Just Get Started!

Just Get Started! Tips and tricks for overcoming inertia and making progress on goals.

You can get a lot done just one small step at a time!

Of the 5 Green Geek Principles, “Just Get Started!” is the easiest principle to understand, however, it’s far and away the most difficult to actualize. Do you ever think, “I’ll get around to it”, “I’ll wait until I feel like it”, or “it’s too difficult to work on a big project right now”. Yeah? That’s what I thought! This stuff is super difficult because at the get go we are at odds with all of our evolutionary traits when it comes to working on anything overly complex or long-term oriented.

Think about it, for most of our evolutionary past, resources were scarce and unpredictable and thus, the default was to conserve as much energy as possible. That’s why we as humans are so good at being lazy – inertia plays to our evolutionary past – hello 4+ hours or TV per day for the average U.S. adult.

In our history, the main stressors that got us moving were fending off starvation, protecting ourselves from the elements, and trying not to be eaten by predators. Most motivators were short-term and there wasn’t much value for long term thinking (who knows how long you’d live anyway), so we evolved to focus on immediate returns. It’s not like there were sabretooth tigers chasing us for 35 years, straight into retirement (if only).

So yes, it’s an uphill battle against ourselves to successfully get motivated for almost anything longer-term than the time it takes to walk over to the fridge. Because we need all the help we can get, there is more content related to this principle that I’ve broken down into the following sub-sections:

    1. Why you want to start now!
    2. How to get going: my personal tips
    3. Setting goals: personal examples

1. Why You Want to Start Now! – a case for getting started

“Why do now what I can put off until later?” While evolutionarily normal, this type of thinking can unfortunately be disastrous for our lives if we want to live for more than, say 20 years. Putting important things off when in school will lead to failing grades. Putting off important things at work will lead to sub-par performance and thus, sub-par earning potential. Putting off important things in a relationship will likely lead to dissatisfaction and disconnection. Putting off fitness will lead to increased medical issues and a lower quality of life.

You can start to see that making a case to get started on important projects and long-term goals can be made for many areas of our life. However, the importance of getting going is particularly easy to quantitatively illustrate when it comes to the significant advantages from starting to invest early (as in today!).

With investing, that, “I’ll get around to it” thinking can be disastrous. Literally, one of the biggest mistakes you can make around investing is waiting to get started. Let’s see this play out with an example below:

Example 1: Starting investing at 30 vs. at 40.

In this example, we’ll start with the “get stuff done” version of you:
Say you’re diligent and on your game at the age of 30. You overcame inertia, read a few articles on the subject to open up a Roth IRA on your 30th birthday. Yes, funds are tight at the moment but you decided this was going to be a priority for you and you were able to scrape together a very solid $1,000 a month to invest in a retirement account (nicely done!). Continuing this $1,000 per month savings rate, by the time you hypothetically retire 35 years later on your 65th birthday, you would have contributed $420,000 in cash to this account. However, due to the incredible magic that is compounding interest, you would have a total of $1.8 million saved up in your retirement account (as you can see in the table below)! Bo-yeah!

Now, the “I’ll get to it” version of you:
On the other hand, let’s say investing is confusing to you. You know it’s something you should do but life is crazy busy right now. You put it off until you’ve got your career further underway, have move cash in the bank, and family life has calmed down a bit. At the age of 40 you finally get going. You start off investing more because you’re trying to get caught up for the years you hadn’t been investing. Plus, now that you’ve focused on your career and are killing it, you’re comfortable putting aside say twice as much, contributing an impressive $2,000 a month to your retirement account. On your 65th birthday, the “I’ll get to it” version of you would have contributed an impressive $600,000 in cash to your retirement accounts (almost $200k more than the 30 year old you), but your balance would be only $1.6M (ironically, $200k less!).

Saving $1000 per month starting at age 30 vs. saving $2000 per month at age 40

In fact, to match the same $1.8M at age 65 achieved by the “get stuff done” 30 year-old version of you, you would have to start saving $2,225 per month starting at age 40. Dang. This would equal a total cash contribution of $667,500. That’s $247,500 or almost 60% more than the $420,000 your starting at 30 self had to put in!

Our $360,000 total difference (considering both contributions and final savings balances) between these two scenarios is nothing to sniff at for just getting your act together and starting out earlier. I’m also not trying to say that $1.8M is enough to retire and $1.6M isn’t – the point here is to highlight the significant cost to our inaction.

