The question of whether or not the U.S. President or a particular party has an impact–positively or negatively–on stocks, bonds, unemployment, inflation, the deficit, and GDP growth–has been flying around like crazy. But especially in the midst of a contentious election cycle, it’s never been harder to find clear answers.
But take a glance at this interactive chart that enables you to click on each U.S. President going all the way back to 1929 to see what the major market and economic indicators looked like for each presidential cycle. I think you’ll find that it’s conclusively inconclusive:
So, should you consider changing your investment plan ahead of the election?
Short answer: No.
And here’s the slightly longer answer from one of the brightest investment people I know (and a darn good guitar player), Jared Kizer, CFA, Chief Investment Officer, Buckingham Wealth Partners:
Everything coming at us right now is purposefully designed to unsettle us. We have to work to be settled in an environment like this. Here are three simple steps you can take to find peace in the midst of the chaos, and likely help others around you do more of the same:
1) Control Your Inputs.
A friend told me yesterday that he needs to replace the screen on his brand new, fancy-schmancy, big-screen OLED television. You know why? Because the banner running across the bottom of the screen of his news channel of choice has scorched itself into the screen. I didn’t even know that was possible.
Turn off Fox News. Turn off CNN. The former has a daily show called “Special Report,” a phrase that was once reserved for something that was Earth-shattering news, and the latter has a daily show called “The Situation Room,” which used to be an actual place in the West Wing of the White House reserved for the most serious of situations are discussed.
No, I’m not suggesting you should be uninformed or fast completely from watching the news, but how can you control those inputs better? For me, I swore off TV news years ago because it seems endemically prone to sensationalism and bias (although yes, everything is biased).
I prefer to read my news through an old-fashioned daily national newspaper and a daily email newsletter that doesn’t take itself too seriously, both with a financial/business bent. Then, I check a few currated newsworthy sources on Twitter a couple times a day.
But most importantly, if I sense my anxiety level rising, I shut down all inflows, because in order to best impact those in my sphere of influence, it’s better to be at peace than to be informed.
2) Broaden your perspective.
The present becomes the past instantaneously. Today becomes yesterday and this year becomes last year. “Can you believe?” becomes “Remember when?” much faster than it feels in the moment.
Whatever happens on Tuesday, it, too, will become the norm and subsequently, history.
3) Practice gratitude and empathy.
Well, I never thought I’d do this, but I’m going to quote Tony Robbins, because he’s just plain right:
You can’t be angry and grateful simultaneously. You can’t be fearful and grateful simultaneously. So, gratitude is the solution to both anger and fear, and instead of just acting grateful, I think of specific situations that I’m grateful for, little ones and big ones. I do it every single day.
And if you were as surprised as I was that I quoted Robbins, now I’m going to go off the deep end and quote Kanye West, but only because his presidential candidacy is entirely lacking in viability:
Empathy is the glue.
Practicing gratefulness is an inward step that can be insurance against anger and fear–and practicing empathy, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, is an outward step that almost immediately eliminates the barriers between us as humans.
And maybe there’s another lesson in there someplace…that it’s possible to find Truth in unlikely places?
The last time I put a presidential campaign sign in my front yard was 2004. We lived on a small court, and we had just moved in that September. One of our neighbors was another young couple, but the other two families had lived there since the houses were built in 1960.
My political convictions were (and are) important to me, but one day, as I pulled into the court and saw the sign, it struck me that while it may have been a bridge to one neighbor, it could almost certainly be a stumbling block for another. I hadn’t even met all my neighbors in person yet—did I really want my vote to be the first impression I made?
I pulled out the sign, and I haven’t raised another since.
Sometimes I have to pinch myself, because as a financial advisor, my job is to meet people, learn about what’s most important to them, help them articulate those values as intentions and goals, and then help create and follow a plan designed to reach them. What a gig, and what a privilege!
One of the greatest gifts of my 20 years and counting in the business is the wide variety of people with whom I’ve been able to engage. While you might tend to think that there is a stereotypical financial advisory client, my experience has been anything but uniform. From teaching college students—one of the best educations I’ve ever received—to advising individuals and families, it’s the striking differences between people that have left an indelible mark on me.
Sure, aside from the college students, they all had something in common—they were blessed with means sufficient enough to hire someone to help in its stewardship—but that’s where the similarities stopped. And their political proclivities have ranged across a vast continuum.
Especially over the last decade, and increasingly over the past four years, I’ve also seen these political opinions manifest as convictions so gripping that I’d describe them as visceral. People seem increasingly concerned with the potential for politics to shape their lives externally, and these concerns are so deeply internalized that I can see, hear and feel the weight of them in the faces and voices of my clients.
