Twelve Invaluable Life and Money Hacks: Little Daily Steps for Finding the Money and Time to Get Things Done

davidSince starting The Simple Dollar (and discovering, when it became successful, that it required constant attention) and having two children, I’ve found that getting financially ahead and finding the time to get everything done both became significantly more challenging than before. While the big things really help, it’s the little things – repeated often – that add up to a whole lot.

That being said, here are the twelve little things I do almost every day that make it possible for me to stay in great financial shape, manage The Simple Dollar, spend time with my kids, have some time for personal growth and recreation, work at my regular job, and still maintain my sanity. Each one is coupled with a “take home” that you can try to see if it works for you.

1. I set aside a block of time at the start of the day exclusively to work on The Simple Dollar and related projects.
I look at The Simple Dollar as a side business that requires a significant amount of attention on a daily basis to thrive. Spreading it out into little bits throughout the day didn’t really work – I found that spreading the three hours or so I devote to the site out across the day resulted in much less than three hours of productivity. Thus, I took a block of time to devote to my side projects, the chief of which is The Simple Dollar. This block is about two hours long, stretching from 4:30 AM to 6:30 AM (on average). Most of the intense parts of my projects are handled then – the brainstorming, the writing, and so on. I will often do small tasks in pieces later on, like answering emails, but by setting aside time to get most of the work done in one chunk, I free up the rest of the day to devote to things that are really important.

The take home: Try finding a block of time in your day to devote to a specific project. One common place to find the time is by replacing evening television viewing. Another one – the route I take – is to wake up earlier and do things in the early morning.

2. I do three things before anything else in the morning.
The first thing is take a shower. Immediately upon waking, I find that a shower wakes me up and makes me feel invigorated. I follow that with something healthy for breakfast, be it yogurt or a piece of fruit or some toast. Then, I solve some puzzles to get my brain into gear – I like doing Sudoku or other puzzles on my DS. This, in all, takes about thirty minutes, but when I’m done, I’m in high gear for the day – I can dive right into my block of time for side projects.

The take home: As soon as you wake up in the morning, take a shower and follow it with a bite to eat of something healthy with natural sugars in it, then follow it with something that tickles your brain. A routine to energize you in multiple ways makes all the difference.

3. I pay all bills online via online bill pay at my bank.
As many of you know, I use ING Direct as my primary checking and savings bank. They offer an incredibly nice online banking system that basically allows you to cut a check to anyone you wish just by filling in a simple form. Better yet, they save the address information so you can do it time and time again – you only have to fill in the info on your cell phone bill once, for example, and then next time you just enter the dollar amount and hit submit. Even better, if the amount stays the same every month (like a car or mortgage payment), you only have to fill out that information one time, tell it to pay it automatically every month, and never worry about it again. Seriously, I have not touched my paper checkbook in four months, haven’t used a stamp to send in a bill in even longer, and it takes almost no time at all to do the bills.

The take home: Sign up for a bank account with good online banking and bill pay (here’s a guide for finding a new bank and also a guide for switching your accounts to that bank – I personally recommend ING Direct), then go through and set up all of your bills in the service. Once that’s done, the time to pay bills almost completely vanishes, forever.

4. I automate all of my savings and investments.
Along with that online bill pay, I also automate every bit of my savings and investments. Having an automatic savings plan for large purchases, like a house down payment or a car, is kind of like making early payments on it, except the interest works in your favor (building up in your bank account) instead of against you (interest payments on a loan). Even better, automatic investing is effectively the same as a great investment strategy on its own – dollar cost averaging. I just set up an automatic investment – a certain dollar amount every week or every month – and then I don’t even look at the investment except once in a great while when I make sure my portfolio is how I want it to be. My money builds with no effort.

The take home: Don’t make it a “goal” to save, just make it happen automatically. That way, you’re doing the financially prudent thing and you don’t even have to think about it. For starters, use your online banking service and have it set up to deposit a certain amount each week into a savings account – even if it’s a small amount – and forget about it for a while. When you look, you’ll be pleasantly surprised – it just works like magic.

