Ben Explains: Lesson learned from a ‘5 Year Plan’

Trying to find a little ‘peace of mind’ can sometimes be the well-needed stress relief in a chaotic, high-speed world. Thinking in the long term could be a method to help you find that aid. Let’s discuss my experience with a ‘5 Year Plan’ and see if it can help you too.


The student bar at Oxford Brookes University was unusually busy on a Thursday night. The sporty people were spread over an area in the corner, the music types were hanging near the pool tables and the ‘in crowd’ were sitting at the bar chatting with the bar staff. Intermingled in all these groups were ‘everyone in between’ sitting, standing, chatting, laughing and having a pretty good time.  

Sean, my good friend, was talking to us about his plans for the future. Sean and I met during the engineering program introduction day and hit it off immediately. A little bit older than me, he became a big brother-type figure in my life.  We shared common interests and made each other laugh, though it was notable how often I was the butt of his jokes. He would sometimes play pranks on me and tell stories to strangers of my mishaps, but we were good mates. I kind of felt a bit of respect for him with the lessons and guidance he showed me along the way. If Sean slipped up on anything though, I was always there to pounce. 

On that night in the bar, Sean was discussing his ‘5 Year Plan’. My former, 20 year year old younger self had never heard of anything so grown up coming out from such a hoodie-clad-person. Sean detailed his career plan, his goals to save for an apartment and his intentions for him and his girlfriend’s future. He seemed to have it all figured out.

It is only reflecting back now, that I can appreciate how wise Sean’s words were. We all should have listened and made notes as if we were in a lecture from a proper professor. Solid advice, most likely handed down from his father to him, which Sean was gracious enough to share with his motley crew.  Regrettably, instead of seeing this advice for the value it carried, it was simply an opportunity for ridicule for my immature self. His advice was not ‘normal’ at our age, and with anything not normal, it was open for mockery. I pasted him that night for his fancy ‘5 Year Plan’ and little was said about it ever again.. 

In those subsequent years after graduation, I followed my dad’s way of thinking. Solve one problem, then wonder what is next, or react to the next thing coming your way. I was in completely ‘reactive’ state of mind, as opposed to  the logically laid out ‘active’ one Sean had. I had an idea where I wanted to go; I wanted to work in Formula 1. However, I didn’t have many plans or ideas for anything else. 

The years passed as I lived a life of instant gratification. My ‘buy now pay later’ mentality fuelled by a life of living in the moment and not really caring about the future. It was only when I moved to Norway, some 15 years later, I sat down and thought, “Shit I really need to sort this out”. I had racked up a mountain of debt and was becoming fed up with the restrictions that came with it. I reflected that perhaps Sean had been onto something after all.

I sat down and calculated my budget and worked out how many months it would be to pay off everything. The credit cards, car loan, loans from family members and so on. “Life is so much more than just money, but what else did I want though? If this is the direction I am heading, what would I like to see along the way?” I pondered. 

As I expanded my thinking from finiances into other areas – fitness, housing, vehicles etc. I found myself l visualising Ben, five years in the future. Where was he? What was he doing? How did he look? What did he wear? What were his priorities?

As I worked out the answers to these questions, like inputting a GPS coordinate into a sat nav system, I saw a new path to follow. A guided route stretched way ahead in front of me to a vision of my new better life. 

But the time frame seemed so long, 

“Five years of my life? Would it be worth it? But how long really is five years?”  I considered the reality of five years. “If our generation will live until we are 80-90, and I’m 35, I still have 45-55 years to go. If I sacrifice five years now to pay off the 15 years of fun I’ve just had and make the next 45-55 years of life better, it doesn’t seem so bad of a trade off after all?”. This was the motivation I needed.  

I made a spreadsheet for every part of my life. Finances, career plan, housing, vehicle options, savings, vacation plans, a short, medium and long term wish list. I set in as much detail as I could and planned everything I could think of. Much like a mountaineer setting off to climb a difficult path, I had a map of where to go, what obstacles to look out for and what milestones to celebrate along the way. 

