Financial planning clients don’t often visit their financial planners with the intent of reducing all the ‘stuff’ that they have and do from their everyday lives. Instead, the focus is typically on doing and acquiring more – investment gains, strategies to protect wealth, increasing asset diversification – these are more commonly the focus of financial planning meetings. And yet, by asking clients to reflect on a more novel problem-solving approach of subtraction as a way to create and select the most important goals in their financial plans, they may actually discover how to achieve greater satisfaction from their plans.
For instance, consider what the sense of overcommitment can do to our brains. When there are too many things to do or manage, feelings of overwhelm can inhibit our ability to think clearly and take action, which is probably why we often come out of an overwhelming situation with longer to-do lists than what we started with! But deliberately ‘subtracting’ some busyness from our lives – instead of always trying to be the best and get the most at every moment – might be a better plan. Research by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly on the mental state of ‘flow’, the state of mind involving total immersion in an activity, suggests that it is the absence of distractors that allows flow and that serves as a key element in attaining happiness. Applying the concept of subtraction and flow to financial planning when helping clients choose which goals to prioritize can ultimately help them free up space to more fully enjoy the activities (or freedom from activity) that bring them the most satisfaction.
Advisors can encourage clients to engage in subtraction and to identify their most important priorities to pursue (and to identify those activities they can let go of or delegate to others) by facilitating candid discussions that explore what truly matters most to them. Adapting solution-focused therapy questions that ask clients not just what currently is working for them, but also what isn’t working, can be a helpful way to guide clients through these conversations.
As pandemic quarantines are lifted and the world begins to re-engage in social activities, financial advisors have a unique opportunity to encourage post-COVID ‘re-entry’ planning meetings to revisit financial plans with clients and to assess whether their goals need to be adjusted or re-designed. By guiding them to do so by subtracting complexity and simplifying their lives, advisors can help clients develop good financial planning goals that can accommodate greater joy and satisfaction!