Be careful what you wish for

Box man hands in pockets

He couldn’t wait to retire. He had been planning for it for years. He had places to go and projects to complete. The day after he retired, he was on a plane. In between trips he tackled projects that he hadn’t had time to do when he was working. But then one day, about a year or two later, he found he had already done everything and been everywhere that he had planned for. His days had no structure or purpose. He missed the camaraderie of the office. He often went back to his former office building and stood in the parking lot, waiting for his colleagues to happen by and say hello. He missed getting a steady paycheck. His 401(k) was not big enough to support his chosen life style for more than a couple of years. What went wrong?

It’s human nature, when making a decision, to focus on what is lacking. We tend to focus on problems (lack of time and freedom) and ignore the non-problems (structure, social contacts, cash flow). This is true for decisions of all sizes. The Aswan Dam in Egypt was built to solve a single problem—insufficient energy—with no regard for what was then not a problem but would become one—the ecology of the lower Nile. People often give up something—a product, job, or relationship—in search of something better, only later to realize what they had lost.

Here’s a simple technique to help you avoid this trap. The third step in making a decision is to list your goals. Naturally, you will start by asking, “What do I want to happen?” Then avoid the trap by asking:

  • What do I want to avoid?
  • What do I want to maintain?
  • What constraints do I need to stay within?

Have you ever fallen into this trap? Any more ideas on how to avoid it?

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