Want to get the most out of life? Create a lifetime to-do list!

My summer “vacation” was a little unusual this year. My wife, Jenna, and I are anticipating the arrival of our second son in just a few months, so instead of taking time off in the summer, she is saving up every minute available to add to her maternity leave. As for me, I opted to use my vacation time to lay some groundwork for the hectic months (and years!) ahead by attempting to tackle my fast-growing to-do list. The good news: I was able to get the fence stained (by far the largest task of all!), install our new security system, and update our insurance policies. The bad news: a wicked combination of extreme humidity and some crazy downpours threw a wrench in my schedule, and some items simply didn’t get done. The garage is still a disaster, I barely made a dent in my reading pile, and the only working out I did consisted of twisting my muscles into odd contortions while wielding a paintbrush. At the end of the week, I had to rethink and reorder my priorities, but at least I made progress. And with my trusty list in hand, I know exactly what I still have left to do before the stork arrives.

Clearly, I’m someone who values a good to-do list. I find that writing down my goals forces me to focus on what is often the hardest part of planning: figuring out what’s most important. By making me define—and sometimes redefine—my priorities, my list keeps my goals in view, keeps me focused on what matters most, and helps me understand when I need to make a change. That’s important to me when I’m planning how to spend a cherished vacation week. It’s even more important when I’m planning how I want to live my life.

If that sounds like a bold statement, consider this: most people spend more time planning their summer vacation than they spend planning their life goals and their finances. Even science tells us that’s a huge mistake. According to research by Edwin Locke and Gary Latham on the power of goal setting, when people set specific and challenging goals instead of easy goals, "do your best" goals, or no goals, it led to higher performance 90 percent of the time.

So yes, goal setting is important. But what does that have to do with financial planning? A whole lot. Here’s why:

What matters most about wealth isn’t how much money you save in your lifetime, but whether or not your savings is sufficient to support the way you want to live your life.

By taking the time to set specific and challenging goals today, you’ll be 90 percent more likely to reach those goals. From a financial planning perspective, setting your goals should always come first. Once you do, you’ll have all the information you need to create an effective, long-term financial plan to support your goals—whatever they may be.

Sound daunting? Don’t worry. Here are four simple steps to get you started today:

  1. Start by writing down and visualizing your goals for the future. No matter what your age, take some time now to examine your vision for tomorrow. Do you dream of starting your own business? If you have children, do you plan to fund their college education? Aside from your career, is there anything specific you want to accomplish before you retire? Now is the time to identify your goals and set your plan in motion.
  2. Make retirement part of your vision. A common dilemma for retirees is that, once they do walk away from a full-time job, they have no idea what they really want to do in their “golden years.” Knowing that you are likely to spend two to three decades in retirement, think carefully about how and where you want to live. Instead of making your goal to “save enough for retirement,” plan what you’re actually saving for.
  3. Create a short-term to-do list of things you can act on now. What do you need to accomplish today to achieve your goals tomorrow? Want to live in Paris for a year? Sign up for French lessons. Dream of opening your own business? Take classes focused on small business planning and study the industry so you can plan wisely. Saving for a dream vacation? Set up a $200 automatic transfer to your savings every paycheck. These small steps can deliver large rewards, and while your long-term goals can feel very far away, your short-term goals are the stepping-stones to get there. Get the ball rolling!
  4. Build a financial plan around your goals—not your goals around your finances. Start by looking at where you want to be 5, 10, 20, and 30 years down the road. By examining your dreams for the future first, you can create a plan that not only gives you the tools you need to realize your vision, but one that can also give you the financial freedom to pursue your goals stress free. And when your life and your goals inevitably change over time, all you’ll need to do is make a few adjustments to be sure you’re on track toward your new goals.

It’s said that there are two types of people, those who make lists, and those who don’t. Based on my experience, I would add a few words of my own: There are two types of people: those who make lists (and make things happen), and those who don’t (and don’t!). The idea of “life planning” can feel pretty overwhelming, but if your goal is to get the most out of life, creating a to-do list can give you the clarity you need today to help make all your dreams come true.


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