Move the Finish Line Closer

Earlier this year, I had the privilege (if you want to call it that) of doing my first triathlon. I’ve always had the desire to do one, and I set a goal of completing one this year, so I took the plunge. I’m a capable athlete, but long distance anything isn’t my specialty. I choose an Olympic distance triathlon which consists of approximately a 1-mile swim, 25-mile bike ride, and 6-mile run. I’m not crazy enough to try an Ironman (at least not yet).

First up in the triathlon was an out and back swim. The water temperature was perfect, a little cool, but not cold enough to take your breath away. I zig-zagged my way through the swim portion, wasting time and energy by not swimming in a straight line. On the plus side, I didn’t drown, so that’s a win in my book. I don’t have the most efficient swimming stroke, so the mile swim took a lot of energy out of me. Even though I was tired near the end of the swim, the closer I got to the shore, the faster I swam. Being near the end of the swim, gave me the extra energy boost I needed to finish strong.

After the swim, it was a short run over to get on the bike. When you swim, most of your blood goes to your upper body, so it can take a little while to get your legs going after getting out of the water. The bike ride was a beautiful ride through rolling hills. Beyond getting a sore butt from sitting in the seat, I found the bike ride very enjoyable. The bike ride was my favorite section of the race because if you ever need a quick break you can stop pedaling for a few, while still cruising along a good pace. There isn’t a way, without stopping, to take a break when you are swimming or running. As I came to the end of the bike stage, I was feeling tired, but got another energy boost noticing the end was in sight, and accelerated towards the finish of the bike portion.

Getting off the bike, and starting on the run is a miserable feeling. The first mile of the run, my legs felt like they were filled with lead. I was wondering how I was going to complete the run without stopping. Thankfully, about a mile in, I started to feel better and continued chugging along. The feeling didn’t last too long, and eventually fatigue started setting in. All I could think is “Ow! Ow! Ow! Why am I doing this?”

My goal was to not stop during any portion of the race. It was a real mental battle, but I stayed true to my plan. At one point I grabbed a cup of water from a race volunteer, and tried to take a swig while running. Not a good idea, unless you’ve practiced it before! I started choking, but fought through it and kept running.

I was completely exhausted by the end of the run, and I didn’t think I had anything left in the tank. As soon as I got close to the finish line, I heard people screaming and the announcer calling out people’s name as they crossed the finish line, my endorphins kicked in, and I sped up through the finish line. The race was exhausting, but I was filled with a sense of accomplishment. I had trained pretty hard in months leading up to it, and I was proud to have done better than I thought I would.

The triathlon reinforced in me two valuable personal finance lessons. One, people have a tendency to speed up as they get closer to the finish line. Despite being physically drained, we can usually muster up enough energy to finish on a strong note. And two, the closer you get to the finish line, the easier it is to tune out the distractions caused by self-doubt. When your goal is too far off in the distance, it easy to let doubts creep in and throw you off your plan. Given these two principles, what should you do about it?

When it comes to personal finance, you have the luxury of being able to move the finish line closer. If I would have tried to do so in the triathlon, I would have been disqualified, but it's your life, your rules. You (hopefully) have a number of financial goals, and some of the goals may be long term. Breaking your goals down into smaller chunks is a way to move the finish line closer.

The most popular way to move the finish line closer is using the snowball method to pay off debt. The snowball method means focusing on paying off your smallest debt (by dollar amount), and then moving on to the next smallest debt until all of your debt is paid off. Doing so, breaks a large goal into a series of smaller goals. You get momentum from the feeling of progress as each debt is paid off, helping you reach your overall goal (total debt payoff) quicker. The closer you are to the finish line, the easier it is to stay focused and divert all your energy into getting across the line as quickly as possible.

Another area I strongly recommend moving the finish line closer, is saving for retirement. It can be hard to get excited and stay motivated to save hundreds of thousands, if not millions, for a retirement that is a few decades away. Break the goal down into more manageable goals. A smaller goal could be maxing out your IRA or 401(k) this year, increasing your net worth to the nearest $1,000 or $10,000 increment by the end of the month/year. All of these things allow you to feed off the extra energy you get from being so close to the finish line. It’s easier to say no to a frivolous expense if you are trying to save another $1,000 by the end of the month, than if you are trying to have $1,000,000 saved 30 years from now.

Other great ways to move the finish line closer are a savings challenge, or following Ninja Piggy’s 5 Steps to an Emergency Fund.

You can’t finish something you don’t start. If you've been struggling to make a decision on which major financial goal to tackle next, set a smaller goal instead. When you complete the goal, you can decide if you want to continue working towards it, or find another goal to accomplish. Setting a smaller goal doesn’t mean you are giving up on a big goal. It’s quite the opposite. You are making the goal more relevant to today, making it easier to progress towards the big goal.

The triathlon was a great experience, no matter how painful it was at the time. If the distance of any of triathlon legs were too much longer, it would have been easy to give up and stop. The closer I got to finishing each leg, the faster I went. Keep the finish line on your goals as close as possible. You might be surprised at how much you can accomplish by completing one small goal at a time.

What are some ways you’ve moved the finish line closer in the past? What are some things you can try in the future?