Like me, you probably learned about tree rings in elementary school. Every year trees add a layer of growth on the outside and develop a series of concentric rings. Over the course of their lives, these rings become identifiable layers that tell a unique story. Tree rings, aka growth rings, also help scientists understand climate conditions that each tree experienced; years that were plentiful with rain and sunshine produce thick rings and excessively dry and cold years produce thinner rings.

Nerdy fact: there’s even a word for the study of tree rings – it’s called “dendrochronology”.

To me, tree rings are a great metaphor for personal growth. There was a tough year that I was let go from a startup to another year that I met my incredible girlfriend who I’m now living with. We have great years and some lean years, and we do our best to play the hand that we’re dealt. Trees, in their own way, are very stoic; enduring whatever the environment throws at them without complaint or becoming overly excited.

The Tree Ring Model

As I contemplated this metaphor of tree rings and my life, I began to ponder what my tree rings would look like. More specifically, how can I use this image as a metaphor for my personal growth and life priorities? After some thought, I drew a model based on my current life priorities:

  1. Physical Health
  2. Mental Health
  3. Relationships
  4. Growth
  5. Wealth (Finances)

Evernote_Snapshot_20180520_1141131

To me, where it all starts is with a strong foundation of Physical Health. With proper food, nutrition, sleep, and exercise, I’m able to maximize the capabilities of my body and put my best foot forward each day. The mind feeds off of the physical energy to help gain and sustain Mental Health. We often overlook mental health as it’s not something that is as visible like our physical health. Understanding your personal triggers, speaking with trusted people about your emotions, and taking the time to reflect in a constructive way are all important elements of ensuring you’re developing a resilient, positive mindset.

The next ring – Relationships – builds off of the stable and positive mindset to provide patience, understanding, and love to others. A study from Harvard tracked 268 graduates over 80 years and showed that embracing community helps us live longer, and be happier. Relationships and community make a tremendous impact on our happiness and our health. As social animals, we need it as it takes a major priority to nurture and sustain important relationships in our lives.

The average person will spend approximately 30% of their lives working. Yet many people work in jobs that don’t leverage their unique talents and interests. Growth is the ring which encompasses the work that I invest myself in and the learning opportunities I create in my life.

In Cal Newport’s fantastic book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, he writes that developing your skillset and expertise is more important than “following your passion”. Passion is a mercurial thing but developing a skill will help you be in demand. Newport calls it the “craftman’s mindset” which requires years of dedication to a craft and creating a valuable skillset the job market will value. That’s what this ring is all about: constant learning and professional development of oneself.

As you invest in your career growth and develop new skillsets, success in acquiring Wealth will be a bi-product of that. With work that matches your long-term goals and market needs, you can find ways to build my wealth sustainably. When you look at some of the most successful people in our time from Bill Gates to Barak Obama to Oprah Winfrey to Warren Buffet, they all focused on honing their craft before they arrived onto the big stage.

Let’s Dive Deeper

So what does each ring mean on a day-to-day basis? I dug into this a little further to give more clarity to myself.

You’ll notice that I’m not getting über specific with some of these habits. I find that absolutes such as “never” don’t help when it comes to establishing a habit. Of course I’ll occasionally indulge in a sugary snack or have a drink with a friend. To me, these are helpful guidelines that ensure that I’m focused on putting the right things into my body.

Physical Health

The connection between physical and mental health is close. Mental health relies on strong physical foundations like a clean diet, quality sleep, and regular exercise. To start, here are the core habits that I focus on for Physical Health. Thanks to Dr. Rhonda Patrick for inspiring many of the key guidelines below.

Diet principles:

  • Eat a mainly plant-based diet.
  • Eliminate consumption of refined sugars and fast foods.

Exercise principles:

  • Engage in vigorous cardiovascular activity of at least 30-minutes once or twice a week.
  • Lift heavy weights 2 to 3 times a week for muscle growth & retention.

Lifestyle principles:

  • Reduce eating or snacking past 8pm.
  • Disconnect from digital devices by 9pm.
  • Be in bed and asleep by 11pm.

Mental Health

This is an area that’s currently my biggest challenge. I’ve dealt with anxiety and self-esteem issues in the past and still do to this day. I’ve read books, taken programs, and been mentored by some amazing individuals. The challenge still remains that changing your ingrained thinking patterns and habits is difficult. It often takes months and years of concentrated effort in making that shift.

Gaining control of my mindset and feeding it with healthy, positive fuel is a day-to-day grind. I have good days and bad. But there are ways to mitigate risk of mental breakdowns with some simple, day-to-day habits. In a way, the below list is the “mental flossing” habits that I try to accomplish every day.

Lifestyle principles:

  • Meditate every morning and evening for 20 minutes.
  • Read a text on Stoicism every morning.
  • Reflect every morning and evening by writing in a journal.
  • Arrange professional, psychotherapy support when needed.

When I combine both the habits of physical health and mental health on a consistent basis, I feel the biggest reward. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been interested in the ancient Stoic philosophy as a way to strengthen my mindset and manage my ego. Ryan Holiday’s writing in this space is highly recommended including his books Ego Is The Enemy and The Obstacle Is The Way. They’re both easy, practical reads about how many people in history have used Stoicism as a way to overcome their challenges and make a meaningful impact in the world. If you’re looking for texts straight from the Stoic masters themselves, I highly recommend this translation of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations and The Tao of Seneca audiobook series.

Finally, there may be certain mental health challenges that are beyond your own ability to work through. In most cases those are rooted in deeper psychology and could require some support from a professional. I found this video from The School of Life to be helpful as a way to understand the objective of psychotherapy and how it might be able to help you.