These feelings seem just as strong across the political spectrum. It’s not uncommon for us, as advisors, to have a conversation with someone who is convinced that their livelihood is doomed and the very fate of our nation sealed if so-and-so wins only to find, in the very next conversation, that another person is convinced of something equally cataclysmic if such-and-such wins.
So what are we advisors supposed to do? How do we navigate these intense emotions with our clients? And how should we navigate the opinions we hold, knowing that our convictions are rarely, if ever, going to be entirely aligned with those of our clients?
1. Know your role.
Please note I did not invoke the ancient Greek aphorism “Know thyself” here. Knowing thyself is, of course, good and important, regardless of your occupation, and perhaps especially for people in the people business, like financial advisors. But if you’ve chosen to be a financial advisor—a true fiduciary financial advisor—you’ve taken on a duty to prioritize your clients’ best interest. That means you’ve also chosen to dampen, and when appropriate mute, your own opinions and prioritize those of your clients.
Our job as financial advisors isn’t to impose our values and goals and plans on our clients, but to explore their values and goals in pursuit of unique financial plans of their inspiration and creation. Sharing our opinions—or worse yet, trying to convince our clients of the worth of those opinions and the fallacy of their own—simply isn’t part of our job, and it’s possible, if not likely, that doing so will hinder our abilities as an advisor.
2. Know your client.
Do you remember the directive to KYC—Know Your Client—that showed up in the regulatory exams many of us have taken as advisors? Well, it’s always a good time to exercise this dictate, especially when clients raise their political opinions and concerns. Why especially? Because however they appear, political opinions tend to be driven by emotions, and emotions tend to illustrate motivations, and motivations are what drive successful financial plans.
It’s not the what of the opinion that matters to us so much as the why. Instead of hearing a phrase or slogan that might lead you to stereotype your client, see the interaction as an opportunity get beneath the words and find the feelings.
“Well, I didn’t get into this business because I was interested in discussing anyone’s feelings!” an advisor might be inclined to think. But whether you like it or not, what we’ve learned from the field of behavioral economics and science is that feelings and emotions are what drive financial decisions—more so than any numerical calculation or spreadsheet.
We have a choice, therefore, to ignore and avoid feelings and emotions in our work or to become more skilled at exploring and navigating them. And considering the increasing commoditization of the quantitative elements of our work, mastering the qualitative arts is likely also good business.
We can’t just be financial planners anymore—we need to be financial life planners.
What does this look like in practice? It involves the institutionalization of the following:
· Exploring—active listening, repeating and reframing what you’ve heard
· Silence—leaving enough space to allow clients to follow up on their own thoughts, even before asking questions
· Empathizing—putting yourself in their shoes
· Questioning—the more open-ended, the better
· Validating—acknowledging and affirming
· Connecting—emotions to intentions to plans
· Confirming—clarifying, using their words
· Reminding—refamiliarizing people who are prone to forgetting and changing
What doesn’t it look like? You know the big ones—talking, telling, lecturing, shaming. But you also have to be careful of a few other tendencies that are more common among advisors and seemingly less dangerous. Teaching, for instance, is often a one-way street, and while there are always times for educating with clients, it’s better done in response to expressed curiosity. Consulting is a transaction of knowledge and experience to the ignorant, whereas good advising is more collaborative and less condescending.
Simply put, there needs to be less of us and more of them.
As you can see, these principles apply to a lot more in our work with clients than just their political beliefs, but hopefully they also provide a roadmap for effectively navigating the potentially dangerous waters of partisanship.
Personally, I’ve tried to develop a couple habits to help me avoid a shipwreck:
I don’t talk about politics online and in social media. I know many phenomenal advisors who do, and I cast no judgement whatsoever on their decisions. For some segment of advisors, this may actually be a business decision, a way to engage a target niche client base. Regardless, one can certainly make the case that “we’re all adults here” and that we should be able to separate our business dealings from our personal opinions and expect that clients are capable of doing the same. I’ve just yet to see anyone convince anyone else of anything about any topic in the online arena, and to me, no tweet or post is worth creating relational dissonance.
It may, however, be easier to avoid offending than it is to avoid being offended in the emotionally charged landscape of conversation topics, especially right now. So how do I navigate it when a client shares something that I don’t agree with? First, I’ll try to find common ground, to connect to a shared belief, and this need not take place aloud. When that’s not possible, when I’m tempted to change my opinion of a client based on an opinion of theirs I find disagreeable, I’ll remind myself of something else that I admire about them, and when possible, I’ll share that affirmation.
