I spent a few years as a Girl Scout. I consider earning badges to be among my more satisfying memories of childhood. While knowledge of, say, folklore is a nebulous thing, earning a folklore badge is incredibly straightforward. All the requirements are specific, doable actions, such as reading certain books or asking people for stories.* You do the specified number of requirements and you get your badge.
I suppose there is much to be said about how life is not always like that, and it is true that the path to many things in life is unclear. Many people flounder after school because there is no structure. One grade does not inexorably follow another. What is the next step if you want to be promoted in a year? Who knows? And is that promotion the right career move for you? Even the territory of resolutions — get in shape, get my finances in order — is often vague.
But consider this from the perspective of the person who created the Girl Scout badge requirements. Faced with a somewhat hazy desire (the knowledge of folklore!) the designer broke this down into actionable steps that, if not perfect, still give the badge-earner reasonable insight into the topic. These steps create the feeling of progress, and as Teresa Amabile’s research shows, progress is a key component of human happiness.
This insight — what I call the merit badge mindset — is useful for anyone with dreams, resolutions, or goals. Big desires can be broken down into doable steps. The feeling of accomplishment achieved by completing these steps can roll you toward the finish.
So rather than say you’re getting your finances in order, think of yourself as working on a personal finance merit badge. Even better? Give it a deadline: in 180 days, you will deem yourself worthy of that badge.
Then brainstorm the potential requirements for this badge. Maybe you will keep a spending log for a month. Maybe you will start using a budgeting app. Maybe you will read 2 personal finance books (these books might help with other ideas for requirements). Maybe you will consolidate any credit card balances onto one low-interest card. You will save $1000 fast (to quote Dave Ramsey). You will set up a retirement account or adjust the holdings on any such account you already have. You can even brainstorm ones that aren’t particularly relevant to you; I remember from my Girl Scout badges that you didn’t have to do all the actions (though a few were required). Go through the list and choose the ones you are committing to.
Then, give these steps a timeline within that longer framework. I like the idea of checking in each Friday to commit to what you will do by the next Friday, taking care to put these steps on the schedule. It is one thing to say you plan to get your finances in order. It is another to download You Need A Budget this week, listen to Your Money Or Your Life on audiobook during your commute next week, set up an appointment with yourself to organize any accounts you have the following Friday morning, and so forth. None of this guarantees that your finances will be in order in 180 days, but it massively ups the odds from just thinking it would be nice.
Even goals that can’t possibly be guaranteed can go into this merit badge framework. Hoping to meet someone special? It is possible the universe will randomly throw your soul mate into your path. Or you can make a list of well-connected friends and ask them to set you up. You can join social groups, go to friends’ work events (kind of how I met my husband), hire a matchmaker, commit to going on 2 dates per week, whatever you think will be helpful badge requirements.
What I particularly like about this mindset is that it helps with that existential sense of time angst that happens when you have things you know you’d like to do in life, but you’re not sure what you should be doing at any given moment. In the merit badge world, you know you’re going to a friend’s work happy hour on Thursday and you have a date set up for Friday night, and you’re meeting up with a running club Sunday morning, so it is all good. You can just relax and enjoy yourself. You are off the clock — free to do whatever you’d like knowing that progress is being made.
*I do not know if these are actual requirements.
In other news: This is part 2 of a series I’m running on foundational time management habits. If you think this series would be helpful to someone, please share it!
In other other news: The Get Bullish company actually offers a personal finance merit badge for grown-ups.
Photo: Vintage 1988-1989, baby!