No doubt about it: 2020 got our attention. As the world fell apart around us it revealed the cracks in the façade of our life. Partly it’s about money. Some of us lost jobs or had hours cut, but even those who didn’t felt the fragility and uncertainty of our financial circumstances like a gut punch. Partly it’s about family. In many cases, forced togetherness revealed strained relationships with spouses and showed us that we don’t know our kids at all. Mostly, 2020 was a wakeup call on the fleeting nature of life itself.
“We’ve seen loved ones get sick or even die,” says Steve Cook, author of Lifeonaire: An Uncommon Approach to Wealth, Success, and Prosperity “We’ve come face to face with our own mortality. And perhaps for the first time we’re asking ourselves: Are we REALLY happy with the life we’ve established up until now?”
He calls it The Great American Reset. Our life decisions have been brought into focus and we can clearly see the choices we’ve made: the excesses, the shortfalls, the flaws in judgement. And more and more of us are realizing the old paradigm (the one that built the lives of our parents) is no longer viable. While we are working harder than ever, we aren’t living the life we want to live.
Cook—a life and business coach, speaker, trainer, and author who helps people opt out of the American Dream culture that glorifies “busy, the grind, and the hustle”—says 2021 is the perfect time to shake your life down to its foundation and revamp everything.
“Change scares us and that’s understandable—but what should scare us more is continuing to live by default, by other people’s rules, even when it makes us unhappy,” he says. “What should scare us is missing out on what matters most in the pursuit of money, possessions, and status.”
Here is Cook’s recipe for upending your (old, exhausting, frustrating) life in the upcoming year to make room for the meaningful and richly satisfying one you should be living.
Don’t think in terms of “back to normal.” How many times did you hear this in 2020? Cook says people want to go “back” because from today’s vantage point it feels familiar and comfortable. They forget that they were unhappy with what they had a short time ago. As he writes in this blog post, “Don’t spend your energy going back to the place you were hoping to get away from. Give that same energy to something new.”
When you’re willing to wind up back at zero you get a surge of power. Most of us know on some level that what got us here won’t get us to where we want to go. Yet we don’t have the courage to let go. Cook says to get your life back you need to be willing to call a halt to what’s draining you, even if it (hypothetically) costs every cent you have now. The good news is that once you shift your mindset you can move forward quickly.
“When you try to work with trying to fix a broken system, you have to fight from weakness,” he writes. “But from zero, you get to fight from strength.”
Rethink how you measure prosperity. It’s not about having a lot of money, Cook asserts. It’s about having abundant life. It’s about freedom—the freedom to experience life as we see fit. Too often what we think of success comes at the expense of broken marriages, broken families, broken health, and broken peace. In Lifeonaire, Cook lays out four stages to prosperity:
Stage 1: Lay the foundation. Come up with a plan rather than living life by default.
Stage 2: Meet your needs. Start living as simply as possible.
Stage 3: Generate excess cash.
Stage 4: Invest in income producing assets.
“When you reframe prosperity this way and start seeing results, you may still work but it’s a choice, not an obligation,” asserts Cook.
Stop letting the world tell you what your life should look like. “People spend their lives keeping up with the Joneses and may not even realize it,” notes Cook. “It’s amazing how many think they have to have a big house in the ‘right’ neighborhood or a prestigious job just because that’s what they see others doing. Yet these things are sucking the life out of them. Lifeonaires live by intention, not by default. They literally create a blueprint and follow it.”
Forget what you’ve heard about long hours as the key to success. In 2021, find a way to cut your work hours by 10 percent. Cook insists the most successful people work less, often make more, and love their life. Their business complements instead of competes with their personal life. They experience freedom and independence with their time, finances, and choices.
“Years of conditioning have us believing that hard work means working a lot,” he reflects. “The truth is, short periods of efficient hard work are much more productive than ‘overdrive’ 60-hour work weeks. Maybe you need a new career, or maybe you just need to learn to focus so you can do your best work in a shorter time frame. Regardless, this is the year to make the change.”
If you don’t love your job, start preparing to quit right now. Are you truly happy with what you do? Does it energize and bring you joy? Do you feel you’re at the mercy of others and have no control over your life? If you don’t like your answers you might be happier as an entrepreneur.
“I’m not saying to quit your job today,” Cook asserts. “I am saying start preparing today. Part of it is about soul searching. The other part is revamping how you think about money.”
Call a family meeting and revamp your finances. Together, set some long-term goals and figure out how you’re going to get from here to there. Talk about what truly brings you joy. It’s okay to spend some of your money on these things! Making a lifestyle change this drastic can’t be all austerity and strict rules. If everyone isn’t on board and committed, it won’t work.
Blow up your budget and start over with a focus on saving. When trying to get a handle on their money, many people start with budgeting. They look at their current bills and figure out how to handle what’s left over. Cook says rather than saving around the edges, recalibrate around the goal of saving. It’s about ruthlessly slashing and burning what you don’t really need.
