may be the wrong lesson to learn. Instead, we should ask what it is about New Years’ Resolutions that are so compelling that even after repeated failures, many of us (more than 50% of the adult population according to researchers) consider it worthy of striving for year after year.

Our Most Scarce Resource

Resolutions – or any meaningful goals – are worthwhile because they point toward a central truth: time is our most scarce resource. The Bible teaches this most directly in James 4:14 when it says, “…what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.”

Resolutions are an attempt to use our fleeting time more wisely. According to Stephen R. Covey, the ways in which we spend our time every day fall into one of four different categories:

– Important and urgent (Quadrant I)

– Important but not urgent (Quadrant II)

– Urgent but not important (Quadrant III)

– Not urgent and not important (Quadrant IV)

The important and urgent things get prompt attention, as they should. Whether it’s an upcoming client meeting, a deadline, or a crisis at home, these matters need to be addressed promptly.

There are also many urgent things that compete for our attention even though they are not important. Often times, meetings, reports, and emails fall into this category. They need to get done but ideally by someone else. The goal here should be to delegate.

How about those things that are not important and not urgent? Well, this should be pretty self-explanatory. If we really take seriously the belief that time is a scare resource, then we will seriously consider the amount of time spent on video games, social media, watching TV, or fantasy football.

Important But Not Urgent

The important but not urgent items are the ones that will determine if we ever really have the success or fulfillment we are striving for. These “Quadrant II” activities are those things related to planning, personal or spiritual growth, and positive change.

Here’s the challenge: Often Quadrant II activities not only lack urgency but they lack clarity. It’s one thing to say something like, “I want to save more and spend less.” It’s another thing to get specific, measure the extent to which you are going to do this, take action to improve it, and then track results.

Fortunately, this doesn’t need to be as overwhelming as it might seem. Here are three things to do in order to improve your chances of successfully implementing any resolution or goal:

  • Make it Specific
  • Make it Achievable
  • Make it Rewarding

Make it Specific

Do you want to become a better steward of the resources God has entrusted to you? That is an admirable goal and certainly one worth pursuing, but you need to then get more specific about what that will look like. Beacon Wealth Consultants evaluates stewardship in four main areas: live, give, owe, and grow.

“Live” means taking a look at how you are spending money and determining tangible steps to more effectively live within your means, which may simply start by tracking what you are currently spending.

“Give” means opening your hand to freely and joyfully give of God’s resources that you’ve been blessed with in terms of your time, talents, and/or finances. Set a goal like volunteering at a particular organization every other week or increasing your giving percentage. 

“Owe” is about paying down debt. Identify a particular debt that you have and automate a monthly payment amount that will either accelerate the paydown or pay it off entirely this year.

“Grow” means demonstrating financial maturity by giving up today’s desires for tomorrow’s benefit (see Proverbs 6:6-8 or Luke 14-28-20). Start with tax-favored accounts like a 401(k) or a Roth IRA (if you are not already maxing out those contributions) and increase your automated saving amount by a certain percentage. 

Make it Achievable

To take meaningful action in Quadrant II, you also need to translate a big, audacious goal into practical steps that can actually be implemented.

For instance, “exercise more” is too vague. Instead, you may want to resolve to run a race and make the commitment to actually registering for it. Whether it is a 5k or marathon, that is something tangible and also something to really strive for and envision.

Once that goal is set, then break it down into achievable weekly or monthly milestones of incremental gains. Even if it is only an additional one-quarter mile distance every month, it is not the extent of the change that matters, but rather the acknowledgement that this particular lifestyle shift is important and that you are willing to work toward it.

Make it Rewarding

Internal desires drive external behavior. You’re not likely to hear many financial gurus say that most financial problems are due to a failure of the imagination. But that’s exactly what it is.

Martin Luther King Jr. mobilized millions and changed the culture of our nation. The catalyst was his “I Have a Dream” speech. As the author Simon Sinek has pointed out, it was not called “I Have a Plan.” Plans are practical and important, but they do not inspire. Dreams, on the other hand, connect us with our values and a deeper yearning. As a result, they have the capacity to truly transform us.

Yet, despite the importance of our dreams and aspirations, these conversations are usually not happening. In a survey done by Merrill Lynch a few years ago, 85% of people who work with a financial professional said they had not had a single conversation with their advisor about their “hopes and dreams” for their future.

What do you want? This is a question that Jesus asked over and over again in scripture. It is also the most fundamental question that needs to be answered because unless the ‘shoulds’ of personal finance or improved health start to become ‘wants,’ it’s highly unlikely that any of us will experience meaningful change – including keeping those New Year’s resolutions.