Federal retirement expert, Chris Kowalik, discusses why goal setting can leave federal employees feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. She gives real world examples of how to break down goals into manageable steps.
- Why most people hate new year’s resolutions
- How to intentionally create steps into your goals to build momentum
- How (and from where) to measure progress
Listen to the episode or read the transcript below.
Links and Resources:
- Book mentioned: The Gap and the Gain by Dan Sullivan & Dr. Benjamin Hardy
- Local workshop locations and dates: FedImpact.com/attend
About Chris Kowalik
Chris Kowalik is a federal retirement expert and frequent speaker to federal employee groups nationwide. In her highly-acclaimed FedImpact Workshops, the FedImpact Podcast, and the FedImpact Webinars, she empowers employees to make confident decisions as they plan for the days when they no longer have to work. Chris’ candid and straightforward nature allows employees to get the answers they need and understand the impact these decisions have on their retirement.
Transcript of This Episode
Are you a federal employee who has struggled with the idea of New Year’s resolutions or maybe to test them all together? This episode is all about finding progress, not perfection, regardless if you’re searching for a better body or a better bank account.
Hi. Chris Kowalik of ProFeds here, and welcome to the FedImpact Podcast, where we offer candid insights on your federal retirement. This show is all about helping you, the federal employee, to get clear on what you want retirement to look like and taking action to make it happen.
Today I want to do a little bit of soul searching on a topic that people love or hate or sometimes love to hate, and that is New Year’s resolutions. Gosh, even saying those words make me cringe a little bit, because there’s so much baggage that’s really tied to resolutions.
Do you ever wonder why so many people hate resolutions? Well, right from the very start we’re set up for failure, because this idea of a resolution seems like it should be substantial. It should be big. There should be some real weight to it. I mean, who wants to resolve to do little things. We want to resolve to do big things. So now we’ve created this lofty, scary, ideal goal, this ideal situation that we’re shooting for, but now it seems that all we can see are all the big obstacles in the way. What could possibly go wrong here? This is why people hate resolutions because they’ve set themselves up to have big goals and then not have the structure to be able to get there.
For everyone listening, I want to be very clear here; goals are important. They’re super important. As the founder of ProFeds here, I own the business, and that entrepreneurial spirit causes me to be wildly ambitious. If I didn’t have goals, I wouldn’t be talking with you today. So goals are vitally important and frankly, the more important the outcome, the more important that setting the goal actually is.
I’m not suggesting that you don’t set goals, maybe you don’t call them resolutions, but rather I would love to be able to offer a different context when you’re making those goals and more specifically when you’re executing them. Given our work with federal employees where we provide training for them on how to retire ready, we’re going to focus on some financial goals that we see feds struggle with as they move closer and closer to that goal post of retirement. The formula that we’re going to about today can really be applied to any goal that you might have. Most of the time, these podcasts and our webinars and all that, are honing in on a specific benefits topic, but today we’re going to talk about this idea of goal setting and how to get there that affects all of the decisions that you’re going to make, about all of the benefits and the overall retirement plan that you have.
Of course, we’re going to give you a chance to find out if we have some local training in your area that you can take advantage of so that you can dive deeper into the planning for your retirement from federal service, so stay tuned for that. We’ll give you all the details that you need to get started here a little bit later, but for now let’s dive into today’s topic.
We’ve established why most resolutions fail. It feels like more of an obligation than a commitment, and that leaves people feeling very empty and then they abandon it all together. Truly the opposite of progress where you stop even trying. For feds, I’m sure you’re probably curious, “Well, how does this manifest itself when you guys are thinking about your retirement?” Well, like most goals, it normally starts with a wish or maybe a series of wishes. “Gosh, I wish I had a better job, or a better boss. I wish I made more money, or I had more in the TSP. I wish I could retire now, or stay retired.” Maybe you’ve already retired and you realize your money doesn’t go very far and so you need to come back. Those wishes are just a starting point to this bigger conversation.
I want to introduce a concept called The Gap. The gap is the place between now and the ideal outcome that we envision with a goal. That gap can suck the life out of you if you let it. That is the absolute truth. If we look at where we are today and where we want to be, if we stay stuck there, this will feel awful. That’s, I think where so many people get stuck in these solutions.
This concept of the gap is so well articulated by Dan Sullivan of Strategic Coach. I’ve been part of Dan’s program for entrepreneurs for many years, and he is brilliant at expressing concepts like this. This idea of being in the gap means that you’re stuck trying to reconcile where you are now versus where you want to be. Of course, we all fall into the gap sometimes, but if we stay there it’s dangerous. That’s where people feel hopeless, like they’re so far behind they’re never going to catch up, all those awful feelings. But if we’re good at making big goals and we keep upping them as we get better, if we’re not careful, we’ll live in the gap. It’s incredibly destructive, but it can also be the fuel for getting you to your goals.