5. I have only two email sessions a day, and I empty my email inbox at the end of every email session.
I used to keep hundreds of emails in my inbox, but I found that this lack of organization was often distracting and kept me from keeping on the tasks that I needed to get done – plus, it was psychologically overwhelming to see all of those messages all the time. Even worse – I kept my email program open all the time and I’d be interrupted from my current task by the latest messages. No more. I now check my email in two batches – once early in the morning, first thing, and once later in the day. At the end of each session, I make sure my inbox is empty and that I’ve got copies of any emails related to tasks I need to work on – and I close the program. No more interruptions. No more despair at the mountains of email. No more lost tasks – I file the messages appropriately and use a “TO DO” folder.

The take home: Go through your entire inbox and file away everything that isn’t pressing. Everything that is pressing should become a to-do list in a separate place. Close your email program when you’re not answering email, and only deal with it once or twice a day. Anything more than that is just distraction from real work.

6. Whenever I have an idea of any sort, I write it down.
This has saved me more times than I can count. I simply keep a notebook (or voice recorder) open (or available) wherever I’m at. Then, when I have an idea of any kind – from something to get at the grocery store or a reminder to pack a new blanket in my daughter’s daycare bag to a post idea for The Simple Dollar or a innovative idea for the workplace or a topic I want to learn more about – I jot it down immediately. I don’t hesitate – if I do, there’s a decent chance that core idea will float right out of my head. I try to jot down as much detail as I can quickly so I’m not distracted from whatever task is at hand, and then I forget about the idea until later, confidently knowing that I have it recorded. Later in the day, I go through these jotted-down ideas, designating some of them for action, discarding a few, doing research on a few others.

The take home: Leave an open notebook and a pen on your desk, and just write down anything that seems remotely important that drifts into your head. At the end of the day, deal with that list of stuff you jotted down.

7. I spread out my eating, particularly to enjoy an energy-rich snack in the early afternoon.
This seems crazy, but it really works. I used to run into the problem of the “afternoon doldrums” – an energy valley around two in the afternoon. Since a nap didn’t really fit, I tried various tactics until I hit upon one that worked. Instead of eating three meals a day, I often eat only one “large” meal in a day – dinner with my wife and children. The rest of the day consists of four small meals – one in the early morning, one in the late morning, one in the early afternoon, and one mid-to-late afternoon. The key ones seem to be the early morning one (mentioned earlier) and the early afternoon one – both of these are great times to eat an energy-rich snack or small meal. I usually eat yogurt or a piece of fresh fruit. The late morning one is usually a small sampling of leftovers from supper the last few nights, and the later afternoon one is usually something small right when I arrive home. This keeps my energy level pretty constant throughout the day.

The take home: Eat a smaller lunch, then eat an energy-rich snack a bit later, like a piece of fresh fruit. This will help keep away the afternoon doldrums.

8. I utilize my lunch break for other tasks.
Since I can easily eat the small “snacks” at my desk, I don’t have to use my lunch break for actual lunch. Instead, I use that time to run errands or complete other tasks that need done. Without the obstacle of lunch, that hour (I have an hour-long mandatory lunch break, though my exact time for taking it can vary) is a great time to go shop for staples at the grocery store, ship a package, or just do something uplifting like writing a long, handwritten letter to an old friend. That hour during the day to take care of “stuff” is invaluable.

The take home: Don’t always look at the lunch break as being “the time when you eat lunch.” Instead, look at your day with a bit more creativity.

9. I drive a slightly longer route to and from work in order to avoid temptation.
The most direct route from my home to my workplace and back takes me past several tempting places to stop. On the way in, there are three coffee shops and a bagel shop. On the way out, there are two bookstores, a used video game shop, and at least two electronics stores. It used to be very easy for me to slip into one of those places, burn some time, and even worse, burn some money I didn’t really need to spend. When I realized how quickly cash was slipping away from me, I studied my route and found a slightly longer route to work – I just took the next exit and backtracked for about five blocks through some parks and a light residential area. What happened? On average, I started getting home about twenty minutes earlier each night and spending about $40 less a week – and I didn’t really miss it at all.

The take home: If there’s a place you consistently stop on your normal commute that wastes time and/or money, look for an alternate route to take that avoids these distractions, even if that alternate route is slightly longer.