We’ve chosen a vocational path—to be a guide, not a hero; to be a board member, not the boss; to be an amplifier, not the instrument; to be a coach, not the star. And when we know our role, it positions us to do a much better job of knowing and serving our clients—especially in the midst of, and following, a contentious election cycle.
It’s become almost passé to bemoan the exorbitant cost of a college education and the collective debt burden, now over $1.6 trillion, resting on the shoulders of U.S. students and parents. While it’s true that college tuition has risen at twice the rate of inflation, many academic consumers refuse to recognize their complicity in skyrocketing costs. Indeed, educational institutions charge what they do because we’re willing to pay for it.
Yet a perplexing antinomy exists—a college education can be excessively expensive, holding students and their benefactors financially hostage for decades, or it can be surprisingly inexpensive. Case in point:
Harvard Vs. Harford
Without accounting for any financial aid or scholarships, a student could trade one semester of Ivy League education for a four-year undergraduate degree from any number of excellent state universities. Specifically, if a student, living in Harford County, Maryland, were to commute from home to Harford Community College for two years and then commute to Towson University for the second two years, the total cost of tuition and fees—for an entire undergraduate degree—would be approximately $27,826 by my calculations, based on 2020 published estimates. That would buy you just a hair under 10% of four years of tuition, room, board and fees at Harvard–it wouldn’t even cover a single semester.
This is quite obviously a gross oversimplification, only factoring one of many important dimensions of the full college experience, and not accounting for the fact that few students at any college pay full price, but the illustration forces us to recognize that there are other educational options available aside from paying a fortune.
It also begs the question: In a day and age when the undergraduate degree has been largely commoditized and viewed as a prerequisite for virtually every white collar job available, do the intangible benefits to be derived from any collegiate scenario costing more than the $27,826 represent a good value proposition? Is the nearly $200,000 premium (in today’s dollars) you pay for the elite private or Ivy League undergraduate experience worth it? Is the $100,000 premium you pay to live on campus at an out-of-state, state university worth it? Is the $50,000 premium you pay to live and eat on campus at your state university worth it?
The answer for any of the above may very well be an emphatic and justifiable YES! but the value proposition for each student/school/benefactor combination will be different and worthy of exploration. Here’s a four step process that will help you make that determination and properly fund the resulting decisions.
Step 1: Can you?
This instruction is directed largely to parents, but the logic is identical and the process just as important for those flying solo in their educational endeavors. In developing your Family Education Policy, you must first ask the question “Can I?” What is a reasonable expense for your children’s education that your household could bear without unduly hampering your own financial plan, present and future?
It’s actually a selfish act to prioritize your children’s education over your retirement savings, because it will be much less costly for your children to pay off finite student loans than to bail out parents in the midst of a financial and health crisis in their old age. If you can’t, don’t; then set your pride aside and discuss this reality with your budding scholars.
If you’re having trouble answering the question Can I? without more of a frame of reference, let me give you a rough idea of how much you’d have to save monthly, from the day your child is born, for 18 years, assuming the cost of education rises at 5% and you’re able to earn 7% on your savings:
Community college / In-state State U commuter: $ 155/ mo
In-state State U resident: $ 542/ mo
Out-of-state State U resident: $ 857/ mo
Premier private / Ivy League resident: $1,618/ mo
Does that offer some perspective?
Step 2: Will you?
After determining whether you can, you should follow that with “Will I?” The financial entities who sell and administer education savings plans have seemingly colluded with academia to create an unspoken moral imperative for parents to fund their children’s college education. And while I have no desire to strip you of a healthy desire to pay for your child’s post-secondary schooling, I want to give you the freedom to recognize that it is your choice to make. This is an opportunity to parent, and to make a mark on your children based on your articulated personal principles and goals—the first step of every good financial plan. I urge you to capitalize on that opportunity.
Step 3: Develop a Family Education Policy
At this point, you can, with the aid of your co-parent, clearly set forth a Family Education Policy. This is your answer to the question your kids will eventually ask: “Hey, Katie’s parents told her they would pay [whatever] for college—what are you doing for me?” My hope is that you won’t even wait for that query to arrive, proactively communicating this message even before curiosity forces the issue. Maybe you’ll offer to pay up-to the four-year cost of an in-state state university education; or possibly up-to four years at your alma mater (although I’d warn you that this common directive seems less about them and more about you); maybe you’ll offer to pay the first two years of school, or a fascinating idea one client proposed—the second two years (to ensure her children were serious about the endeavor).
