“You will be who you are becoming.”

My pastor said that during a sermon once. I thought it was really insightful. You’re never going to wake up one morning and be something that you haven’t been becoming little by little, day by day, for years. A caterpillar doesn’t go to bed as a fuzzy little worm and wake up the next morning a beautiful butterfly. That transformation from egg to larva to pupa to butterfly takes about half its life.

Applying that idea to retirement, you’re not going to wake up the day after you retire and be something different from what you were becoming the previous five, 10 or 20 years. Yes, you’ll have a little more time and a little more money, so if those are the only things holding you back from the life you really want to live, then you’ll be in good shape.

If it’s something else, however— certain skills, attitudes, fears, plans, goals, logistics, friendships, relationships, knowledge, personality traits — then you’d better start working on those things now. You won’t be able to flip them on or off like a switch. Instead you have to form them drop by drop over time like a stalactite.

So, if you will be who you are becoming, that begs the question: “Who are you becoming?” Maybe more importantly, “Do you like who you are becoming?”

If so, just maintain course. If not — if the person you want to be in retirement is different from the person you see taking shape today — then it’s time for a change. Like the caterpillar, a transformation is in order. How best to do that? How can you achieve real, significant and lasting change in your life? I think the answer lies in two big ideas.

Idea 1: Minimalism

It’s tough to live the life you want if the life you have is cluttered with stuff you don’t want. So Step 1 in the process of transformation is to simplify your life and get rid of the things that don’t belong.

To some, the word minimalism means an ascetic lifestyle with few possessions. To me, it’s not necessarily about how many shirts you have or how big your house is. It’s about defining what’s important to you and what isn’t. Then you ruthlessly cut the latter to create space, time and money for the former.

Here’s how author Joshua Becker defines minimalism in his book “The More of Less”: “Minimalism is the promotion of things I most value and the removal of everything that distracts me from it.”

Or more succinctly, you minimize so you can maximize. You minimize the stuff, people, expenses, obligations, hassles, commitments and projects that aren’t important to you so you can maximize the things that are. Things like time with family, time with friends, time for meaningful work, freedom, financial security, travel and hobbies to name a few. It’s about becoming a minimalist in the things that don’t matter so you can become a maximalist in the things that do.

There are many benefits to purging the non-essential. Yes, you get less physical clutter, but you also get more time, energy, money, freedom, security, peace of mind and happiness.

Idea 2: Essentialism

After you simplify and get rid of things you don’t want, you have room to add more of the things (relationships, projects, experiences, possessions) that you do want. What’s the best way to do that? For me, the book “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” by Greg McKeown gives a good roadmap.

According to McKeown, essentialism is about getting rid of the trivial many and focusing on the vital few. It’s not about how to get more things done, it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean doing less for the sake of doing less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy. It is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining what matters to you and then focusing your time and effort there.

When you’re unclear about your real purpose and highest values, you waste time and energy on nonessential things. As a result, your life becomes a hodgepodge of the things you truly want and the unimportant things that are allowed in by default. Essentialism helps you define your highest ideals and priorities so you can live by design, not by default. Minimalism helped you decide what the wrong things were so you could remove them. Essentialism will help you determine what the right things are so you can add them.

Here are some thoughts from the book on how to do that:

Step 1: McKeown says the first step is to get your mind right. Realize that you have a choice in these matters. You are the curator of your life. Understand that practically everything is unimportant and that every yes and no decision you make is a tradeoff. A yes means a no somewhere else. A no means you’ll have the ability to say yes somewhere else. Is your yes worth the no that it creates? Is your no justified by the yes it allows? The problem is that we think we can do it all. Who needs sleep? Just cram more in. The reality is, we can’t have it all and when we try, we end up with mediocre results.

Step 2: Give yourself time and space to think. The nonessentialist is too busy to even contemplate what things are important and where he should be spending his time. Schedule time to think. Start by asking yourself key questions: What do I feel inspired by? What am I talented at? What meets a significant need in the world right now? What makes me happy? What things am I most proud of? Journal about your life. Look for the lead in your story. The important things that matter. The things that actually excite you about your life. Begin to filter out the noise. Look for patterns or trends, both good and bad. Think about your life and what you want. Do this exercise with the understanding that you will eventually focus on fewer things, but you’ll do them better. Or, as industrial designer Dieter Rams so eloquently said: “Less, but better.”

Step 3: As you contemplate those different things, they’ll probably fall into three categories: bad, good and best. The “bad” will be an obvious no. It will be clear that you shouldn’t focus future time on those things and you’ll be shocked that you’ve wasted any time on them at all. The second two categories will be harder. One will be a bunch of good things. On a scale of zero to 100, where 100 is awesome, you’ll have a bunch of 70s and 80s. They’re all things that you can justify, but they’re not great. Still, you’ll have a lot of them because it’s hard to say no when there is some obvious benefit. But remember, a yes to a 70 means a no to a 95, so the 70s and 80s should go as well. Then you’ll have a shorter list that are all 90s and above. Those are your essentials. Those are the things that are important to you. That is where you should invest your time, energy, resources and talents. Said another way, essentialists say yes only to the top 10 percent of opportunities. According to McKeown, it’s not about rejecting the bad in favor of the good. It’s about rejecting the good AND bad in favor of the great (or best).

As with minimalism, essentialism comes with a host of benefits. Less stress and floundering. Easier decision making. Better results on more important things. Greater satisfaction in life and retirement. A feeling of significance and purpose. More time for the people and projects that matter. More clarity, control and joy. Less regret. In short, it helps you create a well thought out, well designed life.

So as I said earlier, you will be who you are becoming. That transformation won’t happen overnight. Use the two key ideas of minimalism and essentialism and start taking small steps today that move you in the right direction. Then do it again tomorrow and the next day and the next. Before you know it, you’ll wake up one morning and you’ll be the person you’ve been becoming all along.

Joe Hearn is an Omaha financial planner who blogs at intentionalretirement.com

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