31 Days to Financial Independence (Day 3): Finding Daily Direction and Meaning

“31 Days to Financial Independence” is an ongoing series that appears every Thursday on The Simple Dollar. You might want to start this series from the beginning!

In the previous entry in this series, we started looking at how to build a meaningful life that isn’t centered around spending money but instead is centered around spending time doing the things you love and minimizing the time and money spent on the other things you care about.

We separated these concepts into the “shallows” (the many, many things in life that are relatively unimportant and thus merit only minimal time and money spent) and the “deep” (the handful of things in life that are actually deeply important to us and thus merit using our time) and then went on to describe general goals, both for finding direction in the deep parts of life as well as cleaning up the shallows in order to cut down on the time and money invested in those things.

Today, we’re going to translate many of those things into specific daily direction with the goal of building some deeply fulfilling life routines that don’t require a constant outpouring of money and also give us plenty of space and time for the things we care about most.

I consider this to be the foundation of healthy personal finance today. As I said in the previous entries, people often spread themselves an ocean wide and an inch deep. They commit themselves to far more things than they can ever realistically manage, then they throw money at those things in order to maximize convenience and to substitute for not having enough time; in other words, they buy books because they don’t have time to read because it feels like a good substitute. People also often devote lots of time to things that are really less important in their lives just because they’re convenient and because they don’t have real direction in the other areas of their life (think of channel surfing or aimless web surfing, for example).

All of this adds up to some very painful results. People often end up settling into a paycheck-to-paycheck routine because they’re spending money on many, many different areas in their life, some of which they don’t care about much in comparison and others to cover up for their lack of time management and lack of direction. They don’t spend enough time on the things they care about most, which brings a sense of personal sadness, and they end up spending time on things that are very secondary in terms of true importance, which adds another layer of personal sadness. It ends up being a very difficult stew.

The solution, as we’ve been discussing for the last couple of entries in this series, is to separate life into the “deep” and the “shallows.” The “deep” is simply the handful of things we truly care about in life, which is different for each person. These are the things that we truly want to commit time and energy toward. These are the things that we’re happy to work hard to maintain, improve, and protect. The “shallows” are the countless other things in life – the things we dabble in without real joy, the things we’re committed to for various reasons, and so on. These are the things that we spend more money and time on than we need to, but in the end we really don’t care that much about them. They end up draining us and taking away from the “deep.”

Great, but how does this actually affect my daily life? That’s the question we want to answer today.

In a given day, each and every one of us spends some time taking care of basic needs like sleep, eating, and personal hygiene. Most of us spend some time working to earn a living. The remaining time is spent however we want – engaging in personal interests, taking care of previously committed responsibilities, and so on.

In an ideal life, the time spent on basic care and on working to earn an income are there so that we can invest our remaining time into things we deeply care about. The thing is, our lives often route us away from doing that and we end up paying the price in our finances and our overall happiness.

It’s time to build a “given day” that corrects all of that.

Exercise 3a: Emptying the Shallows

The first step is to look at all of the things you spend time on and extra money on that aren’t part of the things you care most about. These are things you have already identified.

This exercise is simple: go through that time diary and your spending records and identify every dollar spent and every chunk of time spent outside of required personal care and work. For each of those, ask yourself whether it’s in line with the “deep” parts of your life. Make a list of everything for which you answer “no.”

Then, go through that list of wasteful parts of your life and ask yourself what you need to do to eliminate that item or draw it back to an absolute minimum.

For example, let’s say you spend two hours a day watching television but you recognize that it’s not something that you really care about. What can you do to basically eliminate that from your life? One strategy is to simply unplug the television for a while. That way, you push yourself out of the routine of television watching.

What if you’re spending too much time online? Maybe you can find a way to set your computer to minimize web browsing time using a tool like StayFocusd. Maybe you can just do away with your home computer altogether for a while, or just unplug it during the week, or unplug it on the weekends. Make it harder for you to simply jump into web browsing.

What if you’re on a committee or involved with a group but you’ve come to realize you don’t really value it? You can simply step down from that group. Give them plenty of time to transition to someone new for your role, but focus on leaving and making things easy for someone else to handle it.

If you find you’re spending too much on things you don’t care about, like household products, make the active choice to switch to store brands. Stop buying name brand laundry detergent and buy the inexpensive store brand version if your laundry isn’t one of your core life priorities.

