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Don’t Be Yourself

Jonathan Clements  |  October 22, 2016

WE’RE OFTEN encouraged to follow our instincts. But if we did that, many of us would sit on the couch drinking margaritas, eating Cheez Doodles and cruising online shopping sites, when we should be eating less, saving more and heading to the gym. Often, the key to a better life—financially and otherwise—is to get ourselves to take action we instinctively resist.

This is obvious advice if we’re overweight, rarely exercise, panic when the stock market declines and find our credit-card balances balloon with every passing month. But fighting our instincts can also be good advice for folks with habits that typically receive a societal seal of approval.

For instance, your employer isn’t likely to raise any objections if you work seven days a week. Quite the contrary: You’ll likely find yourself showered with pay raises and promotions.

I think there’s great pleasure to be found in work, while endless relaxation can quickly turn to endless boredom. Still, a life devoted solely to work is an unbalanced life. To steal a line that others have used, “Nobody’s dying words have ever been, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office’.” If you’re working seven days a week, you probably aren’t as productive as those who take regular breaks, plus you’re missing out on so much—friends, family, nature and the amazing accomplishments of others that are on display in concert halls, books, museums, sports arenas and elsewhere.

Another example: if you’re a great saver and you amass a healthy amount of wealth, you’re unlikely ever to be a financial burden to others and, indeed, you may enjoy the admiration of family and friends. Yet, in the end, the rationale for saving now is so we can spend later.

Countless financial planners have told me that the clients who are best at accumulating money for the future are often the worst at making the retirement transition from saver to spender. If you can’t bring yourself to use a healthy portion of your wealth for your own enjoyment and that of others, your great savings habits seem less like a virtue—and more like an obsession.

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