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The #1 Thing You Need to Be Successful in Life (That Nobody Talks About)

by Darwin on November 11, 2012

The world abounds with experts purporting to hold the “secret” to success (yes, pun intended for that horrible video The Secret). The thing is, it’s often tied to a gimmick or some program they want you to buy. The reality is that there is one single behavior that I’ve found is instrumental in EVERY aspect of my life – from career success to my health to my relationships to my finances. It impacts EVERYTHING and it is relatively easy to do, yet so few of us exercise the discipline to do so.

Want to know what it is?

 

Deferral Of Instant Gratification

 

OK, that might sound lame and boring. But it isn’t. The implications are profound. Don’t believe me that this is the key to all success in life? Here are a few key categories that matter in people’s lives and where deferral of instant gratification yields innumerable benefits:

  • Financial Success – From the time our kids were about 4 and started to really understand money, saving vs. spending and have been bombarded with all the materialism the world has to offer, I’ve been trying to teach them how deferral of instant gratification is a virtue. With no coaching whatsoever, a typical kid would gladly take the $10 in their piggybank and blow it immediately on whatever they first came across. I’ve taught my kids about bank accounts, earning interest (even though rates stink right now) and I’m currently using some future Disney trip (not date in mind, but certainly not next year) as a savings goal for their piggybanks. They’re reacting beautifully. When my wife’s out shopping with them, they could, if they really wanted, blow some of their money on gumballs or a Wii game. But they’re not. They’re being patient. They know that if they’re good, maybe they’ll get it for Christmas or a birthday and that they are really saving for a cool Lego from the Lego store near Disney. They are deferring instant gratification in buying something they’ll later regret, for a future goal (which they’ll probably regret a little too, but perhaps not as much since it will have been planned and built up for a while).
  • Retirement/Legacy – There’s a real retirement crisis brewing in this country. People went for years tapping their home equity like a MAC machine and pissed away every extra dollar they made in income through each and every year. Sure, the “forced” savings into 401(k) funds helped prevent some people from blowing through that, but the typical 401(k) balance at retirement is nowhere near what is needed to sustain someone in retirement. It seems tough when you see what everyone else around you is doing, but you really need to defer that gratification for decades – decades! … and sock away money in our 401(k), outside your 401(k) and save until it hurts – if you want to live the life you expect to down the road. Most of our friends aren’t putting away a dime for their kids’ college funds but they sure have nice cars and large homes. What are they going to tell their kids when they can’t afford to send them to college? I realize not everyone even has excess funds to save, but do something! Even if it’s a $25 check once a month. At least you can say you tried and not live in regret. Having pissed away a few homes’ worth or a few degrees’ worth of money over a lifetime is sure to result in some regret when looking back.
  • College Degree – Basically, the harder the major and the more schooling you undertake, the more you’ll make during your peak earning years.  There’s plenty of dialogue right now about whether everyone should really go to college (probably 50% or more of Americans would be better off not and instead focusing on skills/jobs that are more suited to them…and save a bundle while they’re at it. For instance, my electrician makes more than a doctor).  If you want to go off and pick an easy major and live it up for 4 years, chances are (of course, there are exceptions), you won’t make a lot of money or even end up in the type of job you imagined.  Conversely, get into a good school, plow through an advanced degree (Law, Medical School, etc.) and you’ll end up at the other end of the spectrum.  Deferring both earning an income and also sacrificing the “easy” gig at college will pay off with millions of dollars more earned during a lifetime.
  • Cars – Is 22 just out of college with $50K in student debt a good time to buy a new car? An expensive new car? At first glance, this seems like an obvious answer, but how many young people do you know have done exactly that? It blows my mind how someone with that hanging over their head can add debt on top of debt for a simple vehicle when the world is full of perfectly practical used cars. This is a problem of instant gratification! The young professional thinks they “deserve” the new car, they’ll earn their way into it, it’s something they’d have later in their lifetime anyway, so why wait?!
  • Homes – We could live in a much larger home. If I recall, I think we were approved to borrow something like $700K+ and then I could have even tapped investments and 401(k) funds if I were really crazy to buy something approaching a million dollar home. Some of our friends have them. And most of our friends have houses bigger than ours. But we opted for something more practical. We have a typical 15 year old 4 bedroom home that works for us and rental property instead. This deferral of gratification will save us hundreds of thousands of dollars over a lifetime (and I’m still waiting on that rental property income LOL [backstory here]). Would we enjoy better “status” with a larger home? Would I have liked a bigger yard? Sure, but there’s more to life – and we have a long life ahead of us.
  • Retirement Plans – Living off 10-15% less than your paycheck each month sounds daunting. How nice would it be to have that kind of extra money to spend each month? But by auto-enrolling in retirement plans, it’s income you never even saw to begin with from day 1 of employment. This is the quintessential deferral of instant gratification. So many people make the crucial mistake of failing to put money aside each and every year, presumably assuming they’ll make more money in the future and invest it then. Well, aside from the fact that they probably won’t change their behavior much, they’re also missing out on the power of compound growth. And people that don’t even invest up to a company match if offered? That just boggles my mind. That’s passing up a guaranteed return of 50%-100% depending on the company.  Many should, and do, go above and beyond the basic 401(k) contributions and also set aside money each month for a Roth IRA (see the benefits of a self-direct Roth IRA) or kids’ college saves, etc.