As I write this post I’m coming to the end of the 5 year period and here is what I have learned on my journey. 


At Peace

I found in my past I was always rushing to get to where I wanted to go. Now, I understand with careful planning it’s going to take it’s own time to get there. Like running a marathon, I can sit back, relax and settle into a good pace. Life is less stressful when you are not sprinting from one thing to the next. 

Simon Sinek in his book “Start with Why” discusses how successful entrepreneurs look back on the times starting out, hustling their way to achieve year upon year as the best times in the company. When they have made it and start to follow their ‘What’, rather than their ‘Why’, the focus is lost and the enjoyment decreases too. 

Therefore, why not relax and enjoy those early days longer? When you chase a dream the story is over when you accomplish it, right? 


Delayed Gratification

I had/have a financial plan in place enabling me to live an extraordinary life in the future. For example, I don’t have a fancy car now, on a loan, I have a regular VW Golf and I’m saving money each month for my ‘dream car’ later. The temptation of instant gratification now, is overcome by the thought or dream of what will come later. But it is not easy. Swimming against the flow of a society pushing you down river into debt is hard. What I found to ease my mind was actually the improvement to me, my character.

The ‘Stanford Marshmallow Experiment’ by W Mischel, E B Ebbesen, A R Zeiss, studied how children reacted to a simple challenge. A single marshmallow now, or two later. The study, in which some modern day versions have some very amusing YouTube videos, showed some very interesting results—albeit with some counter arguments and studies weakening the original theory such as the work completed by Watts, Duncan and Quen

The team in the original study, followed the children for the next 40 years of their lives.  The results showed the children who had waited and had the ‘delayed gratification’ of two marshmallows were more successful, achieved higher SAT scores, less substance abuse, less divorce, lower obesity levels etc. 
Ilene Strauss Cohen Ph.D, wrote in Psychology today, “Over time, delaying gratification will improve your self-control and ultimately help you achieve your long-term goals faster….People who learn how to manage their need to be satisfied in the moment thrive more in their careers, relationships, health, and finances”


Motivation

The final thing I noticed when I planned ahead in my life was the increased motivation to get things done. Much like Edwin Locke’s ‘Goal-Setting Theory’. A technique used by management companies all over the world, encouraging specific, challenging, and time defined goals as a key for success. By planning, I became super-productive and super-motivated.

But a word of caution. It is easy to write almost anything down on a ‘5 Year Plan’ and ‘hope’ it just happens. One could write ‘to be a millionaire’, but this may lead to more stress and depression if you are simply not able to or not lucky enough to achieve it. 

My advice, taken from the book ‘Start with Why’, is to begin with defining your ‘Why’ first. Why do you want to be in that position? Why do you want to move there? Why do you want that vehicle?

Having a clear understanding of ‘why’ is one of the most powerful tools in the armoury. When times go bad or temptation comes along to veer off your path, remembering your ‘why’ helps you steer a true course forwards. 

I was fed up with being trapped by the restrictions of being in debt. My ‘why’ is freedom.


This ‘5 Year Plan’ for your life concept isn’t new. This isn’t an original thought from me. There are even ‘wikihow’ pages on how to do it. People will advise you on Youtube how to use a picture board to show the things you desire. Whereas others will say write everything down and place it in a special jar. I made a spreadsheet. 

How do you create the plan? Well, it’s up to you. But you’ve already taken the first step, so good luck!

“Slow and steady wins the race”, right? The benefits of a 5 year plan have shown me you can gain more control of your life, reduce the chaos and improve your own character in doing so. 

So why not try it for yourself and let me know how you get on!

Ben Stalsberg


Copyright © 2020 – Ben Stalsberg – All Rights Reserved


https://www.wikihow.com/Write-a-Five-Year-Plan

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_marshmallow_experiment

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delayed_gratification#:~:text=Delayed%20gratification%2C%20or%20deferred%20gratification,preference%20for%20a%20later%20reward.

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/jun/01/famed-impulse-control-marshmallow-test-fails-in-new-research