You Can’t do Everything: How I’m Prioritizing What to Start, Stop and Continue in Retirement

Try this exercise to help you decide what you should put your focus on. I’ve used this activity a bunch before – both in my personal and professional life.
Adam

Written by Adam on December 10, 2018. Updated April 26, 2019.
13 min read. Goals, Personal. 8 comments.

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As I mentioned in my post last week, I’m officially leaving my job. I’m optimistic about our financial situation in this change, but the day-to-day change will be a larger concern. I’ll be moving from a structured life, with a job setting guard rails and times to be at specific places into an unknown schedule where I am setting the agenda.

I’m excited to do this, but I also know I don’t want to overwhelm myself with too much pressure. Pressure to get specific things done, pressure to accomplish goals, to make Minafi profitable (not a priority), pressure to relax. All of that pressure is internal, and how I balance my days will determine how I adjust in this time of change.

Luckily, I have a strategy that I love using to brainstorm in the face of change.

trail zion

Start, Stop Continue

Start, Stop, Continue is one of my favorite exercises. It’s one I’ve used at jobs for years – sometimes in groups and sometimes just me to help organize my thoughts.

The activity itself is relatively simple. Take a sheet of paper and turn it on its side. Draw 3 headers at the top of the page labeled “Start”, “Stop” and “Continue”, with a divider between them. It should look something like this.

start-stop-continue

Next, find a quiet place alone where you can spend about 15 minutes. Whenever I’ve done this activity, it’s been important that this time is uninterrupted – not just sitting in front of the TV casually brainstorming. 

The next step is to determine what the subject will be for this activity. Picking a prompt sets the stage for the questions. For this one, here’s the prompt I went with:

What do you want to [Start, Stop, Continue] doing if you had all the time in the world?

Prompt for this Activity

If that doesn’t resonate with you, feel free to tweak it.

Next, sit down and set a timer for 5 minutes. In that 5 minutes, you’ll write down as many things as possible that you want to start doing if you had all the time in the world.

These aren’t commitments! Write whatever comes to your mind. If you’ve always dreamed of learning a foreign language, write it down. If you’ve always wanted to learn an instrument write it down. Anything that’s new that you’re not doing now but want to start doing – write it down.

At the end of this 5 minutes you might have a lengthly list. That’s OK!

Next, allocate 5 minutes for everything you want to stop doing if you had all the time world. What work would you stop doing? What self-imposed stress would you stop? What time-imposed stress would be loosened? What commitments would you want no longer prioritize?

This doesn’t mean you CAN stop doing, just that you’d want to stop doing it. Some of the most impactful ideas in this section when I’ve done this activities were dreaming big and going to the root of problems – even without any idea on how to solve them.

Stop is the hardest one for me. If you’re constantly optimizing your life, there may be far fewer items in this column. That’s OK!

Lately, allocate 5 more minutes to list everything you want to continue doing if you had all the time in the world. What activities do you love doing today and want to continue? What things are effective, or productive that you want to continue? What’s great for your mental health and personal wellbeing that would beneficial to continue? Are there things that help other people you want to continue?

My Results from Start, Stop Continue

I did this activity myself back in October after I’d made the decision to leave my current role. At that time I wasn’t sure if I’d transition into a new role or take a break. This activity helped me understand what’s important – so I can focus on that next.

Here’s what I came up with.

Note: There are a lot of things on my list. I’ve done this activity before, so I’m familiar with it. I also spent more than 5 minutes on this, and have done so over multiple sessions. If your list isn’t this long, that’s one potential reason why.

Behaviors to Start

  • Start waking up around 8:00 AM (or whenever Mrs. Minafi wakes up).
  • Start trying new forms of exercise – skiing, rock climbing, long-distance running, yoga.
  • Start increasing my morning writing session from 1 hour to 2 hours.
  • Start organizing more time with friends (game nights, dinners out/in, bars).
  • Start planning and cooking multi-serving meals (breakfast burritos, curry, etc).
  • Start buying more food in bulk from places like Costco.
  • Start writing more about my experience going through the transition to not working.
  • Start setting boundaries between side projects and personal life.
  • Start organizing lunches out with friends, coworkers and Mrs. Minafi.
  • Start eating more fruits and other healthy snacks.
  • Start cutting my own hair (Sometimes at least. I used to do this). Mrs. Minafi has vetoed this in favor of a more handsome husband with good haircuts.
  • Start reviewing our household spending after each month instead of each quarter (so we can see trends faster).
  • Start having monthly spending chats with Mrs. Minafi where we discuss the spending for the past month and set goals for the new one.