  • Career – Just like corporate executives are accused of short-term thinking in how them manage quarterly earnings announcements, the typical entry level and mid-level employee is often a short-term thinker as well. If you invest in your career and sacrifice early on, it will yield a lifetime of dividends. Many young people today want to maintain the vibrant social life they had in college and many 20-30-40-somethings want to have that great work-life balance which is a wee-bit too far on the life side. It’s great spending a lot of time outside of work pursuing your other passions, spending time with friends and family, and having a relaxing lifestyle, but that’s easy. What’s hard is taking on challenges at work that your peers don’t want (which often entails more hours at the office). Getting more certifications or an MBA/MS or a masters in organizational leadership while working in the challenge. Taking a job that requires some travel or even a move every few years. Those things are hard. But they all yield substantial dividends both with your current employer or with future employers during the interview process (see how to cut through the red tape and get access to only 6-Figure Jobs for free). You’re only as good as your past performance and if your past performance looks like a cakewalk, not only are you leaving future promotions and job offers on the table, but you might be viewed as dead weight when the next headcount reduction initiative is brewing.
  • Your Health – There are profound implications here for so many facets of your health. Let’s start with diet. I’m not one who has “struggled with my weight” all my life, but I will say that I’d reached a point where I wasn’t satisfied with my weight and the implications down the road for my overall health related to development of chronic diseases and a shortened lifespan. Just adding a pound a year post-college is, well, about 15 pounds above my old “great shape” weight. So, with losing weight and maintaining a suitable balance in mind, simple deferral of instant gratification is key. What is eating all about? It’s VERY RARELY because we are truly hungry, but rather, out of habit or to appease chemical signals in the brain that that make us feel good when we eat, especially fatty and sugary foods. By simply deferring some of the intake I used to partake in (i.e. doing a 2 week low-carb diet South Beach (great recipes and ideas to make it easy) to get into a great zone, etc., skipping the ice cream altogether, pushing off that dessert urge until the weekend, etc.), I saw the pounds melting right off. Each day on the scale was crazy, like 1 pound, then 2 pounds, then 1.5 pounds, where after the first week alone, I’d lost 8 pounds! I’m just moving into week 2 and I don’t even craze sweets anymore – at all! (btw, this was with NO exercise because I was pretty sick – actually a decent time to start a change since I never have much of an appetite when I’m sick anyway). This isn’t a diet post, but I’m just highlighting that by pushing off or deferring some of the gratification I was deriving from food, the benefits were tremendous. Sure, someday down the road, I will have ice cream again, and come Thanksgiving, you can bet I’ll eat some pumpkin cheesecake. But do I need that cookie in the cafeteria each day with lunch? No!
  • Delving further into this theme is muscular and cardiovascular health. What’s the first thing many of us want to do after work? Go home, perhaps eat (common theme), and then relax. That might entail surfing the web/social networking or watching TV. Well, how about deferring those activities until later that night by working out in between. I usually have a night or two a week where I try to end work a little early and get to the gym so we can still eat a late family dinner all together. I also hit it once on a weekend at least. So, I’m no fanatic and family comes first, but I find a schedule that works for me, that allows me to have some combination of gym and running about 3-4 total slots per week. Sure, the gym does sit between me and what I might want to do that night (including sleep), but by deferring those activities and sacrificing a bit, I feel much better physically, feel better about how I’m perceived (I think people treat you different depending on your build, many studies show this), and I’m hopefully extending my lifespan a bit as well.
  • Relationships – Forging good relationships takes effort. This goes for everyone – friends, significant others, and especially children. What are some examples? Sometimes a friend is dealing with a particular issue. It might be easy to ignore them give them some lame advice. What takes effort is to listen and try to help them. With kids, it’s much easier to sit on the couch watching football all day Saturday and Sunday if that’s what you’re into, but how about getting up and throwing the football with them instead? Or whatever THEY want to do. By pushing off what you want and spending time doing what they like you’ll forge a much better relationship which has numerous benefits down the road from happiness to financial implications (really bad kids or freeloaders can become very expensive vs. ambitions, good kids).  When you’re having a conversation with someone and want to express your point or score a “gotcha” during a debate, just blurting out what’s on your mind might be your instinct.  But just sitting there to listen goes a long way.  Deferral of instant gratification at work.
  • Sex – Yes, even sex! Can you believe it? But if you think of it, without getting into the nitty gritty details, aren’t both (or more) parties more satisfied when it’s not a 1 minute sprint? Sure, there’s the urge for gratification early on, but that’s no fun! I don’t normally cover that topic here, but I want to reiterate that this concept is REALLY applicable to virtually all facets of life, and for many, this is a very important one, often ranked in the top 2 or 3 key facets of someone’s life.