All you’re looking for are things you can do to actively cut back time and money spent in the areas of your life that you don’t care about. You’re looking for specific actions you can take to make that change or new little routines you can adopt. Try to find at least one change you can make for each of those time and money wasters on your list.

What you’re really doing here is emptying out the shallows of your life. You’re cutting to the absolute minimum the time and energy and money you spend on things you don’t really care too much about – and that’s a good thing. Why waste your money and your life on things you don’t really care that much about?

You’re going to find yourself at the end of this with a big checklist of things to do. Take that checklist seriously. Work hard to knock items off that list. Buy store brands. Step back from minor responsibilities that eat up your time. Eliminate time-wasting hobbies. Don’t worry – you’ll fill that time (and that spending) with more meaningful things.

It’s worth noting here that this is an exercise worth doing on a fairly regular basis. You’ll often find that, over time, you end up filling up the shallows a little bit again, plus you may find that the core things that are meaningful for you shift a little over time. This exercise is wonderful for tightening things up right now, but it’s a reflection of who you are and where you’re at in life right now. You’ll change, and so will this exercise.

Exercise 3b: Filling Time in Meaningful Ways

What you’re going to find as you do the previous exercise is that you suddenly have more time available and more money available than you previously thought.

The question is what do you do with that time and that money?

We’re going to focus on the money changes for the rest of the month, but for now, let’s look at the time changes. Spending your time in a more personally fulfilling way makes almost everything in life easier to achieve, after all. Plus, once you are in a place where you feel like your day-to-day life is really meaningful, putting aside money to protect that life seems like a better and better choice. Thus, it makes sense to start here.

In the second day of “31 Days to Financial Independence”, you came up with a list of goals that you want to achieve over the coming years that are in line with the things you consider to be the most valuable portions of your life. These goals are focused on doing things, not acquiring things.

Today, we’re going to translate those big goals into things you can actually do each and every day (or at least each and every week).

All you have to do is walk through each of those big goals you came up with in that exercise and translate them into something you could do if you had, say, a couple of hours a week or half an hour a day to devote to it. In other words, you’re setting a series of to-dos or very short term goals for yourself that are in line with your deepest values. These things should each be fulfilling for you and many of them should be quite fun, too.

As an example, I’ll pull out the six goals I identified during day two and list them here:

I will support Sarah to a depth that exceeds what I would want her to support me, regardless of momentary reciprocation.

I will give my children regular focused time, attention, listening, and conversation beyond meeting their basic needs.

I will consistently read challenging books and progress through them at a steady, strong pace.

I will walk at least one significant trail or go on at least one significant off-trail hike per week, on average, for the next 10 years.

I want to average 10,000 steps a day, triple my “pounds overhead in 10 minutes,” and move up 20 rungs on my fitness ladder in the next 10 years.

I want to play every game in my top 100 board games list at least 10 times.

What do each of these goals translate into if I’m looking at things to achieve today or to achieve this week?

For the first goal, centered around supporting my wife, I simply take aside about thirty minutes each day to have a meaningful conversation with her. Our schedules often don’t overlap all that well, as sometimes I’m already taking children to soccer practice or something like that when she gets home, but we usually have at least some time to spend together. Each day, I need to just take about thirty minutes and focus on her. Ask her how her day is going and listen carefully. Ask her what’s on her mind and listen carefully. Spend some of that time helping her with things around the house that matter to her. Pull her close to me and give her a kiss and a tight little hug. It’s just a way for me to ensure that our relationship remains strong, to help her with her challenges, and to make sure she knows I’m always there for her, no matter what.

(Of course, this is in addition to the normal stuff we might do together in a given day or week.)

For the second goal, centered around being a good father, I try to have a meaningful conversation with each child every day and engage in a meaningful activity with them at least once a week. On school days, I usually handle this by being there when they get off the bus. I have a snack waiting for them, then I sit down with each of them for five or ten minutes and talk to them about their day, one on one. We’ll go through any homework they have or other stuff from school, and I make sure to give each of them a hug. On weekends, we usually do something together as a family each day.

Once a week, though, after school and on the weeknight when it fits (usually on a Wednesday), I plan something special that we can do for a few hours. Maybe we’ll go in a hike in the woods. Maybe we’ll play a big board game. Maybe we’ll paint miniatures (that’s actually what we did after school yesterday). Maybe we’ll build a mousetrap-powered car, or make paper rockets and get them to fly with an air pump, or fly some kites in the park. I simply set aside Wednesday afternoons for some sort of special activity with the kids.