Behaviors to Stop

  • Stop identifying myself by my job role, accomplishments or work.
  • Stop waking up at 5:45 AM.
  • Stop creating todo items for the week.
  • Stop grazing on whatever food we have available.
  • Stop working on Minafi (or any side project) as often at night.
  • Stop setting quarterly goals.
  • Stop paying to get my haircut (sometimes at least). Mrs. Minafi has vetod this in favor of a more handsome husband with good haircuts.
  • Stop going on social media during the day (Facebook, Twitter, Reddit).
  • Stop trying to optimize every day and instead be OK with progress.
  • Stop setting unachievable expectations for myself.

Behaviors to Continue

  • Continue writing first thing in the morning.
  • Continue exercising (at least) 3x a week.
  • Continue not watching TV during the day (unless it’s Olympics, World Cup, CrossFit Games or another time-limited TV).
  • Continue going for at least one hike every week.
  • Continue not drinking alcohol when I’m alone.
  • Continue alternating who takes Lily for walks in the morning/afternoon.
  • Continue spending time learning new things.
  • Continue having date nights with Mrs. Minafi.
  • Continue playing video games for fun.
  • Continue programming a lot.
  • Continue going to sleep before it’s too late at night (1 AM-ish).
  • Continue going to the coffee shop close by to program and work on side projects.
  • Continue not having children (our personal choice!)
  • Continue learning more about web and visual design.
  • Continue learning more about data visualization.
  • Continue learning more about SEO and growing an audience.
  • Continue learning more about Vue.js for front-end development.
  • Continue tracking my time.
  • Continue focusing on habits over goals.
  • Continue learning Japanese with Duolingo.

What To Look For

Take a look at your list. Does one category look a bunch longer than the others? I tried this same exercise about a year ago with very different results. My “Start” category was crazy long. My continue section was relatively short. When I looked at most of those things in “start”, they were almost all things I could do while employed. Almost nothing was blocked by only having a few hours a week work on them.

For example, “Start learning Japanese” was on there. After some experimentation with a scheduling, I realized I could spend the bus/train to work taking a level or two each day. It only took 5-10 minutes, but it was slowly building up that habit. 

Even those this list is assuming you had all the time in the world, there’s likely a lot you could do towards it now. This is similar to my personal goals. When I created that list I realized that the majority of things on the list could be worked on while I was still employed.

How To Prioritize Each

How you prioritize each is up to you. I have 13 things in “Start” and almost every one of them is a habit I want to train. Depending on your list, there are a bunch of ways to organize these. I’ve tried a few techniques myself:

  • Prioritize them from 1 to N ordered by most important.
  • Warren Buffett’s 25/5 Technique
  • Grouping them into categories for Adopt, Trial, Assess and Hold. These are used by Thoughtworks on their technology radar. It helps to know which habits you’re strong on and which you’re just trying to train yourself on.
  • Theme them based on topic. For example, group all “learn” ones or all “cook” ones together. Items within these categories are likely at odds with each other. If you want to learn Piano and Japanese, you’ll improve your odds of success if you pick one to start with.
  • Create a “first step” for each item. If you were to take action on each thing, what would you do next?

The worst thing that can happen as a result of this is nothing. That you have a bunch of things you want to try, or start/stop doing but you make no active change. With that in mind, I think a good step is to pick 1 thing on the start list that you can work on this week and give it a shot!

Rate and Chart Them

One way to organize these is to rate each one across different dimensions. You’ll want to define which dimensions make the most sense for you. The dimensions that I found useful for this exercise were:

  • Difficulty
  • Mental Benefit
  • Physical Benefit
  • Financial Benefit

For the above 4 dimensions, I put them into a Google Sheet and ranked them from 1-100. I started with a score of 1-5. What’s important is the ranking. The goal of this scoring is to be able to easily see which items would be the best bang for their buck.

After years of being a Product Manager, I have an unhealthy obsession with prioritization. Of course that means that I graphed these results. Here’s a look at what came out of this.

What stands out from this exercise is a look at exactly what I should focus on that would provide the most impact on a mental & physical health level. If I were optimizing for difficulty or financial situation then the results would be different.

The most impactful things I can start/stop become crystal clear from this exercise:

  • Start waking up at 8:00 AM
  • Start planning and cooking multi-serving meals (breakfast burritos, curry, etc).
  • Start trying new forms of exercise – skiing, rock climbing, long-distance running, yoga.
  • Stop identifying myself by my job role, accomplishments or work.
  • Stop waking up at 5:45 AM.