The list goes on. I can’t really think of any topics where this doesn’t apply. Can you?

So, the premise here is that for virtually every one of the thousands of decisions you make in a day, if you allow your brain to just question, “Am I deferring instant gratification?”, you’ll probably get your answer. It’s either a good decision or bad decision. That’s not to say it’s not OK to make some “bad” decisions now and then. But you can’t make it a habit and you can’t make the big ones. If you don’t feel right about missing out on certain gratifying objects, experiences or behaviors, at least DEFER them. You’ll be a much happier, healthier and wealthier person for it.

 

What Are Your Thoughts on Deferral of Instant Gratification?

 

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

krantcents November 12, 2012 at 8:48 pm

Being a planner, I very rarely do anything on the spur of the moment. I almost always defer gratification.

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Darwin November 12, 2012 at 10:35 pm

The impulse act is a killer – from a purchase to punching someone in the face the moment they open their mouth in a dispute. Waiting it out is always the right course.

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ron November 13, 2012 at 9:18 am

The article seemed to be about money.No mention of God.
Funny how many wealthy people who would fit the ideals of this piece,are miserable.
Its a problem with society when everyone measures theyre success on schools attended and stuff they have.
I find i always seemed to be living for something in the future when thinking about money.Right now,has its good side to. God has done so many things for me,now.My children and time spent with my family mean much more than working 100 hours a week and saying yes ill spend time with my family someday.
I see this all over the net.Money is most peoples God.And the root of the countrys problems.Greed.
Sorry i got off track a bit.

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Darwin November 13, 2012 at 7:24 pm

Tell me Ron, what has God done for you actually? I’m curious. And especially curious how you attribute it to God and not to free will and the random chaotic nature of the universe?

Given that this is a personal finance site, it should come as no surprise that there are financial ties to the article (and I thought actually, several non-financial bullets would get me in trouble with my regular readers for being off-point). But that aside, what troubles me is when people attribute positive or negative things that occur to God.

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Rick November 14, 2012 at 3:23 pm

Tell me, Darwin, did your parents make sure your spiritual side was developed, or just teach you to defer gratification? Mine, like Ron’s obviously, took me to church, and I developed lifetime values which money can never replace. America’s problem is greed alright, and that stems from the prevalence of secular humanism over spiritual values. You must have a friend or two who attends some church or other. Ask them if you can accompany them sometime. By the way, the church also teaches deferred gratification, in addition to love of one’s neighbor.

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Petra November 13, 2012 at 10:32 am

dieting for a week – being ill – losing weight.

I have no idea which of these is the cause of which other. Hopefully next week you won’t be ill, so that you will be able to see what part of the weight loss is from being ill and what part from dieting. Also, if you continue feeling not well, perhaps the diet is MAKING you ill…

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Darwin November 13, 2012 at 7:26 pm

I was actually sick the two weeks prior – routine headcold that just wouldn’t go away. Come the third week, I said screw it, tried out South Beach and I’m down quite a bit, quite quickly. I would say though, I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t lose a couple pounds of muscle along the way due to not lifting during this period (but to be fair, my weight was steady the first 2 weeks I was sick).

Anyway, my wife lost 20 pounds over about 2 months after our third kid and she’s just about back to her old college days physique and looks great. It definitely works; but I do question how long I can/want to maintain a strict low-carb diet.

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JT November 13, 2012 at 11:32 am

It’s such a simple concept, but yet it’s undoubtedly the most important.

The career note is especially interesting to me. It seems like quite a few people get a job and then stop growing, learning, investigating, whatever. I refuse to believe that any career/job is inherently dead ended. More likely, the choices you make outside of work to stay informed, gain credentials, etc., define how “dead-ended” any particular career path really is. I can’t help but to think probably half of all office workers could probably get a raise or promotion just by learning how to use all the ins and outs of Microsoft Excel, for example. This is just my own observation – it might be right or wrong, but it’s definitely something I’ve noticed.