Last week I saw a great quote from the motivational speaker, Tony Robbins. It said, “The purpose of pain is to move us into action; it is not to make us suffer.” The suffering part is the gap. That’s where we feel like we’re so far behind I’m never going to get there, my goal is so far away. That’s no fun to think about. Now, we don’t need to get into all the psychobabble here, but that’s where that feeling of hopelessness exists and it’s terrible.
Here’s what we see for a lot of people though; even though they haven’t met their goal quite yet, they actually have made progress. It’s just progress that they haven’t given themselves credit for just yet. I’m not talking about the blow and smoke participation trophy kind of credit; I’m talking about celebrating those little wins on a long journey and using that as fuel to keep going.
I mentioned the great business coach, Dan Sullivan, little bit earlier. His book, The Gap and The Gain, talks about this very idea. We’ve already talked about the gap, that space between now and where we really want to be, but let’s talk about the gain and those are the little wins along the way, but where we measure from is going to be very important. I’ll explain more here in just a moment.
Bringing this back for federal employees, let’s see what this looks like in real life. I’ll use an example that I think most people can kind of appreciate.
Let’s say you have a goal to have a million dollars in the TSP by the time you retire in 10 years. You look at your current situation and you’re like, “Gosh, I’m so far behind. I got started late,” yada, yada, all the things that kind of fill our brain with some trash in there. I would ask you, “What are the wins or the gains?” And you might say, “Well yeah, it’ll be nice when I have a million dollars, but I don’t have a million dollars right now.”
Okay well, let’s rewind four or five years, or however long back you need to go, you might be surprised at the progress that you’ve made from that point. Maybe you went from not contributing to the TSP at all, maybe you had a messy divorce, maybe something just got in the way that kept you from contributing, and you finally got to that 5% contribution level. But two years later, you are able to get to the $10,000 a year contribution level, and now you’re maxing out or almost maxing out your TSP. All of those are wins by every measure. You just haven’t given yourself credit for them yet. In this case, you still haven’t hit the million dollars, which is your ultimate goal, but you’ve made a hell of a dent in the steps to be able to get there.
So if we look hard enough, we can always find the gains. Sometimes we call it silver linings or micro wins, but it’s progress nonetheless. Think of those smaller wins as helpers to your bigger goal to create momentum, where we’re moving in the right direction. Mr. Rogers used to always say, “Always look for the helpers.” So look for the helpers when you feel stuck and in the gap.
If we can do this exercise, like looking backwards and seeing the progress that we’ve made, if we can do that after the fact, why can’t we do it beforehand and use it to our advantage? I say we can. To do so, we have to reverse engineer our steps here. It looks like this; you establish your big goal, you set those milestones, those baby steps that are easy to mark as far as progress goes, and then have a plan to celebrate those wins along the way as you keep upping your game. The question to ask yourself to get started in this process and kind of figure out what this formula is, is what would it take to get whatever your goal is? So what would it take to get a million dollars in the TSP?
You might have a whole slew of things that come to mind. I’ll just give you a couple of examples. Things like, well, I’m going to have to contribute the max to my TSP between now and the time that I retire. I need my money to grow over time. I can’t do silly things like take loans against my retirement account, those types of things, normal ideas. Take one of those. Let’s start with the first one; that I’m going to have to repeat the max to my account between now and the time that I retire, the most that the IRS will allow me to contribute.
You take that first bullet and you dig in, well, what would it take to contribute the max to TSP? Let’s say you’re not quite 50 yet. You know you can contribute this year, 20,500, as far as what the IRS says you can contribute to TSP. And you might say, “Gosh, in order to be able to do that, I have to put any pay raises I get, or step increases towards the TSP. That TSP loan that I took out many years ago, I have to get that paid off to free up the money to have more to put in the TSP each pay period.”
Maybe you’ve got some bad credit card debt, high interest rates that are just killing you. You had the goal, the little step to say, “You know what, if I can just get those things paid off the money that I’m putting towards that I can put directly to the TSP. I’m already not living on it because I’m continuing to pay those off. I’m just not making any progress,” it feels like. And then things like looking at your budget and perhaps reducing some frivolous spending, or things that you pay for that you don’t really use.
Those are all good ideas, and those are all little wins. If you can put that in a process in your own mind to know that these are the steps to get to your bigger strategy. This way you’re setting yourself up for those mini wins right from the very start. You still haven’t met your million dollar goal yet, but if you wake up every day and say, “Did I meet my million dollars?” and you judge your happiness by whether the answer is yes or no, you’re going to be unhappy for a really long time. As long as you are taking the action steps necessary to make it happen, then you are in good shape.
And if there’s a time that comes that you don’t meet those mini wins perfectly, celebrate the progress, but here’s the key; you have to celebrate from today backwards. You can’t look at how far you are away from your goal; you have to start with where you really started from and measure to today. Just remember, as Tony Robbins said, “The purpose of pain is to move us into action; it’s not to make us suffer.” In other words, we want to use that gap, that place between now and where we want to go and the feeling that we have that we want to get there to propel you forward you into action.