Example 2: $100 invested at 30 vs 40

To hone in at what we’re seeing in play in the example above, let’s focus just on a single investment of $100 made at both ages 30 and age 40.

Let’s start with the age 40 example, where $100 invested at 40 with an inflation adjusted 7% annual return, over a 25 year period would be worth over 5 times its original value by age 65, being worth a total $543 (5.4x the initial investment)!

Now, under the same circumstances, $100 invested ten years earlier at age 30, would be worth over 10 times (!!) its original value at age 65, or a total of $1,068.

Value of $100 invested at age 40 vs. age 30

That’s essentially double the return of the one hundred dollars invested ten years later. And now think of this impact for every $100 you are able to save!

If that’s not a modern age sabretooth tiger nipping at your heals, I don’t know what would be. This basic calculation just clearly demonstrates that you want to invest as early and as much as you can.

We could run through a dozen different scenarios, but they will all show you the same thing: that there is no substitution for time when it comes to investing.

So get going!

Do not underestimate the power of just doing something.

So many good ideas, intentions, and opportunities pass us by because we humans often find it incredibly difficult to overcome the inertia from our daily routine and take action.

The best time to plant a tree may have been 20 years ago, but the second-best time is now! Don’t let past inaction be an excuse for not moving forward on things that are important.

Some courses of action, like planting a tree, are pretty straight forward and it’s clear how to get the job done. But then there are those opportunities and decisions we have to make that are not clear cut. Some subjects – investing and money management is a prime example – are incredibly nuanced and have significant levels of complexity. You pull back one layer of the onion and there is another layer, and another, and another.

For example, quickly getting into the subject matter of investing may raise questions like “should I be using a Roth IRA or traditional IRA?”, “is now the right time to be entering the market?”, “what bond vs. investments ratio is appropriate for my age?”, “do I have the right diversification of funds?”, “how do I rebalance?”, “should I be taking advantage of tax loss harvesting”, “what benchmarks should I be tracking”, “what are my investments’ alpha”, and on and on.

Things like this either a) immediately make most people turn off, b) others enter a state of analysis paralysis unable to make any decision, or c) some, like myself, want to understand everything possible about a subject before even dipping their toe in the water – which is just as deadly.

What I strongly recommend for all of the above situations: take small but incremental steps.

Identify the Next Small Step

In my own life, I have found it incredibly helpful to commit to taking small next steps to keep big goals moving forward in the right direction. I’ve been amazed at what can be accomplished by continuing to take little steps – which help to provide immediate rewards we evolved to seek and fend off the inertia and the sense of a subject being too overwhelming to tackle.

Also, by starting small, what you’re doing is incrementally building two key things for success: knowledge and habits. They may start off seemingly insignificant, but overtime the knowledge and habits are scaled up to make a big overall difference in your life (as we saw in Principle 1 – Little Things Add Up).

What do I mean by starting small? Here are some examples:

      • Want to cook more at home but don’t know how? Start with doing a google search for a recipe that takes literally 2 or 3 common ingredients to break the ice and master that one recipe. Then move up in complexity from there.
      • Think you might like a new career path but aren’t sure? Find some local people on LinkedIn in that field and invite them to lunch as an “informational interview” to talk it over and see what you think.
      • Think you should probably get a will but haven’t yet? Do a quick google search for easy wills and you’ll see a number of options. I used Quicken WillMaker software which you can find last year’s copy for next to nothing on eBay to quickly and cheaply get a will in place, or I’ve heard go things about Tomorrow.me which provides an app for making free basic wills.)
      • Want to bring your lunch into work more often rather than buying a meal? Commit to doing it just 1 day a week and then go from there.
      • Running – I thought I hated running but I started small, using the run walk method, running literally just 60 seconds at a time. I was amazed how quickly this led me to doing and loving 30 minute runs. That led to 10 km runs within a year and a few half marathons shortly after. It’s about getting the habit down and building from there.
      • Want to do more DIY projects around the house? Start small with try changing out a light switch by following a YouTube video. You’ll gain confidence and will start feeling comfortable tackling other projects, electrical or otherwise. There are only a few small projects between switching out a light switch and running a whole new electrical branch (for your future electric car charger of course). Each project will build on the last and your confidence and knowledge will build. But it will never build if you don’t start.