If you have the wherewithal and desire to offer your children the educational blank check—you can go wherever your heart desires that will accept you—by all means, do so. But if all you have is the desire and not the wherewithal, you’re doing no one a favor.
Step 4: Develop an Education Savings Plan
The number 529 has become nearly synonymous with education savings, and in part for good reason. 529 plans offer education savers options for hedging the future costs of education and/or tax privilege. Prepaid tuition plans give us the opportunity to pay for tomorrow’s tuition at today’s prices. The plans are state administered and typically only cover the cost of tuition in your state (although you may be able to use the equivalent of the tuition cost of your state’s universities in another state). If the cost of education continues to rise at its current pace, this would appear to be a good hedge, but the solidity of your prepaid plan of choice must also be considered. Since many states are enduring financial difficulties of their own, the solvency of some plans has been reasonably questioned.
A 529 investment savings plan is very different conceptually. It is an investment bucket of mutual funds you own that receives tax privilege similar to that of a Roth IRA. You contribute after-tax dollars to the plan, and the principal and growth can be distributed tax-free if used for a wide range of qualified education expenses. You may also receive a state tax deduction for a portion of your contribution. The contribution limits are quite liberal, allowing $15,000 per parent (or even grandparent), per child in 2020, also with an allowance to prefund up to five years. But since the funds invested in these accounts are subject to market volatility, a bigger concern over the past decade has been whether or not you are actually making money at all—much less over the college inflation factor.
If your children are very young and you can stomach the volatility, a college investment savings plan is an excellent tool, but I highly recommend using a no-load version of one of these 529 plans so you don’t start your investment in the hole via a brokerage commission. If your children are older and you live in a state with a strong prepaid tuition plan, that may be a good option to consider. But in either of these cases, I recommend you apply the 50% Rule. Save 50% of your expected education needs in education-specific 529 plans, but store the other 50% in conservatively invested taxable accounts (or even savings accounts and CDs) since there are so many other variables at work.
Does education have a price? Learning has inherent value which is incalculable. Education is one of the primary ways we learn. I taught at the college level for seven years and believe that it is one of my most important contributions; but while the educational process may be priceless, we must not ignore the associated price tag.
This article, updated in 2020, was originally published in my blog on Forbes.com.
Do you ever get so caught up in your own head, in your own stuff, that you lose perspective? I can’t imagine a time that would be more inclined to lead us to insular thinking, self-pity, conspiracy theorizing, and perspective losing than this season we’re trudging through.
So in this week’s Financial LIFE Planning weekly installment, you’ll get some perspective that I hope will give you peace and help you make wise financial, and other, decisions:
An exclusive FLiP video chat with Michael O’Neal, the Executive Director of global non-profit, ONEWORLD Health
A confounding Weekly Market Update with a side of cheese
A reminder about our capacity to overestimate our own capabilities
Oh, and Happy Mothers Day, to mine and all of you moms!
How to Get More Than You Give
Have you ever noticed that when you give to someone whose needs are greater than yours, you actually feel like you have more? Whether it’s a friend in need of a pick-me-up, an investment of your time at a soup kitchen, or a charitable contribution, this change in perspective is one of three major benefits of giving.
The other two? Well, in addition to our perspective being changed, we experience a biological phenomenon, an endorphin rush. Apparently, we’re biologically wired to feel good when we give. Cool, right? And pragmatically, depending on how (or if) you file your tax return, you may also get a rebate on a portion of your financial gifts…check with your CPA.
This week, I recorded a video chat I had with the Executive Director of ONEWORLD Health, Michael O’Neal, specifically for you! We discussed their unique approach to sustainable development work that has enabled them to survive the COVID-19 crisis–and the success they’ve had cultivating relationships with individuals, families, businesses, and even rock bands, like NEEDTOBREATHE, who alone has raised over $2.3 million for the work their doing.
He also explains why we always get more than we give. Click below to watch the nine-minute excerpt, or top off your coffee and click HERE for the full 23-minute interview.
And yes, if you’re jonesing to put that give-more-than-you-get business to the test right now, it’s easy–click HERE and hit the Donate button. And if you choose to give $50 or more, please let me know, because I’d like to send you a personal thank you.
Weekly Market Update:
After two marginally down weeks, the market had another week in the green, almost confoundingly so:
+2.56% DJIA (30 big U.S. companies)
+3.50% S&P (500 big U.S. companies)
+2.71% EFA (~900 international companies)
The biggest question for most people is, “How!? How is the market going up when the economic news is historically bad?” It’s true: Unemployment this week hit 14.7%–the worst since the Great Depression.
