Matters Column

Lifetime time management: thoughts after 70

October 4, 2013
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I was picking blackberries for my breakfast and thinking about how fortunate I am to be able to spend time in such an idyllic environment. Then I was thinking about lifetime time management.

Along with my oatmeal and blackberries, I will consume nine prescription medications. I retired two years ago at almost 70, so my time in retirement will be limited.

Time management when you’re working is one thing. When you reach your 70s, it is another.

Whatever age you are, if you’re healthy you assume tomorrow will be another day of routine activities. I am a little more aware of the fragility of that assumption due to the health history of my siblings. My bother Dave died at age 24 of cancer. My brothers Charlie and Jim suffered the same fate at age 40 and 60. My brother Dick died at 52 of heart failure but suffered from muscular dystrophy from birth.

My point is: Whatever time management you planned for your life may not play out.

I asked my cardiologist how I could have cardiovascular disease because I had stayed fit and eaten healthy. He said due to my genetics, had I not done those things, I would have died 10 years ago. You can change your diet but you can't change your ancestors.

Do you have a long-term plan that covers years, not hours? You need to do that. Just like your day rarely pans out as you planned it, the same can be said of life. If you don't have an idea of where you are going and how you are going to get there, you probably never will get to where you want to be. The plan will have to be updated regularly due to circumstances you can't control. The adjusting of the plan makes you aware of what needs to be done.

Retirement is an interesting goal. Had I stayed with my first employer, General Motors, for 30 years, I would have retired at 53 instead of 70. But for me, 30 years at GM would have been like a prison sentence. I spent 40 years running my own business and had a fulfilling career. I met a lot of interesting and intriguing people. What would I have learned if I’d stayed at GM? How to turn the world’s largest manufacturing business into a ward of the federal government.

It seems that when you look at high-security, heavy-benefit jobs, they often come with a brutal price. In exchange for security, you relinquish your concept of self. Some Americans believe that having the freedom to pursue your own dreams is critical to a good life.

People think of financial planning as a one-dimensional focus on investments. But what constitutes an investment? One of my purchases before I retired was a Boston Whaler fishing boat. I love to fish and our retirement home is on a river with access to the Straits of Mackinaw. A financial planner would not consider that an investment.

Here's the question. Do you save money for the sake of having money? No. You save to be able to afford the things you need to enjoy life. As my brother-in-law, Doug, pointed out to me, if you love to fish and you don't have a dependable boat, what good does a house on the river do you?

Remember: To a guy with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a financial planner, every solution to a problem entails buying more of their product.

Included in the time management of your years, there is one really hard problem. How do you manage the balance between ambition and family life?

If you are one of those people who can accept a secure job with great benefits but virtually no opportunity for personal growth, this is not a problem. As a small business consultant, I did not meet many of those people. For the people I dealt with, the conflict between business demands and personal obligations was the Gordian knot.

In a book about Ernest Shackleton, the great Antarctic explorer, he apologized to his wife for being absent from his family for years at a time. Supposedly, her answer was that she knew when they married who he was and what that meant. It takes a great deal of thought and planning to have it all — if that is even possible. If you asked a child which they would prefer, having you home at 5:30 every night or a debt-free college graduation, they would have no idea what you were talking about. Ask them when they’re 40, and they will recognize the sacrifice on your part.

In our run through life, none of us has any idea how long we will be here. If you plan to be enjoying life 30 years from now, go for it, but that is a huge gamble. Building and running a business is daunting but satisfying in the here and now. It takes time away from family but, for the people who lose your companionship, there can be great rewards. Good family communication helps.

I recently saw a quote I will try to repeat: Entrepreneurship is living a few years of your life like most people won’t in order to live the rest of your life like other people can't. If you can put out the effort to become independent, you can reward yourself with an early retirement, or if you love what you do, work as long as you want.

You cannot know how long your life will last; if you lose your life during your early years, that can't be planned for. Life insurance agents have an answer for that eventuality but that is not the problem I am referring to. Live life now, enjoying it as much as possible. If you are short-changed, that is a tragedy, but you can't use that possibility to justify low expectations.

Paul Hense is the retired president of local accounting firm Hense & Associates and a past chairman of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

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