10. I meditate once a day, to clear the “work” cruft from my mind and prepare for a family evening.
When I first arrive home from work, I go into the guest bedroom, do a few stretches, then meditate. I just try to clear out all of the things that were on my mind and stressing me from my work day and replace them with… well, nothing at all. That way, I’m relaxed and ready to spend time with my family when they arrive home. What exactly do I do? I do a few basic stress relieving yoga stretches, then I do some basic meditation. In all, I spend about twenty minutes doing this and I suddenly feel like a new person.

The take home: When you first get home from work, don’t vegetate in front of the television or dive straight into household tasks. Instead, take just a few minutes in a quiet place to completely and totally unwind. I recommend closing your eyes, then specifically relaxing each part of your body. It reinvigorates you and cleans out much of the stress of the day.

11. I don’t allow anything to interrupt my “core” evening.
From the time my children get home to the time my son finally falls asleep, nothing interrupts my family time. That is the most valuable time in my day, the time where I get to fully enjoy the people I’m with. I work hard so that I can provide a good home and a good life for my family – to not spend valuable, uninterrupted time with them each day basically undermines why I do these things. It keeps me emotionally and spiritually centered, and I honestly believe I learn as much from my children as they learn from me. In other words, I work to live, not live to work.

The take home: Figure out what’s most important in your life. Maybe it’s your children or your spouse. Maybe it’s mastering an artistic medium. Maybe it’s volunteer work. When you have it figured out, set aside a block of time for that each day. Realize that you work to live, not live to work, and life will seem substantially better.

12. I save small, menial tasks for the hour before bed.
That final hour before bed, when I’m getting sleepy, is the best time for me to get menial tasks done, ones that don’t require a lot of mental concentration. I save things like cleaning up supper dishes, taking out the trash, answering simple emails, and so on for that last hour. This serves two purposes. First, my more “alert” time earlier in the day is spent on more important tasks. Second, by giving myself a checklist of stuff to do right before bed, I use the desire to go to bed and get some sleep as a “carrot” to get these tasks done. I think, “when I do the dishes, make my daughter’s daycare bottles, wipe off the table, pick up the Legos in the living room, write back to my editor, and answer any other trivial emails that are around, I can then go to bed.” That way, the joy of falling asleep is a final reward for a good day.

The take home: Save the mindless tasks for when you’re mindless. Do something enjoyable and mentally engaging earlier in the evening and then do the mindless tasks like loading the dishwasher just before bed.

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47 thoughts on “Twelve Invaluable Life and Money Hacks: Little Daily Steps for Finding the Money and Time to Get Things Done

  1. Aimeé says:

    Gee, Trent, when do you sleep? :) Just kidding – these are great productivity tips. The only one I couldn’t handle is the devoted block off time first thing in the morning – I try to do my menial tasks early on in the day, because I am NOT a morning person. If I tried to write that early in the day, you’d think I was on drugs. :)

  2. Todd says:

    Trent,

    Can you schedule paper checks to be sent in ING Direct? I pay my rent via paper check, but I have to login in to ING every month to do it.

    Thanks,
    Todd

  3. Joshua H says:

    So this is how you make it look like their are ten of you, while really, there is only one…

  4. Mrs. Micah says:

    I could probably use a good morning routine to get me going. Of course, depending on which job I’m working at first, my mornings are all different.

  5. H-Bomb says:

    This is quite helpful info.

    I am also not a morning person. But I am working on that. It seems to be a long up-hill battle. But I think some of the things you are saying may help with that. My mind tends to wonder off crazily when I go to sleep and I have no ability to get it under control. But possibly if I do some of the things you mentioned my mind might be set at ease for a good nights sleep. :)

  6. Elizabeth says:

    Are you really up by 4:30 every morning? That is impressive. Just wanted to say I really enjoyed this post and like that you mentioned feeling spiritually centered as an important part of your well-being, through being with family, meditation, or whatever it may be.

  7. Jeff says:

    I couldn’t agree more with #2. Shower, breakfast, and then exercise for the brain. I like Braingle’s teaser’s, http://www.braingle.com/brainteasers/index.php?ref=Scubee, which adds new teasers daily. They also have something called “Mentalrobics,” but I don’t enjoy them as much and a trivia section (but that one can be mind numbing at times).