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Darwin November 13, 2012 at 7:28 pm

I think a lot of small-company careers and/or blue collar/trade jobs could be dead-end just due to the lack of upward mobility opportunities, but in larger companies, there’s often a ton of opportunity, especially if they promote moving around. Family owned businesses are often tough to excel in as well, due to nepotism.

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Desertrat November 13, 2012 at 12:13 pm

Deferral is pretty much the way I’ve lived my life–but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have bunches of good times along the way. Now I’m 78 and I don’t really care how much gasoline or food costs. I can afford to be comfortable.

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Darwin November 13, 2012 at 7:29 pm

Awesome; that’s where I hope to be! I kinda care now (can’t say I don’t notice the higher bills), but in a few decades, would love to just not give a crap at all.

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Todd Tresidder November 13, 2012 at 1:23 pm

So true. Nobody promotes this truth because our instant gratification, sound-bite culture doesn’t want to hear it. There is no profit to be made from it because there is nothing to sell; yet, it just plain works. It is at the root of every success I’ve had in my life.

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Darwin November 13, 2012 at 7:29 pm

That’s a great point; thanks for bringing it up! Yes, there’s no profit to be made in deferral of sales!

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Acorn November 13, 2012 at 1:27 pm

It all comes down to the Marshmallow Test doesn’t it?

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Darwin November 13, 2012 at 7:30 pm

Now that I think of it, there have been many a time where I could not and did not decline a S’more around the campfire!

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Brick By Brick Investing | Marvin November 13, 2012 at 2:02 pm

As a former athlete and soldier I use to have a board over my bedroom door that read “The momentary relief of quitting is soon followed by the stain of regret.” While that quote was placed there to discourage any thoughts of quitting during physical pain and strife. It was easy to transfer it to financial planning and success. The instant gratification of purchasing something you don’t need is almost always followed by years of regret as you continue to pay off the loans you incurred. Great post!

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Darwin November 13, 2012 at 7:30 pm

That’s a great line, like it!

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Jim November 13, 2012 at 2:33 pm

I can’t wait!

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Darwin November 13, 2012 at 7:35 pm

That one made me laugh; thanks!

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Larry November 13, 2012 at 4:22 pm

Darwin,
Your deferred gratification thoughts are cognet and farsighted, but certainly not well addressed by the general populace. As a personal example I started out buying $500 cars and spending a little to fix them up. (That’s more like $3000 today.) Over the years my transportation budget has been minimal plus people felt sorry for me and started giving me their cars. So, you are planning carefully for this life, but we are all going to die. Do you have a plan for life after death? There is a wonderfulf plan laid out in the New Testament. Take some time to look it over. You will never regret it.

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Darwin November 13, 2012 at 7:35 pm

I hate to disappoint, but as a trained scientist, I am a very analytical, fact-driven person and despite my Catholic upbringing, I’ve read too much on evolutionary biology, astrophysics, Gould, Dawkins, you name it, to believe in what I was indoctrinated into as a child. That’s a whole different post for another blog, but the “Darwin” is in there for a reason!

One of the key reasons people cling to and are comforted by religion is the topic you raise – when we die, what happens? Just because it is comforting to believe that we all have souls that go somewhere, that does not make it true. We are simply creatures like every other living thing on the planet that happened to have evolved to the point where we can consider such things. Man has always had Gods to explain what he hasn’t understood (well before Christ and across thousands of religions), and now we have science.

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Rick November 14, 2012 at 3:30 pm

The fool says in his heart that there is no God. Source: the New Testament. My last time on your site.

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Darwin November 14, 2012 at 3:42 pm

The Fool blindly believes in a book that calls others a fool for not believing in stories written hundreds of years after alleged events and translated across multiple languages. Please refine your critical thinking skills before coming back.

Btw, you really believe woman came from a rib bone? Really? This is stuff of fiction. Modern day science provides me with many more answers than religion.

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Try self discipline, self-mastery, self-control instead November 13, 2012 at 11:10 pm

Brian Tracy says successful men and women get themselves to do what they have to do when they have to do it whether they feel like it or not. All I can say is here’s what I’ve done that’s worked in my life:

1) In my late 20′s studied bodybuilders and their diets. Now 57 and have been eating “healthy” decades before it was in vogue. I’ve been eating fruits and vegetables, fish, and lean turkey, legumes for over 30 years, do not eat meat, eat almost no processed foods. Consequently, I have the body of a 35 year old bodybuilder and have the energy I had at 20, perhaps even younger. I have an amazing sex life, even much better than I had years ago. Further, I have been and remain in exceptional health, with doctors telling me they wish they had my blood results. What it took to get here was disciplining and conditioning myself away from the modern, poisonous diet and sedentary lifestyle and toward one where I view food as fuel and exercise and weightlifting as an ongoing mental and physical practice.