All of these new behaviors have a positive impact on both the mental and physical level. The “Stop identifying myself by my job role, accomplishments or work” one is perhaps the most difficult one of all. After decades of drilling this into my mindset, it’ll be a big mindset shift. The stress of that thought has physical impact as well.

Mental Wins

Beyond the wins that are both mental and physical, there are a few things that are bucketed into just one category.

  • Stop setting unachievable expectations for myself.
  • Start organizing lunches out with friends, coworkers and Mrs. Minafi.
  • Start setting boundaries between side projects and personal life.
  • Start organizing more time with friends (game nights, dinners out/in, bars).
  • Stop trying to optimize every day and instead be OK with progress.

All of these are ones I’m going to try to watch closely. With so many changes at once, taking mental health seriously is important.

Physical Wins

In the last year since moving to Salt Lake City I’ve put on about 10 pounds. Considering that I now live in a utopia of outdoor activity it’s a bit of a surprise to be honest.

I can trace that weight gain to a few things: Not caring about what I eat at all, having unlimited food, snacks, and drinks at work (which I’d gladly eat) and upping our alcohol consumption compared to past years.

I enjoy exercise, getting out to nature and cooking, so improving my fitness doesn’t feel like I’m losing out. If anything it helps give more energy and creativity to help with everything else in life.

This is part of why almost everything physical in the chart is also above the fold. Physical activity improves mental health. I can’t think of a day when I went hiking, to the gym or skiing where I came back feeling mentally worse.

There aren’t too many “leaning physical health” items, but these two bubbled to the top:

  • Start eating more fruits and other healthy snacks.
  • Stop grazing on whatever food we have available.

Having fruits and other healthy snacks on hand as well as cooking food in bulk can help to improve my diet. It’ll be a big change from having a candy wall and a ton of snacks at work I’ve been eating lately.

Weekly Review 

I’ll be honest, after about 3 days I completely forgot most of what was on my list. Unless you revisit them and review, you’re unlikely to be affected by this exercise. 

What I did next was set a weekly checkin to look at these and see how I’m doing. I don’t write anything down or journal at this time – just read and think. Occasionally I’ll reorder these based on new information, or delete something that I’ve realized doesn’t make sense.

This continuous review keeps these top of mind.

Have you ever tried start, stop, continue? Do you have any other activities you use when entering into a period of change? Have you tried this activity? Feel free to share what you want to start, stop or continue in the comments.

Adam

About Adam

Hi, I'm Adam! I help millennials invest to reach financial independence sooner than they ever thought possible. Want to see what you could do to reach FI sooner? You're in the right place!

8 Comments

Why not add to the conversation below? Your voice is welcome!

I love your use of graphs! I hadn’t thought to use such a visual representation of my goals before! And I mean, who doesn’t love a good Tableau! I’ll have to try this!

Tableau is so much fun to explore data with! I hadn’t realized how easy it was until recently. I’m still a novice at it, but I’d love to see what you come up with.

Love this method! I do something similar whenever I find myself at a crossroads in life (aka looking for a new job). It’s a great mental exercise to dream big and not set barriers for ourselves. Changing our lives depends so much on changing our habits which is a slow process.

Being at a crossroads is a good time to try this for sure. It’s sometimes hard to realize (at least for me) that I need to reevaluate in other times too.

You are going to speak Japanese! So cool!

Gratz on joining the FIRE cohort.

Wow, you do a lot of analysis on yourself at times! An interesting exercise, but I think I will pass on this one.

Great blog by the way, will continue to keep it on my blogroll of my site.

I gotta say I love the detailed self-analysis complete with graphs! I’m a super data-driven person so I love this idea. I could see that self-analysis might be harmful for people who have a tendency toward self-judgement, but I can see real value in it for myself.

A lot of the mission statement & life goals stuff that I’ve done has ended up being super data driven. It’s refreshing to see someone else take a similar approach. So much of this work really is valuable but ends up being discounted by analytical people because they think it’s life-coachey-believe-in-yourself-mumbo-jumbo.” I’m allergic to certain language in this realm, but totally in to self-discovery and reflection.

Ohh yeah, good point – depending on the person this same exercise could come off as a lot of self-judgment. Being in the right mindset to use it for self-discovery, reflection and growth are important for sure.

I always love reading people’s well-thought-out self-analysis too! Especially when they’re reproducible activities I can try out myself. There’s some value in being able to self-assess and explore more of your own motivations, limitations, desires, and beliefs. It’s kind of like a self-guided therapy session.