  8. The morning is my time to work on The Writer’s Coin too, there no better time than that. H-Bomb, you may not be a morning person, but neither was I. Once you make it a routine, it becomes second nature.

    At night is just too hard. Too many distractions and variables can interrupt you. Or you’re tired.

  9. Mrs. Micah says:

    That’s true, Writer’s Coin, night can be a lot more distracting. One key, though, is not to try to stay up at night doing stuff if you want to get up and do it in the morning. Candle doesn’t burn well at both ends…and I’m much less productive in the morning if I was working the night before. The key is to figure out which time works best for you. Some people probably find morning distracting.

  10. Frugal Dad says:

    This is a great post, and very timely. I’ve recently been suffering from insomnia. I just can’t seem to turn my brain off at the end of the day, and I stay away for hours dreading, worrying, brainstorming, etc. If I rearranged my day to get these things done earlier I could spend more time in the evening relaxing, and falling asleep easier. Thanks for the great suggestions!

  11. Jeff says:

    This is a great article Trent with some good ideas that I plan on trying out.

    I just need to ask one question. From reading the article I get the sense that you are up at 4:00AM every morning, what time do you go to bed? I find that I have a hard time getting up at 6:00AM if I stay up later than 10:00PM.

  12. Andy2 says:

    I’ve started carrying around (thanks to advice from this site) a mini composition notebook and love it. It is so nice to always have something at hand to write in when I need it. I track all my expenses and the other night I wrote down my girlfriend’s Grandma’s Gal-bi (Korean barbecue, not sure if its spelled right) recipe which is amazing. That recipe is worth a hundred mininotebooks.

  13. Ann says:

    If I ate like you Trent, I think I’d be starving all the time. :) A piece of fruit?

  14. Trent says:

    I go to bed early.

    Also, I try to eat until I’m not hungry, not until I’m full.

  15. Kelly says:

    Great post! I need to implement many of these strategies-they really make a lot of sense.

  16. Anna says:

    Excellent post with many useful bits of advice.

    Here’s my take on No. 5: two e-mail sessions per day. I work full time at home and have several clients who almost always send me assignments by e-mail. They expect a response within an hour or two, if not sooner, so I check my e-mail several times a day in order not to lose paying work. YMMV.

  17. Empress Juju says:

    Thank you for all the great ideas!

    I know from experience that having a morning routine that includes breakfast and automating my bills helps with not only having enough money and time, but also having enough energy to get things done!

    My acupuncturist suggested a mid-afternoon ginseng tea ritual at work to prevent the afternoon slump… I don’t always have ginseng, but I do have tea and a small snack halfway between lunch and the end of the day, and it definitely helps me beat the ‘blahs!’

  18. Emmy says:

    Yes, I am in same boat as an Anna in regards to e-mail. I work in a client service industry and have clients sending constant requests via e-mail throughout the day that I have to respond to within an hour or two — most of the time sooner. If I only checked my e-mail twice a day, my clients would start phoning me, which is even worse! But I agree, the e-mail interuptions are a constant distraction.

  19. Michael says:

    Trent has a great point about food: Eating 5-6 small meals per day will make you feel better, stay energized, lose weight faster, and stay fitter than just about anything else. I eat more total calories now that I did when I ate 2-3 meals per day, but I’m much leaner and feel great.

    Eat like a natural bodybuilder — they know more about staying healthy and lean than anyone: http://forum.bodybuilding.com/(not affiliated, just a fan).

  20. Jillian says:

    Sounds like you pretty much have it sorted.

    Just one minor complaint – you really are starting to sound like a walking advertisement for ING Direct…

  21. Jen says:

    Excellent hacks!
    The only one I can’t see myself doing is the email one…I’ve tried that and failed. Closing my email client during the day was tantamount to walking around without pants on! (One would think, judging by how uncomfortable I was without it)

    But, I *know* without any doubt that responding to email is the biggest black hole in my day. I’ll have to give it another (honest) try.

    Thanks for the list…plenty of other ones I can adopt, too!

  22. partgypsy says:

    Excellent suggestions! That article is worth the price of admission alone.

  23. Brigid says:

    My husband is a morning person. I am not. When my kids were 2 and 3 years old, my husband and I developed a system—he gets up and fixes a simple breakfast and brings it to me in bed. It gives us a little time alone together before the day starts, and the meal gives me enough of a lift to wake me up. Now that the kids are teenagers and can handle their own morning routines, I use the time to post to my blog—and to enjoy quiet time with my husband before we both head out to work.