2) I’ve been saving 50-80% of my gross income for the past 15 years and have now accumulated all of my retirement savings. It wasn’t really hard as I do not find validation or self-esteem in material things. This has afforded me so much freedom that I can actually now turn down at work a promotion into a director level position with a 30% increase in salary. I now have the freedom to say “no” as I intend to transition out of my field into something different that I find more meaningful to me at this time in my life (working with homeless youth).

3) Over the past 15 years, I worked exceptionally hard studying success, achievement, failure, and many, many other things. I study business, politics, the economy, technology, society 7 days a week, spending about 2 hours a day. What this helped me do was to go back to graduate school, work hard and attain leadership positions, rapidly increase my salary, and save all the increases. I also spent less time making mistakes as my studying helped me to see things holistically, strategically, and methodically. While doing these things I studied continually, telling others that it seemed like I worked all the time, even in my sleep. The result is I have now reached a point where I can retire early and move on to the next stage in my life.

I tell you these things not to boast, but to show that delayed gratification, hard work, and focus pay off. Pay attention to your physicality. Change your orientation to food. Invest in you mind and never stop. Drop out of retail therapy and equating spending with feeling good. It’s an empty, fleeting feeling. Stay away from mainstream media in all its forms. Read thought leader blogs instead. Get and stay out of debt. If you can’t pay cash, you can’t afford it. Something that’s always helped me is to continually look backward and ahead 10 years, seeing where I’ve come from and thinking about what the “me” in 10 years would want me to be working towards now. I can tell you that the quality of my life now is a direct consequence of the decisions and sacrifices I made 10 and 15 years ago.

Brian Tracy says that any great achievement is the accumulation of many many small efforts and sacrifices that nobody else either sees or appreciates. He also says that hard work equates to luck, that the harder you work the luckier you will get. I personally don’t know how not to say “no” to myself and delay gratification. What I say to myself when I force myself to do something that I don’t want to do and that I know is good for me is “you’ll thank me for this.” I have never been wrong.

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Try self discipline, self-mastery, self-control instead November 13, 2012 at 11:13 pm

One more thing: delayed gratification ultimately buys freedom, and freedom is priceless.

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Doug November 13, 2012 at 11:59 pm

Try reading the book More than a Carpenter by josh and sean Mcdowell. Don’t use science as an excuse not to believe. There is too much at stake.

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Darwin November 14, 2012 at 11:31 pm

What is at stake? There are a thousand religions. What makes you think yours is the truth? (or any)? Don’t use the indoctrination since childhood as an excuse not to question what you’ve been told.

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christine November 14, 2012 at 12:45 am

I have been very successful in my life by deferring gratification–it has worked for me very well in multiple areas–but the positive reinforcement of those results led me to apply it to one area where it doesn’t work. Deferring gratification in a bad relationship–hoping it will get better, waiting for him to get his act together, overlooking his demeaning comments to try to ‘love him into being a better person’–only defers the inevitable with no gratification in the end. People generally don’t change much so cut your losses early and go while you still have a soul.

On another note, here is something I heard as a young person that shaped my financial decision-making my whole life: Poor people plan for the current month (or day), middle class people plan for their lifetimes, wealthy people plan for future generations. And I think you can make a case for the reverse (people who plan for the current month end up poor, etc.)

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Darwin November 14, 2012 at 11:33 pm

Yes, the poor get caught in a vicious cycle in that they don’t really have the funds to buy in bulk, use cash to work for them (many aren’t even banked), and end up never getting out of the day to day cycle of hand-to-mouth living. As you move further up in the wealth scale, you put money to work for you, leverage, etc. until it’s more of just a contest and not even something you actually need to subsist on.

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Kevin@Invest It Wisely November 14, 2012 at 9:25 am

Interesting post, and I wholeheartedly agree. Do you think some of the measures put in place by governments tend to encourage short time preferences at the expense of longer ones? After all, why delay gratification if you don’t have to? ;)

I need to ramp up some more on exercise, myself, since I took my leap I have been becoming far too sedentary.

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Darwin November 14, 2012 at 11:35 pm

The government puts in place whatever measures are more likely to curry favor with voters to buy the next election. Dems and Republicans each pander to their respective constituencies with short-term benefits to each.

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