2. How To Get Going: my personal tips

Getting to some actionable and more specific tips, here are a handful of approaches I use in my every day life to keep me going on projects, big or small.

1. Always identify and commit to a next step

No matter how small the next step may be, identify a next action you are comfortable with that can progress you towards your goal. This may be as simple as committing to googling something later when you have a chance, reading a book on the subject, talking to your partner about it, etc.

As you finish up one action, identify (and ideally write down) a next step that you can take to continue to build and keep the momentum.

As an example, if you have had a dream of starting a new business but have always been overwhelmed with the idea, some of your little steps to start a new business may go as follows:

      • commit to search for available domain names or otherwise come up with a business name
      • then take some time to brainstorm a few of the key components to success of your business – like who your customer is, how you will make money, etc.
      • then brainstorm a list of the minimum set of things you would need to launch your business in the smallest way possible,
      • then research business formation options like sole proprietorship and LLC,
      • then see what it takes to form that kind of a business in your state, etc.

Clearly this example is not complete, but finding the answer to one question often leads us to asking another. Things often naturally progress once you get the ball going. Again, it’s just about starting!

Most of us only have time here and there in a day – maybe a few minutes on our smartphone while we wait for an appointment, or a 45 minute block while your little kids have some rest time during the weekend (speaking from experience here). By breaking up a larger project into bite-size bits and identifying the next task, a lot can still be accomplished with just those little and fragmented bits of time.

2. Create a list to record your next steps and ideas

A list will not only keep you focused on the next step when you have a moment of time, but can also be immensely helpful to keep track of new ideas or questions that pop up. One of the advantages of breaking up a big project into little bits is that, between working on the identified steps, your brain will continue to think on things for you. I find the mind has an amazing way of connecting the dots as you subconsciously process the project you’re working through. So, particularly for big projects, I find it helpful to have a dedicated list space to write down the various next steps, ideas, questions, next google searches, etc. related to the project when your mind all of a sudden throws you some new insights.

Personally, I use the ToDoist app for my daily list making, and Trello for any projects I’m working on. In Trello I have a dedicated list space for each project I am currently working on to keep track of project ideas and tasks as they come up.

Your list space could be as simple as an “ideas” note on your smartphone, or hey, even a list on a plain old pad of paper – whatever does it for you. Regardless of what you do, having that list space to capture things you know will come up, will really help you keep organized on identifying the right next step to commit to.

3. Go for the MVP

Borrowing a term from the software development industry, one life hack I find particularly helpful is to outline and then focus on a Minimum Viable Product. Instead of going all in off the bat, what is the minimum that could be delivered for you to meet your objective? What is the minimum way that you would define success?

For example, if your goal was to exercise more, what’s the minimum you would accept to say you’ve accomplished your goal? Maybe it’s getting out twice a week and running just 5 minutes and walking another 15 minutes. Or if your goal is to start saving for retirement, maybe it’s opening a retirement account and setting up a $5 / month transfer. Name that MVP and focus just on accomplishing that.

Once you’ve had success with the MVP, it’s so much easier to build from there. You’ll have the benefit of initial habits and knowledge on your side from just starting with this minimum approach to help you expand to meet your bigger objectives!

This is an especially helpful trick in situations where you could get overwhelmed with options or if your final goal seems too big to accomplish right away. The MVP approach is about focusing on the essential. You may need to do some initial research first, but then hopefully you are able to evaluate what a minimum approach could be and outline the specific steps to get there.

For example, your final goal may be to max out your IRA on an annual basis, but you have never invested before and don’t have any money saved up at the moment. Instead of initially focusing on maxing out an IRA at $6,000 annually, an MVP approach would be to focus on just starting!

The set of tasks to deliver on this MVP project could be to i) open a Roth IRA account with Vanguard, ii) identify the cost of the ETF you want to purchase – like the Total Stock Market ETF (VTI), currently about $150/share, iii) transfer the $150 to your Roth IRA iv) purchase one share of the ETF. You now have investments! Done the MVP! However, as natural a next step from there, you can now setup a monthly (or whatever frequency) transfer for funds into your Roth IRA and buy more single ETF shares – congratulations, you are now investing!!