  24. Brian says:

    Where does exercise fit in?

  25. I quite like seeing how others go about their day. A few things I do to clear my mind in the morning and get my mind and body started – a 30 minute bike ride with my stationary bike. Also, just in the last month I started having lighter dinners and heavier breakfasts and I’ve since lost the extra pounds I had added on during the holidays.

  26. Good read, Trent. Good to see how you fit it all in. Your the man.

  27. Sunbee says:

    Frugal Dad, I recently saw some research mentioned on a blog about CFL lights and insomnia. I haven’t looked for or at the actual research, but if you have CFLs (which seems not unlikely, given your moniker) you might see if you can turn it up.
    My mom also saw an article recently about cell phone wavelength radiation causing insomnia. I wonder what my wireless internet connection to the cell tower does? Nothing as far as I can tell–but my kids are little and I can sleep anytime they let me.

  28. Simple Tam says:

    Trent, I appreciate the fact that you have included a take home with each sub-topic. It helps put things in perspective and try to look at the situation from a personal point of view for people who sometimes have just enough time to skim through the blogs. Thanks.

  29. Oleg K. says:

    Though the whole post is excellent, I particularly like the ideas of spreading meals out and creatively using the “lunch” period. They are useful suggestions and I will try them.

    Thank you, Trent.

  30. Rani says:

    Trent I think you’re really lucky to be able to segregate time for work and time for family. I am a SAHM and my kids are constantly interrupting me in whatever I’m doing. The only time that I can concentrate to work (Blogging and am doing research assistant work on campus) is when they’re all asleep. Do you have any tip on how to get things done for SAHM with kids that constantly interrupt?

  31. Lisa Spinelli says:

    I really enjoyed this post! I’ve just started my own blog 2 weeks ago, Greener Pastures: Personal Finance, and can’t seem to find enough hours in the day! I’ve actually given up exercising right now, hoping to incorporate it back into my day in the near future. I work a 4 day work week (4 long days and the day off) so there isn’t a lot of time on those 4 work days, but I have the day off to catch up. I’ve been trying to write my posts on that day for the week, but haven’t been completely successful yet.

  32. > 8. I utilize my lunch break for other tasks.

    Between 11:30 and 1:00 is my most productive time of the day. Now if I could just get all those arond me to take longer lunches. ;)

    Best Wishes,
    D4L

  33. Brigid says:

    @Brian: I do 20-30 minutes on the treadmill after breakfast. But once the weather warms up a bit, I’m planning to improve on that by simply walking to work, which is about 20 minutes each way.

  34. beloml says:

    Trent,

    I think many of your readers would benefit from a post summarizing how online banks work. So many PF bloggers rave about ING, but I’m still unclear on the logistics–how do you deposit and withdraw funds? What about security? How do you make contact if there’s a question or error?

    I pay most of my bills online and shop almost exclusively online, so I’m not skittish, but just unclear on the details.

    Thanks so much for consistently excellent blogging! I’m a huge fan.

  35. daily walrus says:

    Trent – are you a coffee/caffeine drinker? Just curious.

  36. Lisa says:

    I know almost all of these things intellectually, but hearing how an actual human being puts them into practice is comforting. Esp the work stuff. I’m reminded that if I don’t shut work into sane hours, the spouse & kids I enjoy reading about on your posts won’t ever be my reality!

    by the way……I’m with you on ING direct. My brother (the most frugal human I know) recommended it and I am amazed @ how fast my $ grows. Taxes will be an interesting new twist this year, but I think it’s worth it.

  37. Colleen Costello says:

    I am a stay-at-home Mom and I not only take care of all the shopping, household tasks, bill-paying and kid stuff (my kids are now both in school) but I also do a lot of volunteer work at their two schools. I enjoy it immensely but there are times — typically when one of our big events is approaching — that I get crazy-busy and can not seem to get everything done.

