I replaced one of the downspouts of my gutter with a rain chain this summer. When a recent rain ran over the copper and brass links, it reminded me of how much rain chains are like retirement investing.

The zen of investing
Rain chains have a long history in Japanese architecture. They were used to channel rainfall into collection barrels to be saved for later use. My lotus flower rain chain allows the water to spill through the gutter, filling up a copper lotus flower cup before running down two brass chain links. It then fills up the next lotus flower, starting the process all over again until it finally reaches the ground. At the bottom is a hammered copper collection bowl filled with river stone that gently disperses the water into the grass and garden.

The harmony created by the rain chain -- not to mention the pleasing gurgling sounds -- is very much like a retirement plan that has been carefully crafted to provide for your needs.

Historically, stocks have been the way to go to help finance our retirements. The chart of the Dow Jones Industrial Average for the past 80 years helps explain why stock investing is such a critical component. No other investment can match those kinds of returns. Not bonds, not gold, and not housing.

Even over shorter time frames, investing in securities has been the way to achieve wealth. You're probably familiar with the incredible growth stories that turned into Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), but equally impressive has been the best stocks of the past decade -- lesser-known companies like Daktronics (NASDAQ:DAKT), which returned more than 7,300%, or Frontier Oil (NYSE:FTO), which brightened up investors' portfolios with better than 3,600% returns.

Financial feng shui
Yet stocks are not the be-all and end-all of retirement planning. For every Wal-Mart that can bring you stellar returns, there's a Pets.com or a Krispy Kreme (NYSE:KKD) that can wreak havoc on your plans. So invest, and do so regularly, but don't let that be the end of your efforts.

Choosing good stocks is an essential step in a successful retirement plan. But there's a lot more than just choosing good stocks. Our Motley Fool Rule Your Retirement planning service came up with an eight-step checklist to follow, one of a number of exercises subscribers use to gain control of their financial futures. Like the lotus flowers and links on my rain chain, each of the steps flows through to the next, carrying information from above, and gently spilling out into a worry-free plan of action.

Yet it's funny -- no matter how many times we've heard the admonition, "If you've failed to plan, then you're planning to fail," many of us never take the time to do it. Then we wonder why things get hectic and out of sorts. The Japanese used rain chains to help create harmony in their surroundings. Learning how to appropriately plan and assess our situation creates harmony in our plans for retirement. 

To learn more about the eight steps on the checklist, and get access to all of the calculators, tools, and features of the Rule Your Retirement service, a risk-free, 30-day trial is available.

Fool contributor Rich Duprey owns shares of Wal-Mart but does not have a financial position in any other stock mentioned in this article. You can see his holdings here. Wal-Mart and Microsoft are Inside Value recommendations. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.