Continue doing this until you have enough saved up (typically $1,000) to buy into a Vanguard mutual fund and you can then setup easier more automatic investing – but that could be the scope for a next MVP launch or phase 2 of your project!

4. Establish a time to work on your goal

With tips 1, 2 and 3, you are defining what you are working on and know clear next steps. Now you need to actually get things done. This one is pretty self-explanatory, so I won’t say much more than if you can find a time in your regular day or weekly schedule to dedicate towards working on your projects or goals, this will seriously help you in getting things done. If it’s just a one-off project you’re doing, you may want to write a time into a calendar or setup another reminder, alarm, alert etc. to give you with that nudge to get it done. Find a system that works for you.

When you hit a slump:

I will admit, sometimes you come to your dedicated time to work on something and you’re not quite in the mood to do it – maybe it was a particularly exhausting day and you don’t have the energy to take on something new and creative. It always feels defeating to hit that time and then not follow through on working on what you planned to do. I personally think it’s important to workout your just get going habits and push yourself into action, but at the same time, being in tune with your energy levels and realistic about what you can get accomplished under the current circumstances (we all need a break sometimes too) is important.

That being said, I’ve often found if I have kept a list of a number of different items related to a project (as suggested in 2 above), there’s typically at least one item in there I am willing to crank out and isn’t as difficult to work on. Doing anything is a lot better than nothing to move the project forward and continue to get short-term wins. Even though you may not end up working on the highest priority item you will feel good about making progress in moving the project forward.

5. Set a goal with a target date (and make it public for super extra bonus points*)

Even though we have all heard of the importance of goal setting goals in school and work, I had discounted the value of time-specific goals until I personally experienced the clear power of meeting time-specific reach goals 3 times in my life.

Here are some personal stories when I used goals with surprising success.

i) SETTING UP A RETIREMENT ACCOUNT

At the time my wife and I were married (I was 26 she was 23) neither of us had a retirement savings account. We both knew it was the prudent thing to do to start savings for retirement, and my wife in her usual wisdom suggested we set a goal to have a retirement account in place by our first wedding anniversary and start funding it regularly.

While this may not sound like a “stretch” goal, it certainly felt difficult at the time. All available funds to that point had gone into remodeling a condo I had bought in foreclosure and started renting out, we just had a wedding, we also just bought our first home together, I was paying off student loans I had, and were about to start paying my wife’s medical school tuition (which was a cool $51,000 for the year). Needless to say, we didn’t feel like we had excess cash on hand with these expenses to start saving for retirement.

However, as we were approaching our 1 year-anniversary, because we had set this clear goal, we were going to find a way to follow through on it. Sure enough, I scraped together $1,000 in cash over the months leading up to our anniversary (the minimum required to fund a Vanguard retirement account). I distinctly remember the moment when we opened our first retirement account because it was exactly on the date of our anniversary. My wife and I were on a short getaway to mark the occasion and were sipping cheap canned margaritas on the balcony of an ocean side hotel while I had the laptop out and setup and funded a new Vanguard Roth IRA in my name with my wife as the beneficiary. The $1,000 met the minimum initial investment for a Target Retirement 2055 fund (VTTSX). Once the account was open, we were then also able to setup a recurring contribution to the account which we set to $25 / month at that time.

Without that goal, there is no way we would have setup that retirement account at that time. Looking back, I am so glad we did. The $25 per month contributions quickly changed to $25 per week, and within a year we were maxing our Roth IRA contribution limit, and 2 years after that first anniversary, we had opened another Roth IRA account in my wife’s name and were fully funding it as well. It just took setting that clear time-specific goal to get us started and from there we gained a lot of momentum.

ii) SETTING UP A BROKERAGE ACCOUNT

Realizing how impactful that first retirement savings goal had been, 2 years later I set another goal to open a Vanguard brokerage account by the end of the year. I wanted to ensure any additional savings we had beyond our retirement contributions could be put to the most efficient use, which I saw as being actively invested in the stock market (at its 7%+ average annual growth rate) rather than sitting in a bank account.

The only problem was while we were maxing out both Roth IRAs with $5,500 contributions each, this already felt like a financial stretch and the minimum initial investment required to open a brokerage account was $3,000! However, once you have it open, you can invest any dollar amount from there that you like.

