As we start going down the path of planning for retirement, it’s easy to feel the creeping need to get everything perfect. But as Voltaire said, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” That’s certainly true in financial planning where there are hundreds of variables – and we can even control a few of them!
Life can be messy. Sometimes, just getting the bare minimum done each week can feel like herding cats. And while we’re in the throes of dealing with our personal feline rodeos, getting the perfect investments in their perfect proportions inside our retirement accounts can seem like folly bordering on the absurd.
It’s tempting to throw up our hands and do nothing. But instead of being overwhelmed, please know it’s still a huge win to be just slightly better than yesterday. Any bit of moving forward is still moving in the right direction.
Back in the days when I was a design engineer, the guys in the prototype shop had a saying when confronted with an imperfect but functional solution: “Good enough for government work.”
Of course, they also said, “At some point, you have to shoot the engineers and go into production.”
I certainly resembled that remark at times. They knew that perfectionism was a form of procrastination. Left unchecked, our quest to perfect our designs would mean no new models would find their way into customers’ hands.
They also knew that it irritated the crap out of us – something that tickled them to no end.
So, as we design our retirement plans, how does perfectionism get in the way? Well, have you ever tried to make a detailed, line-item budget, only to abandon it after only a week or two of live fire? Of course!
And how did you feel after abandoning your budget? Our failure to stick to it can reinforce some nasty, negative self-beliefs:
- “I’m no good with money.”
- “I can’t budget.”
- “I’ll never save enough to retire.”
Even worse, it can reinforce the idea that you can’t keep your own commitments to yourself. Undermining our own self-efficacy is a terrible betrayal – and we foist it upon ourselves all the time. It’s the worst kind of thing we could believe about ourselves.
But, instead of failing at an over-complicated budget, what if we instead focus on making one tiny move in the right direction? It could be as simple as saving another $100 per month instead of trying to max out your 401(k) and living on ramen noodles.
By building progress, step-by-step, we not only get closer to our goals, but also prove to ourselves that we can make progress. We learn to trust our ability to move closer toward a meaningful pursuit.
I’m actually a big fan of Dave Ramsey’s book. His approach to paying off debt is brilliant in its clarity and simplicity: start small, make progress, and move to something bigger. Just be sure to throw it in the trash when you get to the chapter on investments.
His approach is better than staying stuck. Any movement forward is a win worth celebrating. I can agree with Dave Ramsey on that.
After all, we really don’t have as much control over things as we imagine. We don’t know what the markets, the world, and life have in store for us. We can’t control nature, economies, and world events. But we can still focus on the things we can control and keep making small steps toward the lives we want to build.
There will never be a perfect time to take the next step in your retirement planning. You know – just like having a kid, buying a house, going back to get your degree, starting a business, taking that bucket-list trip, or getting into shape.
You’ll probably never get everything perfectly organized, either. (Trust me, I’ve tried.)
So, if you find yourself two months into planning out that perfect budget, building that perfect investment portfolio, or determining the perfect amount you need to save for retirement, ask yourself, “Is this really just procrastination?”
Maybe doing the one, simple thing today really is good enough for government work. You can deal with the next one, simple thing tomorrow.
(By the way, if you get one thing done in a day, you may be overqualified for government work.)
Finally, when you do reach a milestone, don’t forget to celebrate. Making progress toward a meaningful goal may be more psychologically fulfilling than the simple pursuit of happiness.
Perfection is unattainable and its pursuit can be, well, exhausting. As much as he’s been deified, even Warren Buffett has made investment mistakes over his career. Why would we expect more from ourselves? Simplifying things and tackling them one by one may not only be the easiest approach, it may also be the better strategy in the long run.