Although clearly indeed of a beard trim–sorry, Mom!–I joined Jill Wagner on Cheddar (an online TV channel) to discuss this seemingly odd phenomenon, and to offer some suggestions for the unemployed, under-employed, self-employed, and gainfully-employed in these challenging times:
Is the wind at your back?
I’m not a “cyclist,” but I do love to ride my bike. Last week, I took a new ride, recommended by my good friend–who is a cyclist–that stretched me a bit, and gave me another healthy dose of perspective.
I love to have a destination, so I set my course for the Bulls Island Ferry, a beautiful spot in Awendaw, SC. The total ride was about 20 miles, and on the way there, I felt like an Olympian, averaging about 18 mph. (“Maybe I can call myself a cyclist,” I was beginning to think.
With head held high, I took in the beautiful view, nodded proudly to the couple that I passed on the last mile, and headed homeward. Only then did I realize that I’d had a meaningful tailwind that I’d now be fighting the entire way home. The wind had been at my back.
And as I was thinking about a contingency plan on mile 15–suffering the embarassment of calling my wife and asking her to pick me up in the middle of nowhere, a length to which I thank the Lord I didn’t (quite) have to go–a question hit me like an easterly wind pounding route 17:
How much of whatever I’ve done well in life was actually just thanks to a solid tailwind? Being born into a great family? In the right zip code? Being on the right team? Having selfless friends? Working with amazing people?
How about you? Is it possible that your successes have been aided by a tailwind? If so, who is deserving of thanks? (In addition to your mother, of course!)
How about now? If you feel like a failure at the moment, is it possible you’re just facing the greatest economic headwind of a generation? Who can you ask for help?
Or if you’re fortunate enough to be cranking through this crisis at top speed, who can you help?
And if you think of the people who’ve been your tailwind, I hope you take a moment–why not now?–to thank them.
The spent lungs and sore butt were worth the perspective…and so was the view:
I hope you have a great Mother’s Day and find a healthy tailwind this week!
Investing is a young person’s game, am I right? I mean, I can understand the argument for ignoring short-term market dives when it’ll be decades before you need to actually touch the money. But what about retirees who need income today? Should retirees and near-retirees be cashing out of stocks on fears that a worldwide pandemic will continue to throttle markets?
First, it’s important to address this question on an emotional level before attempting to respond rationally, because it’s not cold, calculating rationale that leads the charge in times of high market volatility, especially of the downward variety. (Indeed, as my friend Jeff Levine said, “Nobody ever seems to mind volatility when it’s up.”) Furthermore, when we are feeling and responding through the fast-acting, impulsive processor in our brain, thoughtful logic isn’t particularly comforting.
Retirees, in particular, may feel downright scared, and perhaps their fear is justified, because:
They feel disempowered because they’re no longer earning a paycheck and are now reliant entirely on sources of income beyond their control.
They don’t have as much time as an investor in his or her 20s, 30s or 40s to recoup losses.
The math does change for those who are in the distribution phase of their life. Losses can indeed be compounded when you’re taking income out of a portfolio, rather than opportunistically buying through regular contributions.
Therefore, whether you’re a financial advisor counseling someone through turbulent markets or a white-knuckled investor eyeing the eject button, please know this: Every emotion is valid and worthy of acknowledgement. The best financial advisors will take it one step further and explore the emotions in play, even enlisting them in support of the best long-term investment strategy.
Once we’ve addressed this valid concern on an emotional level, it’s time to look at it from a logical perspective, and indeed, for most retirees, it’s important to maintain a healthy allocation to stock exposure in order to ensure that your lifestyle keeps up with inflation. In determining how much risk any investor should take, one’s “time horizon”—the ability to take risk—is a material consideration. A retiree in her late 60s has a shorter time horizon than a new investor in his early 20s, but, however limited, theretiree’s time horizon still isn’t zero.
Retirees need to satisfy income needs today, but they also need to address income needs in the future. Therefore, while it’s a slight oversimplification of a total return portfolio strategy, in times of extreme market volatility, I would invite retirees to view the meaningful portion of conservative fixed income in their portfolio as their income engine in the short-term while their portfolio’s stock exposure is designed to generate income years from now.
(Of course, this presumes that one’s fixed income portfolio is actually conservative, a stabilizing force in your portfolio. Corporate, longer-term, and especially high-yield bonds tend to have equity-like characteristics in down markets; so dare to be boring with your fixed income allocation.)