When I set the goal initially, I honestly couldn’t see how I was going to achieve it. Frankly by the time October rolled around I wasn’t yet half way to my goal, however, I decided I would ask for a decent raise which would help my bottom line enough to make the goal achievable. I was sure to demonstrate my value and commitment to the company, overachieved in a few key areas and then asked for the raise, pointing out these recent achievements and highlighting the value to the company and its objectives ahead. (If you ever want a great book that’s a quick read, easy to go through the day asking for a raise, I can’t recommend this book enough.)

The raise was granted to me (yeah!) and would take effect January first. Now knowing my financials would be a little higher beginning in the coming calendar month, I felt comfortable enough to pull together the $3,000 and open the brokerage account just a few days after my target date in early January.

iii) PAYING OFF MEDICAL SCHOOL LOANS

The most amazing power of goal setting to me was our ability to pay off my wife’s medical school loans. About the time my wife graduated medical school, I started to get organized around hatching a plan to repay the accumulated medical school loans. Luckily, receiving in-state tuition by the second your of medical school helped us to reduce the overall tuition costs, and at graduation, the total principle borrowed was $134,025.00 with an effective interest rate of 5.8% (we had already been making payments towards the accumulating interest as we went). (Thankfully, this was less than the approximately $193,000 average of my wife’s peers just for the degree – not considering any existing undergrad or graduate debt).

I setup a detailed spreadsheet to start tracking the loan balance, pay down progress, and any other variables to help motivate us on the monotonous task of paying down this sum (such as current monthly interest, total monthly interest reduced by each payment, and target payoff dates with $X of regular monthly payments). I also created graphs to visually track the progress.

I decided to set the time period of the graphs to 4-years from graduation because I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the loans were paid off by the time my wife graduated residency? Looking at the monthly payment required to make this happen though seemed overwhelming but not out of the realm of impossible: $3,000 / month. (Keep in mind, at this point in time, we added two little kiddos to our clan and our childcare costs were now $2,500 / month after tax which was painful enough.)

More realistically, our goal was to pay no less than $1,000 a month towards the loans (a 17+ year payback) and extra as we were able. I personally was aiming for $1,500 / month which would result in a 10 year payoff period, but this was difficult to maintain over the first number of months.

However, in allocating any new and unexpected funds towards the loans (raises, bonuses, and cash from other creative endeavors) and in particular starting to reduce our expenses, the possibility of having the loans paid off within 4 years started to become visible. Every month that we made a payment, I would check the spreadsheet to see what it would take to have things paid off in 4 years and would challenge myself to see if we could get that payment together by the next month.

This focus on the goal was a huge motivator. Once my wife and I realized we could get this monkey off our back sooner rather than being weighed down by this debt for a small eternity, we really got inspired to get it paid off!

In fact, just over a year after graduation, we decided to really step things up. What resulted I never could have imagined. We had the full $134,000 loan plus interest paid off in just less than 2 years. (I’ll have to write a post to share more about what exactly we did to pay off the loan in the future for those who are interested.) We totally surprised ourselves on what we accomplished when we focused and set clear goals.

They say if you don’t know where you’re going, any path can take you there. At the same time, I find it incredible how a clear goal can really help to illuminate the right path and help to clarify a myriad of choices in getting you to your desired destination quickly. Also, having a clear goal helps you to start actually measuring your progress towards the goal – which is both rewarding to see your achievements and helpful to stay motivated to reach your targets. This is also the subject of the final Green Geek Principle: “what gets measured, gets managed”. So try setting a few reach goals in your life, start setting up tracking to see how you are progressing, and see what you can achieve! Good luck!

Read the other posts in this mini-series:

#1 – Little things add up
#2 – Understand the potential of each dollar
#4 – Get motivated to save
#3 – Just get started
#4 – What gets measured gets managed

*Public goals: Need that extra boost to ensure you meet a difficult goal? Consider going public with it and tell some people you respect the most. Disclaimer: use this approach sparingly as you are now putting your reputation on the line behind getting this goal accomplished and have to get this thing completed if you want to uphold others’ trust and respect in you. However, this can clearly be a huge motivator and be the perfect thing for an extra challenging project. (I’ll admit, that’s exactly what I did to get this blog off the ground – I intentionally outed Green Geek to the extended family. It did the trick.)