    Keeping lists is a huge help. If I write something down I know I won’t forget it and I stop worrying about it. I have also seen that getting tasks done EARLY works for me — especially exercising. It seems that as the day goes on, things get more hectic and I get less efficient, and once the kids come home starting at 2:45, I get so busy with them that I accomplish little else. That is how it should be, I think — but realizing that I have to do my necessary tasks earlier in the day has made me much more productive. I think if everyone figures out a schedule that works for them, and tries to stick to it, it helps a lot.

  38. valletta says:

    I really like the list even though many things I do in an exactly opposite way!

    I own a restaurant so getting up at 4:30 isn’t going to work but I find my most creative, productive time is from noon to 3 and then again from midnight to 2 or so. Everyone is different :)

    Really listening to your own rhythms is what works. Hopefully you have chosen a lifestyle that agrees with it. I wouldn’t give up my crazy hours for anything :)

  39. KellyKelly says:

    I think it’s great to be fully engaged in life, busy, stimulated, etc.

    But PLEASE keep tabs on your health. I drove myself into the ground with overwork. I refused to listen to my body, but eventually my body won.

    I would not call it “work” at the time because it was more than paid business stuff. But to your pancreas and your adrenals and all the other parts of your “fuel system,” racing down the highway is racing down the highway, whether you are on your way to work or the amusement park.

    Health is the greatest wealth, in my opinion.

  40. Dave says:

    How long in advance do you have to send out the bill payments for a bill with ING Direct?

  41. Cyde Weys says:

    I can’t imagine having to take a longer route just to avoid stopping along the way. If I don’t want to stop, I won’t; I’m not going to increase my inefficiency and take a longer route. When I’m heading to work and back I’m in full-on commuter mode, and I ONLY EVER stop if my gas tank is nearing empty or if I pre-planned a stop at the bank to withdraw cash or cash checks.

    You shouldn’t need to take a more inefficient route; just commit yourself to not stopping. It only takes a little bit of willpower.

  42. John J says:

    Thanks for your post, it’s always good to read a concise and approachable list like this.

    I do have a question though: your list seems heavily oriented towards your home life, how does this change for someone who’s single and doesn’t want to stay like that?

    I’ve found that I have trouble scheduling for social events and the like… It seems like trying to schedule chaos into an orderly list.

  43. RR says:

    I love your tips. Lately, I’ve been doing a last thing clean up right before bed. I swipe the kitchen counters and stove, make sure the dishes are all stowed, and tidy up the kids’ toys that may have been left out. It makes the morning so much nicer, to wake up to a clean house and a fresh start.

    Your “longer route” tip is a great idea. For those of us who have a tough time passing by the shops, simply avoiding them is the best thing. And I like that irony that your longer route actually gets you home faster! Take that one to the bank.

  44. liz says:

    SAHM with interrupting kids might find the flylady.com program helpful. It focuses on household routines, but the process can be boiled down to building your own morning and evening routines. Using a timer for 15 minutes at a time and knowing that you have to alternate the “you can do anything for 15 minutes” with a break. Lots of kids are thriving with the 15 minute Mom works on something, and when the timer goes off Mom-and-kids focus on something fun, repeat. This total focus for 15 minutes can be homework, picking up “hotspots”, filing, cleaning some area of the house, facing your finanances, or just a short kickball in the back yard. Just a fan. Lots of simple advice geared mostly to women; whether you are a SAHM or a payroll-SHE (SideTracked Home Executive.)

  45. Vixen says:

    This is a wonderful post. Thanks for all the great tips.

  46. MVP says:

    @ Rani, I’m assuming since you’re a stay-at-home-mom, that means you’ve made the choice to stay at home and raise your children. If that’s your primary job, then you shouldn’t be bothered when they interrupt you while you’re doing your secondary jobs of research and blogging(?). I mean, would you complain that your boss was interrupting you from doing the job he’s paying you to do?

    I’d suggest cutting back on these other tasks, if they’re getting in the way of your mothering. Or, wake up earlier than them, or go to bed later than them. Or, do these tasks while the kids are napping or in school. I also like liz’s suggestions. Just please don’t let your extracurriculars take away from the kids. When they’re older, or in school, you’ll have the freedom to do anything you want. Relish the time you have with them now.

  47. SavingDiva says:

    Great tips!

    I also like to clean a small area (I have a chore list) every day. It takes under 10 minutes and my apartment has never been cleaner.

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