The optimal percentage of equities in a retirement portfolio will be driven by the retiree’s need to take risk. If you don’t need to take the risk, who am I (or any other financial person with a propensity for stock market cheerleading) to convince you otherwise? Yes, you might need a boost from market returns to outpace inflation. And yes, even if you’d struggle to spend all your money in this lifetime if you kept it in a Mason jar, you might consider investing it for the next generation. But there’s no moral imperative to endure market volatility if you don’t need or want the long-term benefits we expect to receive.
And that’s especially because the most important factor in determining how much equity risk you take in your portfolio is your internal willingness to assume risk. This is the gut-check test, and if you’re at risk of bailing out at the bottom—the worst possible time to sell—you must limit your exposure to stocks. Sticking with a conservative portfolio will earn you more in the long run than fleeing a more aggressive one.
Of course, you can only “stay the course” if you have one. You can only stick with the strategy that exists. Typically, emotions are heightened among those who don’t fully understand or can’t fully articulate their strategy and especially among those who don’t have one.
Too many investors own a collection of securities—or even a collection of someone else’s strategies—that have built up over a lifetime, rather than a well-designed, purposely built, customized portfolio. Those investors should be concerned, and they should use this market hysteria du jour as the catalyst for a substantive portfolio review.
If you’re in the minority, however, who do have an understandable, goals-based strategy—who have considered their ability, willingness and need to take risk—and who have proportionately set their exposure to stocks, then by all means, rest easy and rebalance. Know that however ugly this particular market event gets, it likely will not amount to a blip on the radar when looking at your lifetime of investing. Acting rashly in these situations is more likely to do harm than good.
My work as a financial advisor is dedicated to helping others best allocate their scarce resources in a way that is optimally aligned with their goals and grounded in their values. And while most of that work involves financial resources, I’ve also become somewhat obsessed with the stewardship of what is perhaps our scarcest resource—time.
One of the simplest and best productivity “hacks” I’ve found in pursuit of this obsession comes, almost hilariously, from one of the funniest people on the planet—Jerry Seinfeld.
First introduced to Seinfeld’s prolific productivity by Cal Newport in the priceless book Deep Work, and subsequently illuminated in the must-watch Netflix movie Jerry Before Seinfeld, I learned much about the single tool Seinfeld used to become the world’s top comedian: daily intentionality.
Long before he was a household name, Seinfeld committed himself to the daily intentionality of writing new jokes to hone his craft. He reportedly tracked this habit by drawing an “X” through that day’s box on the calendar.
He identified the most important thing he needed to do every day and then oriented his calendar around the completion of that task. And you don’t have to be a comedic genius to make this work.
What is the most important thing—or things—that you need to do, and how might you adapt your calendar management to improve the probability that it happens? Here’s how I’ve adapted this technique personally, in four simple slashes on my wall calendar:
1) The most important most important thing I need to do daily is to center myself spiritually and mentally. Therefore, the second habit I complete daily—after brewing a very strong pot of coffee, of course—is to sit down in my home office, where I spend about 60 minutes reading, reflecting, praying and then meditating.
The completion of this routine earns a vertical line down the middle of the day’s box on my wall-sized, yearly calendar: |
2) The second most important thing that I need to do—not only for my own health, but for the sanity of those with whom I live and work—is physical exercise.
I aim for three days of HIIT workouts and two days of yoga weekly. I’ve improved the probability of this happening by going to a gym that offers both types of classes. But more importantly, the gym requires you to schedule workouts in advance—and charges you if you cancel, creating a helpful disincentive for this financial planner to make it! So at the beginning of each week, I schedule five classes that turn into meetings on my calendar. These, in turn, help me be more productive in every other activity that day.
After completing my daily workout, I get the satisfaction of adding a horizontal line on that day of the calendar: —
3) Next, I aim to complete my M.I.T., the Most Important Task of the day. As part of my daily planning, I determine what I need to do that day to have the most impact on the projects I’m engaged in. Inspired by author Daniel Pink, I have a whiteboard in my office where I then write down that task.
The key here, of course, is to actually DO it. Pink suggests simply making it the first task of the day, but I’ve also applied some systematic calendar management to further increase the chances of checking off my most glaring to-do, as informed, again, by Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work.
Newport provides convincing evidence that, regardless of how many hours we work in a given day, we only have four hours of optimum productivity, biologically speaking. With his encouragement, I’ve determined what those four hours are for me (generally 10:00am to 2:00pm). I block them on the calendar as my Focus Time, in which I complete my M.I.T. (Other important, but less mentally strenuous, tasks, like email, calls, meetings and errands, are then “batched” throughout the day.)
