FIRE and Life Lessons from a Star Wars Jigsaw Puzzle

Ever since having children the idea of completing a puzzle (i.e. a grown up one with more than 50 pieces) has seemed like the ultimate indulgence.  It stems from when we went away on holiday to the West Coast of Scotland when my oldest daughter was still a baby.  I was just starting to get into one of the puzzles at our Air B&B – an intricate Americana style street scene.  I didn’t get very far until our daughter woke up and since then I’ve fantasised about the day when I could sit at a clear table with a glass of wine and slowly make my way through a puzzle.  With COVID and the shutting of charity shops (with their alluring top shelves of 1000 piece jigsaw puzzles), this became even more of an unattainable fantasy.  

So this morning felt like a breakthrough moment as I sat in the living room with my youngest son playing around me and I pieced together the Star Wars puzzle that I had bought from ebay “for my daughter” a few days ago.  It wasn’t quite the scene I had pictured, i.e. there wasn’t any wine and the puzzle only had 150 pieces, but it felt like a parenthood milestone.  

As I worked through the puzzle, I felt there was actually a lot to learn from this process that I could apply to the rest of my life.

To start off, take stock

The first step you take when doing a puzzle is turning around every piece (or, if you bought it secondhand, like I did, you might count every piece!). You can then spot where the corner pieces are, which pieces are easier to place. Like other things in life, if you know what your starting point is you can build on that. With finances, the time spent tracking your spending to understand what areas are going to be easier to tackle pays dividends.

Putting your energy into the easier things first

I realised that there wasn’t much point obsessing over finding individual pieces.  Yes, I could spend ages looking for the piece with the bluey chin and the smudge of light sabre.  Or, I could keep chipping away at the easier bits until there are fewer pieces left and finding Luke’s chin emerges from the shadows.  

It’s a bit like obsessing over one specific goal when putting energy into easier wins in other areas might allow me to make quicker progress and actually make that trickier area easier later on.  In practical terms that may be because I’ve freed up some headspace, have more energy or have saved or generated some money to put into something else.  

Looking at the big picture

I had to remind myself that looking at the finished picture wasn’t cheating.  Sometimes that’s the only way to see how close bits are or what you can do with the pieces you have.  I’m finding it helpful at the moment to think about how I’d like things to be in the future because that’s when I realise that a lot of my “dream life” is made up of elements that are either already in my life or absolutely within my reach.  Like with a puzzle, although you may be working towards a particular arrangement, what you’ll have at the end is essentially no different from what you have, in your hands, right now.  

Enjoying the process

On that note, the joy is in the process, the steady building up, the micro satisfaction with each piece connected.  Sitting on the floor, feeling settled and level headed, then mild excitement rising as the jigsaw gains momentum and clusters form, then join.  It’s slow going at first, and you have to hold on to what you know for sure, what can give you structure, if all you can manage is the corners.  

Expect the pace of progress to change

At the beginning, you can often have a short spurt of good progress as you identify the quick wins. This is the same in finances when you’ve already made the easy changes – cancelling those subscriptions you don’t use, getting a better deal on energy etc. Weight loss can be the same, often the first few pounds drop off when you reduce calories and start exercising more.

Then comes the phase where there aren’t many more “quick wins” to find. The wins are harder won and the novelty may wear off. As the pace of progress changes, you may lose interest when you don’t see as rapid results.

When doing a puzzle, this might be when your interest is more piqued by the audiobook you are listening to, or you get caught up in a conversation. You can either continue to methodologically keep going with the puzzle, accepting that the gaps between finding pieces may take longer, or take a break if you realise you are getting tired. Or, of course, you can pack it all away in the box and not pick it up again.

This reminds me of the stage where you might lose motivation when paying off debt or trying to build up a side hustle. Putting things on autopilot (e.g. setting up regular payments) or just sticking to a minimum regular schedule with a project and accepting that for that time being you may get your motivation and drive from other places can be a good way of sticking with it until you reach the point where your efforts compound, and suddenly you can’t piece the puzzle pieces together quickly enough.

I feel like I’m at that stage with my financial goals – I’ve tackled the easier stuff and I would only be able to keep the same pace of progress if I were to build up reliable additional income streams, but I know this will take a significant investment of time and probably more than I am willing to give up at the moment so I am putting things on autopilot while I focus on spending time with my family.

There’s a lot to be said for silly hobbies

Some people sign up for marathons in challenging times, or learn a new language or start a side hustle.  I get that because I also like to be productive and improve, but there’s also a time and a place for pastimes that don’t take a lot of energy..  It’s tough right now juggling work with childcare and although I was tempted to join the latest fitness challenge at work I’m getting a lot of pleasure from things that don’t require much physical or mental energy like doing this puzzle, or making turban headbands with my daughter.  

Get kids toys secondhand!

And finally on a more mundane note, this experience has reinforced how great it is to get kids toys secondhand.  I got this puzzle from eBay which meant that not only did I have more choice but it was cheaper than it would have been from Amazon and also has a lower carbon impact than a new puzzle.  It arrived in nice packaging and I imagined a mum or dad popping it in the post and being glad to be rid of it.  

I realise it’s a cliche to say that having children lets you be a kid again.  In many ways I’m not going back to things I used to enjoy, but actually doing new things that I missed the first time round.  I hadn’t watched Star Wars until recently and now I am savouring watching all the films on Disney+ with my daughter.  

I would love to hear what types of hobbies are getting people through lockdown or just giving them a few moments of calm and reflection.  

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