Although I use the TSP as an example here because it’s super easy to talk about the TSP, this formula really works for any goal that you have, even the more stereotypical getting in shape goal. Well, what would it take to do that, to get in shape? Well, you might say, “Well, I need to exercise more and eat better.” Great, so you have a plan to exercise five days a week, but you only end up doing three days a week. Okay, well, gosh, that’s still a win. And it’s certainly not a reason to give up on your goal completely and call that plan ad utter failure. What are the progress steps that you’re making? Sometimes it might be getting up and eating breakfast. That might be a step towards eating better, that you’re taking better care of yourself, that you’re thinking about all of those little wins along the way.
Obviously getting in better shape is always a New Year’s resolution for people. Why that is I’m not entirely sure of the psychology behind it, but there’s this idea of turning a new page and the new year is very aligned with that feeling of we have a fresh start and all of that where we don’t have a lot of baggage, but immediately baggage comes with us into that goal.
What would some other examples really be for federal employees? Well, maybe you’re thinking, “Hey, I heard that life insurance gets really expensive in retirement, the stuff that I have right now under FEGLI, maybe I really need to get my life insurance plan in order. I got to get clear on what I want for my family. Maybe it’s not FEGLI, but where do I go to look for other things?” There’s all these things that immediately come to mind that are the obstacles getting in your way.
Maybe you’ve been to one of our workshops or maybe a webinar or listen to another podcast where we talk about long-term care and you think, “Good Lord, I need a strategy for that. I don’t love long-term care insurance necessarily, but I know there are other ways to solve this. I need a plan in place, because I don’t want my kids to have to take care of me. It’s really expensive. You have to pay out-of-pocket.” Again, you have the initial goal and then all the fear that kind of creeps into that.
Or maybe you have more of an overall strategy, like tax diversification. You’re worried about what taxes are going to look like in retirement and rightly so. You’ve been wrestling with this idea that causes you to wonder about things like, “Well, what about the Roth TSP or those other investments that I have out in the private sector? What am I supposed to do with that? How do I make them all work together?” It can feel very, very overwhelming.
There’s a slew of things that you may have on your plate that can put you in the gap. That feeling that you’re just like, “Oh my gosh, I’m never going to get there. And if you’re not careful, you’re going to stay there, which is where people get stuck.
Running each of those goals that I just rattled off, just those examples, through the formula that we talked about before will be helpful to make all of this more manageable in your own mind. Again, the formula is what would it take to do X, Y, Z, whatever your goal is, you identify each of those items, and then for each of those, you say, “Well, what would it take to do that?” and so forth.
Of course this exercise can be somewhat therapeutic or maddening, so be sure you’re doing this from a place of confidence and optimism and not from the gap. You don’t want to feel like, “Well, I thought I had two or three goals, but now I lay all this out and I have 30 things I have to do,” and that’s overwhelming for you, that is coming to from the gap. When we’re thinking about a place of confidence and optimism, you’re like, “Okay, I have these two or three goals and look at all these micro goals that are stepping stones to get to the bigger goal that I have.” That’s from a place of confidence and optimism. So you want to be sure that you’re doing this exercise from the right place.
Listen, today’s topic on that gap and the gain is super important. If you feel so inclined, go check out Dan Sullivan’s book. It’s amazing. We’ll link to it in the show notes, but really an eye opener when it comes to setting goals. Hopefully us being able to dig into this concept a little bit will kind of bleed over into all the decisions that you’re having to make about your retirement from federal service and ultimately what money looks like for your future. This is only a small part, it’s an important part, but a small part of what you need to know to confidently step into retirement.
We teach retirement workshops throughout the country with the very mission of helping feds to bring together all of the various parts of their situation so that they can see more clearly what things look like in retirement, and then the very real decisions that need to be made today to make that happen. So if you haven’t been to one of our workshops yet, or you just need a refresher, I’ve got just the thing for you. Pull out your phone, text the word “PODCAST” to the number 224-444-6144. We’re going to make sure you know all of the locations and dates to be able to choose from. Again, to get the list of all of those available sessions, text the word “PODCAST” to 224-444-6144 and we’ll send that right away.
Again, some things just to wrap up today’s session, some things to remember. First, setting goals is super important, but don’t forget to celebrate those mini wins to give you that momentum and remember to always look for the helpers. Two, use the formula that we talked about today to give context to the milestones and build those into your plan.
You don’t just have to have the million dollar goal; you can have a lot of smaller goals along the way that support the bigger goal. And then third, be sure when you are measuring your progress, that you’re always looking backwards from where you started. That’ll give you a great deal of confidence of the progress that you have made and hopefully give you that motivation and momentum to continue making that progress in the future.
All right. Well, that’s it for today everybody. I hope that our talk about this concept of the gap and the gain has been helpful as you think through really all those various aspects of planning to retire. And if you need to get to one of our classes, I promise you it will be well worth your time and a definite win. So get the list of available sessions by texting the word “PODCAST” to 224-444-6144 and we will get you hooked up.
All right, thanks so much for joining me today. Stay tuned to the FedImpact Podcast to get straight answers and candid insights on your federal retirement. And if you haven’t already, subscribe today so you’re sure not to miss an episode.