Successful completion of the M.I.T. earns me a big backslash through that day on the calendar: \
4) Lastly, I discipline myself to offer at least one person a deliberate, if not pre-meditated, affirmation. This idea was inspired by Adam Grant, the author of Give and Take. Grant, who has dedicated his career to helping us get more out of our professions, is almost notorious for his high level of achievement and productivity. But he has a very simple method that guides his weekly and daily planning, as highlighted in GQ:
I try to start every week with three things that I want to accomplish that I care about. And then three ways that I want to help other people. And that’s the compass for the week. I’ll plan my whole schedule around those things.”
This notion of helping other people may be something as involved as reaching out to contribute effort to someone else’s project, but it can also be as simple as picking up the phone to see how a colleague or friend is doing, or sending a word of affirmation or commendation by email or, better yet, a hand-written note. In my experience, I’ve found that the concrete objective of sharing a deliberate affirmation is specific enough that I’ve had higher completion rates than when I’ve left the intention more generic.
What has been especially interesting to me is that the completion of this task—while it tends to be seen as the “lowest” priority and takes the least amount of time—often offers the greatest satisfaction.
I compound that satisfaction by finishing off my successful calendar day with a forward slash: /
Using a strategy like this makes for a messy calendar, but each mark offers the momentary endorphin rush we were meant to enjoy from the act of work completed. It also creates a visual record of our productivity—and lack thereof—throughout the day, week, month and year.
To help you kick off your New Year — and the new decade — with more clarity and purpose, I’d like to recommend a blog post, a simple daily practice, and a transformative book that I believe could propel you not just through 2020, but the 2020s. I’ll list them in the order of the lowest investment of time to the greatest:
1 Post about a family who suffered the greatest loss imaginable in 2019, and the lessons their loss teaches us about making the most of our lives, personally and professionally:
The biggest challenges most of us had in 2019, thankfully, pale in comparison to that which my good friends continue to endure — the sudden loss of their 17-year-old son to a previously unknown heart condition. It was the last, most challenging, and most important post I wrote for Forbes last year, or in any year.
But the life of this young man and the habits he embodied — sharing his self-confidence, speaking words of affirmation, and finding the best in any circumstances — could change the course of your life and those you love. I know it has mine.
1 Practice that draws us away from the distracting world of electronics and into the “analog” space where the research shows our time is best managed:
There’s an app for everything, and there are more than we could possibly count that promise to make us more productive and to manage our time better. Ironically, research suggests that the very best tools for optimum productivity may actually be a good old-fashioned pencil, paper, and most importantly, a little uninterrupted time.
With an attention span easily swayed, I’ve spent the better part of my career hunting for the best productivity methods and mechanisms. After getting on and falling off of that wagon more times than I can count, with complex “systems” that seemed hard to adopt and even harder to adapt, I finally found a method that has stuck with me now for three years without fail — Bullet Journaling.
1 Book that changes the way we think about work — and life — and helps us get more from each through the power of intention:
You’ve heard that multi-tasking is a myth, and it’s verifiably true. But most of us are still working — and playing — in such a way that this realization and its ramifications have not yet sunk in. In so doing, we rarely leave the realm of “shallow work,” where our attention is sufficiently divided that we slow the process down and decrease the quality of our efforts.
By reordering our time and space to facilitate “deep work,” we can actually get more and better work done in less time. And the same applies to our less laborious pursuits in life.
This book, this practice, and the subject matter of this post have left a mark on me — a mark that has already outlasted a few New Year’s celebrations — and I have no doubt will impact my life and work through the 20’s. I hope they are of some value to you as well.
What do you text the father, a good friend, who I’d just learned had lost his 17-year-old son the previous night?
“I don’t have the words. Praying. Anything at all, we’re here for you.”
I’d spent the previous hour hearing the news, breaking down, sharing the news with my wife and then my sons, breaking down, calling other parents who’d want to get to their kids before they learned in the middle of class, breaking down.
No, a text won’t do. Not in this case, not in this moment. They only live a few blocks away. So began the most painful walk my wife and I have undertaken, to a front door that we didn’t want to open, to see the face of a father and mother still stunned by the worst news a parent can receive.
Thus, we were initiated into a holy cycle of hugging, crying, story-telling, laughing and loving that culminated with a service—the day before Mother’s Day—celebrating Logan Janik’s life, as over 800 family and friends graduated into a new, dimmer reality.
