Set a goal and take one step at a time to get there

Boy Scouts working on canoes at camp Maple Dell on Aug 31, 2015, outside Payson, Utah.
Boy Scouts working on canoes at camp Maple Dell on Aug 31, 2015, outside Payson, Utah. PHOTO: AFP

I love spending time in the mountains. So a few weeks ago, I jumped at the opportunity to join a friend, my son and seven of his friends on a trip into the Uinta Mountains. This range sits about an hour east of our home in Park City, Utah.

We planned a three-day trip with hikes of 10 to 13 miles each day. All of us carried heavy packs. On the second day, we'd set a particularly big goal: 13 miles, three mountain passes, 6,000 vertical feet and a one-mile side trip to the summit of Kings Peak.

At 13,528 feet, Kings Peak is Utah's tallest mountain, and the trail sits above the tree line. We had a clear view of the whole path, and it was a daunting sight. We all felt a little overwhelmed.

My son Sam said later that he managed the hike by focusing on what was right in front of him. Instead of focusing on the peak or the trail far ahead, he chatted with his friends and paid attention to what was happening around him.

His strategy worked so well that I think he was a little surprised at how good he felt when we finished the hike. Yes, it was hard. But what seemed impossible in the morning turned out to be very manageable.

I know it's cliched to say that the best way to accomplish a major goal is one step at a time. But the adage acknowledges something vital. We can control the next step, but we can't always control what comes after the next step. So why get worked up about what's way out on the horizon?

Something else came into play on our trip: afternoon thunderstorms. Without fail, the clouds would roll in during the afternoon, and I found myself worrying about the rain and lightning. If it rained, we'd be miserable. Throw in some lightning, and we might need to retreat from the ridge to find shelter.

As I worked through all the possible scenarios in my head, I forgot something pretty important: It wasn't raining. They were only clouds. With a little nudge from Mother Nature, I created a problem in my head that didn't even exist. I reminded myself that we'd planned for the possibility of rain. We had raincoats. We wouldn't melt. And we had a strategy if lightning started.

So I took a deep breath and tried to ignore the clouds. Despite all my worrying, it didn't rain once even though clouds surrounded us every day.

I find it fascinating how we get distracted by things that might happen, often to the point that we overlook what's right in front of us. We do this a lot with money.

We focus on big financial goals, like buying a home, paying for college, or retiring - and they seem so big we convince ourselves they're impossible to reach. Then, because we feel overwhelmed, we stop trying to reach them.

Yes, it's important to know where we want to go and to set goals to get there, but we can't let that big thing way off in the future intimidate us. We could lie in bed each night worrying about how to get there, or we could follow my son's approach: Keep our heads down and focus on the next step and then the step after that one.

I think back to some of my earliest clients and where they started 15 years ago. If you'd told them then where they'd be today, they'd have said: "No way. That's impossible." But the impossible became reality because they put their heads down and committed to do the small, simple things, like automating their savings each month.

They didn't get distracted or overwhelmed by the big goals. They also managed to avoid creating problems that existed only in their minds.

They just focused on what they could control every day, every week and every month. Now, 15 years later, they've reached many of the audacious goals they set a long time ago.

We're all capable of the same success. Over time, of course, we'll need to peek at that big goal on the horizon and see if we need to make a course correction to avoid a real problem. Unexpected setbacks will occur, and we might need to adjust the timeline. But the rest of the time, we need to keep putting one foot in front of the other and stay focused on one question: What can I control today? NEW YORK TIMES

•Carl Richards is a financial planner in Park City, Utah, and the director of investor education at the BAM Alliance.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 30, 2015, with the headline 'Set a goal and take one step at a time to get there'. Print Edition | Subscribe