Goals, Motivation

Micro-Goals And Staying Motivated

I’ve been thinking about motivation.

Where does it come from?  How can it be maintained?

My primary motivation to get out debt was born out of a desire to have more control over my life.  To be frank, I was tired of living with the constant burden of interest payments.  Deciding to do something about my debt, I began to make major changes in my spending and saving habits.

I’ve come to the conclusion that there were forces, external and internal, that combined to push me towards my decision to get out of debt.  First, a few months before I began to get out of debt, I began to listen to Dave Ramsey.  Day after day, I would listen to his radio program, and week after week, I was encouraged by the stories of those folks who were getting out of debt.  Regardless of whether you agree with Dave’s techniques, you have to admit that he is a dynamic motivator.  Second, I began to think about my situation, and a great anger began to build, deep in my spirit.  I was angry – with myself – for working so hard, for so long, and having so little to show for it.  Third, I looked around, and realized that I was a father, with two kids, and a wife, and I needed to do a better job of preparing our family for the future.  These forces combined to, quite literally, create the motivation that I needed to get out of debt.

But what kept me going?   I had tried to get out of debt before, only to fail.  Why was this time different?

Looking back, the biggest difference was, that in the past, my only goal was to “get out of debt”.  There’s nothing wrong with this goal, except for the fact that it’s too vague.  This time, when getting out of debt, I broke my goal down into specific, manageable micro-goals.  So, instead of saying “I want to get out of debt” my next micro-goal became “I want to send $200 to American Honda Finance, this month”.

By focusing on these smaller, realistic micro-goals, I was able to stop thinking about my total debt balance, and really focus on the next creditor on my debt reduction plan.  Shoot, not only could I focus on the next creditor, I could focus on the very next payment.  In other words, I kept my nose to the grindstone, and tried not to look up until I had completed each of my micro-goals, and ultimately, my final goal.

After getting out of debt, I didn’t stop setting micro-goals.  Instead, I picked an amount that I wanted to save, set a date for saving it, and then broke that amount down into monthly (and eventually weekly) micro-goals.  I created a system that gave me almost instant feedback, making either payments or deposits, not on a monthly or quarterly basis, but on a weekly, or even daily, basis.  I never lost my motivation, because I was constantly creating, then achieving, micro-goal after micro-goal.

If you are struggling to stay in-the-game and remained focused, consider breaking your goals down, into smaller and smaller micro-goals, until you are forced to remain engaged.  I’ve written about the success I had making multiple monthly payments.  This technique not only reduces your average daily balance, but it keeps you focused on your debt reduction game-plan.

After getting out of debt, and saving up an emergency fund, things get a little trickier.  Why?  Well, the main goals – and thus the micro-goals – aren’t so clear.  Do I want to save for retirement?  Yes.  Do I want to save for kids’ college?  You bet.  How about saving for a new house, is that important?  Oh, yeah.

I have had to learn how to focus on more than one goal at a time.  This is a little more difficult for me, because I like the immediate impact of putting all extra available income towards one goal!  (In other words, it’s more fun to see $600 deposited into my saving account than it is to see $200 deposited into my Roth, $100 into my daughter’s ESA, $100 into my son’s ESA, and $200 into my wife’s Roth.)  Slowly funding these accounts, quite frankly, isn’t nearly as fun as rapidly building an emergency fund, but it’s something I’ve learned to do.

I think, when you first begin to focus on your finances, it’s important to be like a laser, and focus on the very next micro-goal on your list.  As you mature, it gets easier to spread your focus, just a bit, and focus on several micro-goals at once.  If, however, you’ve been doing this a while, and you feel like you are losing that focus, take a breather, block out all of the other goals, and go back to one, specific, manageable micro-goal.  I think that you will soon find that familiar motivation that got you started in the first place.

5 thoughts on “Micro-Goals And Staying Motivated

  1. This is smart advice… you can’t boil the ocean, eat an elephant one bite at a time, keep your head in the game are all expressions for a reason.

    “Get out of debt” is so large that it possess not ‘next step’… breaking it down to immediately actionable steps is exactly the right approach.

    And congrats to you for making it work AND sharing about it.

    I also agree with the idea that once we’re out of debt the focus is different and the ‘next step’ approach may not work. I’ve heard it compared to a marathon verses a sprint.

    We’re about to be debt free (non mortgage) and I’ve been wondering how to best leverage my intensity while not burning out. I don’t yet have a perfect answer but I’ll be working on it once my next immediate goals have been attained.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Excellent advice. As a life coach, I frequently give the same advice to my clients. Something that seems overwhelmingly impossible becomes quite manageable when handled in smaller pieces. Not to mention the fact that each small achievement builds upon your feeling of pride and success, adding further motivation.

  3. Yeah, I’ve heard this before too, which means you’re right….!:) I try breaking gigantic projects into their smaller steps – that way you can still say at the end of the day that you got something concrete done. It also reminds me of another trick – rather than think about a goal abstractly, like “I’m going to go to the gym tomorrow,” just break it down into its *concrete* steps – so, in the morning, don’t think, but just focus on putting on your shoes, then going out the door, etc. etc.

  4. Excellent post for combating all-or-nothing thinking. That way of thinking gets us nothing more often than not. And, when it comes to finances, wasting time actually works even harder against you!

  5. I find it easier to break large goals into smaller tasks, too. Taking small bites makes the larger task seem easier to accomplish. Any progress that you make is a positive thing.

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