Throughout this cycle, as I grew to know Logan much better through the intersecting narratives, the pervasive thought that stuck was that this young man had left more of a legacy in 17 short years than most leave after a statistical lifetime.
And no, these are not the mere musings of a mourner struggling with recent loss. Logan lived his life embodying a few commonly known but uncommonly exhibited traits that, ifemulated, would help all of us live a life worthy of a legacy:
First, he made a habit of sharing his self-confidence with those who might lack it. Logan was a six-foot-two, 210-pound athlete with an enviable head of hair and an inimitable smile—the first word that came to mind both as his most memorable feature and the expression he most often inspired.
When my son first stepped foot on the campus of what has now become his high school—attended by over 4,000 students—he was an unsure eighth grader attempting to make the JV lacrosse team. I have no doubt that his attempt was successful in part thanks to Logan, then a seasoned sophomore, who insisted on driving my son to and from practice.
This rhythm continued as my son began his freshman year—Logan’s junior year—causing my wife and I to wonder, “What 11th-grader risks his popularity on an unrelated freshman?” But unlike most of us, even as adults, Logan didn’t see his personal confidence and credibility as an exhaustible resource. He spent it freely, not choosing to invest it only in those who’d provide a relational ROI, but more so in those who really needed it.
Second, Logan spoke words of affirmation. Such words can feel empty when actions don’t coincide, but there was no such incongruence here. For instance, my son wasn’t the only freshman beneficiary of Logan’s encouragement—another young man remembered Logan’s final words to him when, picking him out of a crowd, he simply said, “You’re my favorite goalie.”
In an age where so many affirmations come in the form of “Likes” worth little more than the click they require, a single, timely, genuine word of encouragement can buoy us when we fail and shape us when we succeed.
Finally, Logan extracted a redeeming reality out of circumstances that would waylay most. More succinctly, he was a glass-half-full kid who chose to find the best in both people and situations.
Of his passions in life, lacrosse may have been the foremost. But despite being an imposing athlete and an ideal teammate, he didn’t always make the team he tried out for, especially at his 4,000-student high school. “He handled it better than I did,” his father told me, when he missed the final cut for varsity.
We would all be disappointed, as Logan was, but our natural tendency is often to cast external blame and protect our vulnerability through embitterment. Logan did neither, and in retrospect, it also gave him the opportunity to play his final season of lacrosse alongside his younger brother, celebrating another high school league championship together just days before Logan’s passing.
Helping came naturally to Logan—but it doesn’t to most of us. We live in a time and place where crafting our individual narrative and boosting our resume is sadly very much a part of adulthood. The perception machine is always cranking, and the very design of “friending” and “connecting” is to pad our own stats and build our own credibility.
Spending time, effort, and social or professional capital, therefore, is seen as the domain solely of the untouchable philanthropist who has acquired more than it appears possible to spend in multiple lifetimes.
“I’ll give back when [fill in the blank],” seems a sensible refrain. But Logan’s example reminds us that our “when” may never come, and that we do not have to wait on an estate to build a legacy. Material riches are not required to make an investment in time or influence.
But if altruism isn’t enough motivation, there’s also a pragmatic case to be made. Helping others—without any expectation of reciprocity—is an entirely valid strategy for those (read: most) of us who are still in the accumulation phase of building a meaningful life, personally and professionally. Indeed, it is the premise of Adam Grant’s book, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, and the inspiration for his weekly productivity routine:
I try to start every week with three things that I want to accomplish that I care about. And then three ways that I want to help other people. And that’s the compass for the week. I’ll plan my whole schedule around those things.
As I’ve been stumbling my way through Logan’s loss, I found myself asking a question about the equity of my accomplishment/helping ratio:
How much more of an impact could I have if I followed through on my best intentions, specifically relating to helping, affirming and building-up others versus striving toward my own accomplishments?
Would you consider asking the same question?
Consider allowing yourself, as I have been, to be humbled and inspired and challenged by a kid, an “old soul,” whose legacy will extend long beyond his life.
In Charles Duhigg’s eye-opening book, The Power of Habit, we learn that we are, whether we like it or not, creatures of habit. For better and for worse.
In order to help us understand how habits work, how to identify them, and how to create good ones, Duhigg introduces us to the “Habit Loop,” a cycle that begins with an (often unknown) behavioral Cue that triggers a Routine resulting in a desired Reward.
Physical exercise is something that’s important to many people, myself included, so using Duhigg’s concepts, I’ve created a reward for this desired behavior that I submit to you as nothing short of the World’s Best Protein Fruit and Vegetable Smoothie.