“You’re not looking to save just for the sake of accumulating a pile of money,” he says. “It’s about building a safety net so you can quit the job and start the business—and life—you’ll love.”
Figure out what you can live without. For many of us, 2020 showed us we can live much more simply (and it’s not even that painful). We don’t have to spend a lot of money on restaurants, gym memberships, and fancy vacations. While we’re staying home more is the perfect time to cut extras out of our life. Later, when things are more normal we’ll have excess cash to spend on travel or other experiences that make us happy—if we choose to. NOTE: See tip sheet below.
“You may realize that what sound like extreme changes, like downsizing to a smaller house or getting rid of a car, makes sense,” notes Cook. “Now that more of us are working virtually we’re realizing we can live anywhere. Why not move to a less expensive part of the country? Why not trade the pricey car in for a no-frills version since everyone is working at home now anyway?”
Get intentional about paying down debt. Any time you owe a debt to someone else, you’re under their power, at least to an extent, says Cook. In fact, he fundamentally disagrees with the “good debt/bad debt” construct. He believes there is no such thing as good debt.
“I don’t say people should never incur debt,” he clarifies. “I’m saying there are consequences to all debt and we should carefully weigh this truth against our desire to possess something. When making decisions based on freedom and prosperity it’s always better to own something outright. At the very least, don’t take on any more debt in 2021. Better yet, commit to paying it off.”
This year, find an income-producing asset you can invest in. (Just don’t go into debt to do it.) This is the “Stage 4” action explored in Lifeonaire. Once you start generating excess cash, you can either buy “free and clear” property, lend money, build a business that makes you cash, or invest in an already existing business.
“This does NOT mean going to the bank and getting a loan on rental property—because if a tenant moves out or becomes unable to pay for some other reason then suddenly you have to pay the lender,” says Cook.
Shift your focus: Family NOW, work LATER. Most entrepreneurial or career-driven types believe that they need to work really hard during their “prime earning years” so they can relax and enjoy The Good Life later. Cook says that’s exactly backwards. When our kids are young we should live now and work later . No amount of rationalizing that you’re “doing it for the family” can make up for missing those precious formative years.
“This is precisely why we need to keep our needs low,” he says. “The less you need, the less you have to work. Yes, you must work some, but if you don’t have a big mortgage and two car payments you will be able to put in a lot fewer hours and spend a lot more time with your children now, while they need you. Your business can grow slowly and organically over time.
Get intentional about restoring your damaged marriage. Too many couples work hard at their job, come home exhausted, and go sit in front of two separate TVs. They may pursue separate hobbies and interests. Over time, they drift apart and lose their passion for each other. But Cook says when a couple sits down together and creates a vision to work toward—one that includes making their marriage a priority—their relationship shifts almost overnight.
“I’ve seen it happen over and over,” he says. “Creating the vision is the key. When we’re clear on what we want, the steps to making it happen become obvious.”
Get rid of relationships that aren’t working. You know who these people are. They’re the toxic “friends” or business partners or family members who drag you down with their negativity, controlling behavior, one-upmanship, etc. Over time we end up feeling “stuck” with people who drain us and sabotage our efforts to build a better life. We’re not really stuck except in our minds, asserts Cook—and we can make 2021 the year we break up with them for good.
Go on an information-and-media diet. Most of us spend too much time surfing the Internet, watching upsetting news stories, and scrolling through social media. Overconsumption of information makes us anxious and unhappy—and it creeps up on us slowly and insidiously. Without realizing it we become screen addicts, filling our minds with mental “junk food” that clouds our thinking, breaks our focus, and keeps us from far more meaningful pursuits.
“Make this the year you get mindful about the knowledge you want to pursue and purposely cut out the rest,” suggests Cook. “Not only will you be happier and more focused, you may get physically healthier as well as you stop sitting in front of screens all the time.”
Connect (or reconnect) with your spirituality. For many people, the pandemic has put life in perspective, notes Cook. Despair often forces us to reach out to our Higher Power. And while most of us would prefer to skip the despair part, many studies have shown that strong spiritual grounding makes us happier, less anxious, more fulfilled, and imbued with a sense of belonging.
“Even if you can’t physically attend worship services you can join online,” he says. “You can read spiritual texts. You can pray or meditate. Or you can find a way to serve others—and many are in need right now—because giving often opens the door to a more spiritual way of life.”
When you think about the changes Cook is suggesting you make in 2021 it may seem overwhelming. Maybe even impossible. But Cook says once we get focused and intentional, solutions have a way of presenting themselves to us.
“I’ve seen this truth play out many times,” he says. “Once we reset our values, we become incredibly creative. We see the world in different way. New opportunities rise to the surface. New life flows in, almost as if by magic. If you do these things, or even just some of them, by the end of 2021 you’ll look back amazed at the difference a year has made.”