A version of this piece originally appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Feb. 4, 2018
Winners engage in strategic planning. They gather the players and identify the big goals. Where do you want to be in 10 years? What steps will you take to get there? What resources will you put towards achieving your goals?
There certainly are people who perform short and long-term planning in their personal lives. They may have placed directives in a file folder with end-of-life instructions, down to the finest detail: I want this hymn sung and these Bible passages read at my funeral before I’m cremated. And do not resuscitate me.
But many of us don’t have a plan. We are reactive, which means we’re playing from behind when dealing with life – or death – issues.
Most young Americans do not have a will or other directives. Yet, all homeowners and parents have great incentive to create them. Who will care for the children if they are suddenly without parents? What will happen to the family home?
With age comes an appreciation for the benefit of making one’s preferences known. So seniors are more likely to have a will or trust and a health care directive.
Some assume life planning is just for the wealthy but it’s for anyone who wants to proactively manage his affairs. It’s about avoiding acrimony and angst among loved ones and ensuring assets – however vast or limited – go to the desired recipients. It’s about scoring big points with those who matter most.
Today’s families are changing dramatically and have different needs and considerations that need to be addressed. Same sex, blended, military, multi-generational, multi-cultural, special needs, adoptive – the more complex the issues, the greater the need for planning.
And yet, we live in the moment, consumed by daily duties.
We race to the first meeting of the day, coffee in one hand, cell phone in the other, determined, but unable, to park life at the door from 8 to 5.
Because the dog ate a chocolate bar and needs to see the vet.
The furnace is out and it’s six below zero.
Dad is calling about mom’s fading memory, unsteady gait, and resistance to moving to an assisted living facility.
Those long-term issues– insurance, college savings, and retirement – will just have to wait. After all, we have lots of time. And who wants to think about disability and death, anyway?
It’s a curious phenomenon in our society. We live in fear of death, though we know it’s going to claim us. So, often we just don’t think or talk about death – or even the various interruptions that can make life complicated and overwhelming.
But one day the call comes and one conversation changes everything. It might be a cancer diagnosis, a layoff at work, a mass shooting, or a car accident. We punt because we haven’t anticipated or planned for the really tough stuff.
We don’t appreciate the freedom and relief that come from tackling it while we’re clear-headed and unburdened by grief or shock.
I lived that way for most of my adult life.
Until, 1400 miles from home, I got a phone call from an emergency room physician. They’d done everything they could, he said, but my husband, the father of four, hadn’t made it. And they’d need to know where to send his body.
If ever there was a family who should have planned it was mine. Death had lurked for years – heart disease, cancer, and a rare blood disorder – but we’d dodged it.
Until we didn’t.
When the call came, I had no plan, just questions, not easily answered.
And gripping fear and uncertainty.
That phone call was a game changer for me.
Eight years later I know there’s no upside to avoiding the tough topics and decisions.
My work has evolved into encouraging others to discuss the inevitable, going life stage by life stage, for priorities and issues change over time: guardianship for minors, college and weddings for young adults. And so on.
Using a system I call my Personal Readiness Plan™, I’ve had the discussions, made the decisions, signed and organized the documents.
My loved ones know about my box of documents. It’s my gift to them. And to myself.
Each step in my Personal Readiness Plan™ has an overarching purpose: to make life as manageable and enjoyable as possible and to create minimal distress for loved ones if a crisis occurs. It’s fluid. It can be visited over time, for these topics can be daunting.
It’s an easily navigated process, kick-started by my financial planner’s question: What are your values?
Identifying values and creating a framework to ensure actions are consistent with them is a useful exercise, easily applied personally and professionally, whether for decisions about health, housing, education, finances, leisure, career, or retirement.
Then we evaluate, anticipate, act, and adjust, with an eye on the prize: ensuring we not only live our best lives but that our legacy reflects our stated values.
There’s no mystery to life’s progression. While we don’t know how long it will last, we know the ref will eventually blow the final whistle. When that happens, will you have a game plan? Will you have lived your best life?