IN WINTER 2012, I experienced what every traveler dreads: a lost bag. Stranded without so much as a toothbrush, I had to replace everything—and fast. At first, this seemed like a pain. But in the end, I came to see it as a blessing. Why? Replacing everything—from head to toe, including the toothbrush—became an unexpected opportunity for a fresh start.
To be sure, all I’m talking about here are clothes and toiletries. Still, the experience made me realize that, in the absence of a disruptive event like this, it’s all too easy to get stuck in our ways. Careers, habits, ways of thinking—they all run the risk of atrophying.
During the many years that he ran Microsoft, Bill Gates was famous for taking “think weeks.” Twice a year, he would spend seven days by himself at a cabin in the forest. To ensure maximum productivity, no one was allowed to visit—not friends, not family. To this day, the location has been kept secret.
During those weeks away, Gates would spend all of his time reading, writing and thinking about the future of technology. In interviews, he has said that these “think weeks” were instrumental in helping him stay on top of trends and ahead of the competition.
While the idea of a week of contemplation might be appealing, it’s a luxury few can afford. But you don’t need a secret cabin to engage in renewal. What’s most important is to recognize the need to revisit and reevaluate existing habits, beliefs and ways of doing things—and to do this on a regular basis.
In a 2013 paper, psychologist Jordi Quoidbach and colleagues coined the term “end-of-history illusion.” What does this mean? As the authors put it, people tend to believe that “they had changed a lot in the past but would change relatively little in the future.” Put another way, people “regard the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives.” The upshot: Everyone acknowledges that they’ve undergone significant change in the past, but they mistakenly think they won’t change much in the future. The study found that people of all ages—from children to the elderly—saw themselves this way.
This illusion is a problem. At best, it can make us uninterested in changing. At worst, it can make us resistant to change. Yes, there’s value in stability. We can’t throw everything out the window every day. But on balance, change is vital—whether it’s professionally or personally. In his classic book The Innovator’s Dilemma, Harvard professor Clayton Christensen goes further, making the point that change is important regardless of how successful you already are. This is why, presumably, Bill Gates continued to devote so much time to learning and thinking, despite having already achieved enormous success.
What can you do if you aren’t Bill Gates and don’t have unlimited time to sequester yourself? I recommend a three-part formula that should fit into anyone’s schedule. Note: If you’re married, I’d suggest you spend some of this time together with your spouse. Even though Bill Gates spent his time alone, what he was reading were things his employees had written for him. Collaboration is key.
First, choose a topic. Here, I’d favor thinking broadly. For instance, it’s important to focus on the details of your finances and investments. But you should also recognize that the relationship between money and happiness runs in both directions. Research has shown that, if you increase your level of happiness, that can translate into increased earnings.
As you build an agenda for your thinking time, consider your health, stress level, friendships and other areas that you might not view as specifically money-related. Then move on to more obvious topics like your career, household finances and financial plan.
Second, choose a place. I don’t think you have to travel far. The key here is just to get away from your day-to-day environment and avoid interruptions. For that reason, your local Starbucks isn’t a good idea. Some people like to book a hotel room. If that sounds too isolating, you might seek out a comfortable hotel lobby. Just find a place that’s a little off your beaten path.
Finally, choose a time. Most folks can’t afford a week in the woods and, in any case, that’s probably overkill for most of us. You might set aside as little as 30 minutes on a Sunday, or maybe half a day two times during the year. Just as you might use daylight saving time as a reminder to change the batteries in your smoke detector, I recommend setting a regular schedule. Otherwise, it’s too easy for life to get in the way—and that’s precisely what you’re trying to avoid.
Adam M. Grossman’s previous articles include Staying Home, Happiness Formula and Yet Another Reason. Adam is the founder of Mayport Wealth Management, a fixed-fee financial planning firm in Boston. He’s an advocate of evidence-based investing and is on a mission to lower the cost of investment advice for consumers. Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamMGrossman.