The key to realizing your retirement goals, Jean Chatzky learns, is to draw on your own creative ingenuity

How long has it been since you drew a self-portrait? If you said second grade, you’re right on track with me – and I suspect many of us who realized at that early date the limitations of our artistic abilities (though my fifth-grade watercolor of spiky flowers still graces the wall at my mom’s).

It might be time to grab pencil and paper again and start sketching, however. Because some new research shows doing so might help you achieve your financial goals.

That’s what the Mark Murphy discovered. Murphy, the founder and CEO of Leadership IQ and the author of Hard Goals: The Secret to Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, recently conducted an experiment with employees at a large healthcare company. He asked them to draw one self-portrait of how they felt day-to-day, then another showing how they would feel if they were given $500,000, then he measured how connected they felt to their goals. Seeing themselves less worried, less anxious, more happy and more carefree helped them connect emotionally to their goals.

Why does this work? According to Murphy, in order to be attainable, goals must meet four criteria: They must be heartfelt, animated, required and difficult. In other words, you need to have an emotional attachment to the goal, you should be able to visualize it, you need to feel a sense of urgency and the goal should be pushing you out of your comfort zone a little bit.

As far as their retirement goals are concerned, most people don’t have a problem with the last two. The media – myself included – spends a good chunk of time driving home the fact that saving for retirement is important, required, non-negotiable in this age of uncertain Social Security. We hit hard the fact that almost two thirds of workers say that they’re saving for retirement, more than half have less than $25,000 banked, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute’s 2011 Retirement Confidence Survey. And I think we can all agree that amassing a large sum of money is hard, no matter how much time you have left on the table.

The first two are the sticking points, at least for most people, because our pesky brains get in the way. It’s very difficult to have an emotional attachment to something that is so far away, much less visualize it. Why pass on the new shoes that you can wear tomorrow in favor of an extra $100 toward a retirement that is 10 or 20 years in the future?

“In retirement, if someone says you have to save money, you usually don’t think ‘why do I care about this?’ or ‘why am I emotionally attached to this?’” says Murphy. “No, it just becomes an abstract money goal – here’s a number and that’s it. But people don’t care about the numbers per se. With the drawing of the pictures, the reasons that they do care about the goal – that they may not even realize – come out.” In other words, you take the time to think about what saving that amount of money would mean for your life – more time with your grandchildren, a few days a week on the golf course, sunny vacations with your spouse – and that takes the goal out of the practical and into the emotional. When we’re emotionally connected to something, we’re more likely to fight for it.

So how do you play along at home? It’s easy. If you haven’t run the numbers to estimate how much you’ll actually need for retirement, spend some time with Choose to Save’s Ballpark E$timate. You’ll quickly learn that $25,000 isn’t going to cut it. Then take a piece of paper and a pencil, and imagine a retirement funded by the amount of money the Ballpark E$timate told you to shoot for. What will you be doing? What will having that money at your disposal mean for your life? Draw it out, in detail, including pictures of yourself engaged in the experiences that kind of money could buy. Then hang it where you’ll see it every day – near your mirror, by your computer, on the fridge. You can even make smaller versions of your drawing to keep in your wallet (I suggest wrapping one around your credit card). “People are such visual creatures, and this brings the future into the reality and makes it more vivid for them,” explains Murphy.

Finally, take the time to revisit your drawing every couple months or so. Are you making progress? Has your vision changed? If so, make the necessary tweaks, says Murphy. “You need to keep re-thinking this, keep reenergizing the goal emotionally, because it’s not as good when it’s a one shot activity.” You might also write down how much you have saved and keep updating that every month — because the closer you get to your magic number, the more momentum you have to reach it.

Oh, and one last thing: Murphy says this strategy works for other, non-financial goals, too, like weight loss. Good to know.


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