Relationships

Investing time in family, a significant other, and friendships are critical to long-term happiness. The aforementioned Grant Study from Harvard is a great example of how strong social bonds can shape our lives for the better.

Unfortunately, loneliness is becoming a real problem in our society today. A 2010 study of adults 45+ by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) reported that 40-45% of respondents said they regularly or frequently lonely. Nuturing strong relationships in which we care deeply for others and support their lifelong journeys will lead to a sense of fulfillment in ourselves.

While I don’t have specific “habit” recommendations here, it’s important that there are some guidelines you create for yourself around the candence and rhythm with which you see important people in your life. In the past, I’ve enjoyed organizing a quarterly “Gentlemen’s Dinner” with a handful of my close male friends or scheduled a weekly “date night” with my girlfriend. Setting up recurring events for those important relationships can help guarantee that you’re spending quality time with people that matter.

Finally, I also want to mention the importance of vacations as a way to disconnect from the day-to-day and strengthen the relationships with the people you care about. Don’t neglect the importance of taking that time away from work and truly recharging. You’ll come back to work with even more creativity, vigour, and energy that your colleagues would be thankful for. From a time & budget standpoint, don’t forget to plan 3 to 6 months ahead for these vacations as they do take some planning to make them meaningful.

Growth

I try to look at growth from a holistic sense which encompasses both my professional and personal development. Of course, my full-time job is a massive commitment in life and finding something fulfilling is really important. At the same time, feeling like that I’m growing within my current role at work and outside of it gives me immense amount of joy. In many ways this “Growth” section is the fuel of the fire that keeps me wanting to improve my life and continuously look at ways to level up the other rings in the model.

Here are few of the keystone habits that I try to incorporate with this ring:

  • Schedule in dedicated reading time every night.
  • Spend an hour each week learning a new skill.
  • Invest in coaching for a specific skill you’re developing.
  • Write your ideas and thoughts publicly (e.g. blog) or privately (e.g. journal).

One area that I’ve recently been investing more time into, is coaching. After experimenting through books, videos, online courses, etc. with limited experience (and budget) during my 20s, I’ve realized how much faster you can get to your goal with a smart, qualified coach at your side. I know, it sounds obvious, but hiring somebody to give me 1-on-1 coaching on a specific topic has almost always been worth the investment. Even with a limited budget, you can still get an hour’s worth of time with an expert to extract valuable information. If you’re looking to develop a specific skill, consider hiring somebody to support you (at least while you learn the ropes) so that you don’t get stuck figuring out early roadblocks on your own.

Wealth (Finances)

This is one that you can get pretty tangible with as financial wealth markers can be quantified a little bit easier.

  • Pay yourself first and automatically save a dedicated percentage of your monthly wages.
  • Invest in low cost, index funds for medium to long-term investments.
  • Craft a budget for each major priority in your life.

There are a ton of excellent resources out there on financial planning. A few books that I’d recommend reading include Automatic Millionaire by David Bach, Millionaire Teacher by Andrew Hallam, The Wealthy Barber by David Chilton, and Unshakeable by Tony Robbins. Across all the reading I’ve done around wealth building, the common message is simple: invest early, invest in low-cost index funds, and pay yourself first.

I’ve found that the hardest part is not necessarily the “technical stuff” like finding the right low-cost index fund provider – there are a ton of great options available today – but the behavioral change in managing my budget and saving more for my future. One tool that I’ve been using consistently over the past couple of years is YNAB (or You Need a Budget) which is a fabulous budgeting tool that’s helped me build a solid financial buffer and create visibility into how I’m spending my money each month.

The Problem with Models

All models are wrong, but some are useful.

– George E. P. Box

The Cynefrin Framework is a decision-making model which describes how systems and scenarios can fit into one of four types: simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic. For the most part, our lives and the interplay of our priorities are not a simple or a complicated system. They are most often complex or even chaotic depending on what’s happening in our lives. And while it’s convenient to have a model that helps us clarify priorities, our lives by no means are as cut and dry as the tree-ring model suggests. There’s constant interplay between priorities and some event might shift dramatically one week or month to another.

It’s for this reason that the goal of this model is not to maintain each priority in its “correct” ring but rather we accept that things will change and that we need the resilience and flexibility to deal with those changes quickly. We need an internal philosophy and approach to life that acts as the roots of the tree to make this model work. Personally, I’m exploring the work of the Stoics which happens to match my mindset in life quite well but yours will likely be different. Whatever it is, spend the time exploring your own vision and mission in your life so you have the foundation underneath your priorities – especially for when times might get rough and unpredictable.

Finally, thinking about my priorities through the lens of this model has been a huge help in knowing where to invest my limited time and resources. For example, when I budget for my monthly expenses, I categorize each budget item under one of the five priorities above. Since Physical Health is my biggest priority, I’m not afraid to fund it with the most amount of dollars. In essence, I’m starting to build awareness on putting my money where my mouth is as far as key priorities go.

So, what now?

I hope the model above provides just a bit of inspiration to create your own tree ring model. I’d imagine your version may have a different order in the rings or perhaps completely different priorities. Whatever you land with, the key here is awareness as that first step to realize what and who you truly value in your life. I also encourage you not to be stuck in your current situation. Imagine ahead at the next year, what would you like your tree ring to look like by then? Priorities don’t have to stay the same and if you want to change them, you have the power to make it happen.

As Jim Rohn once said, “if you don’t like how things are, change it! You’re not a tree.”

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