Noticing some themes yet? What I’m essentially doing is setting aside blocks of time for those core meaningful activities. That time comes from the time I’ve cut back on by “emptying out my shallows” in the first exercise in this article.

For my third goal, focusing on reading challenging books, I simply devote a minimum of half an hour a day to focused reading or audiobook listening – and it’s honestly usually an hour. I usually block off an hour for it, but I don’t allow anything to cut it down to less than half an hour. Usually, I do this in the hour before my children come home from school because my writing productivity starts to drop in the early afternoon (I usually wake up very early to start working). I often listen to audiobooks here, for reasons that I’ll discuss below – I get them from the library.

(I could also easily schedule this in the evening, but I’ve found that if I’m trying to absorb ideas, I’m very poor at it in the late evening. Instead, I fill that last hour or two before bed with housework-related tasks.)

For my fourth goal, focusing on trail walking, I schedule a trail walk every other weekend during the school year and many during the summer months. I also sometimes fit one in during the week at a relatively local park if things work out.

For the weekend and summer walks, I usually plan them with my family in mind. For the weekday walks, they’re usually solo jaunts.

For my fifth goal, focusing on exercise, I simply take a walk each day and do my version of the “fitness ladder” twice a day. I usually take my walk during the middle of the day as a “break” from work, and I often listen to an audiobook during the walk. I usually do the fitness ladder at the beginning and then again at the end of my typical workday. On the weekends, I do the fitness ladder right when I wake up and then one other time during the day, and we usually go on a multi-mile family walk when the weather is nice.

I often listen to an audiobook on my walk, which overlaps nicely with my reading goal. My weekend walks are often trail hikes, which overlaps nicely with my hiking goal. Sometimes, I even hit the trifecta of listening to an audiobook while hiking, which actually nails all three goals that day.

Basically, the walking and the fitness ladder make up my personal exercise routine, except that I can do it at home (or nearby, in the case of walking). My version of the “lifetime fitness ladder” is based upon this one, but steals some ideas from other home bodyweight exercise routines and focuses on the things I’m really interested in (core strength being a big one and aerobic fitness being another).

The final goal I mentioned above, focusing on board games, is met by going to a community game night once a week and taking along a classic board game already on my shelf to play. My focus is on getting that game to the table, whether that means playing with others who are familiar with the game or teaching it to new people. Aside from that, I just play whatever other people want to play. If I have a free evening, I will play a solo game (there are a lot of good ones out there) or play one with my family – again, drawing from the ones on my shelf.

The focus here is on play counts, as my overall goal is to play my 100 favorite games (of which I own most of them) at least 10 times each. I want to play every single game I own several times in addition to that goal. Since spending time online isn’t one of my “deep areas,” I’m also cutting back on the time I spend online on gaming forums and devoting that time to actually playing the board games I already have.

Again, there are a few huge themes running through all of these examples.

First of all, I’m moving forward on personal life goals. These are things I want to achieve in life because they’re important to me or tied to areas of deep personal joy. These daily steps move me forward on those goals.

Second, I greatly enjoy the daily activities. I feel wonderful when I’m hiking or playing a great game or engaging with a great book. Those things are part of a fulfilling life for me and knowing that they’re part of my daily routine is great.

Third, I find the time for these things by basically eliminating time spent on things less important to me. Television isn’t important to me, so I almost never watch it. Web surfing isn’t important to me, so I rarely do that unless it’s work related these days. Some of my community commitments weren’t that important to me, so I stepped down from them in a polite fashion and transitioned the work to others.

Fourth, these goals are almost all centered around actually doing things and not spending money. They all rely on using things I already have and have wanted to enjoy. Even with the board game hobby, I’m playing games I already have. With the reading hobby, I’m using resources from the library. None of them are centered around spending, so I have little motivation in my daily routine to spend.

Finally, having a life that’s fulfilling every single day makes it easy to buckle down, work hard in my professional life, and put aside money because those things preserve this fulfilling life. I want to work hard, work smart, and save what I have. Beyond that, I want to work hard to reach a point where I have even more time for fulfillment.

The table then turns to you. From Day 2, you have this list of things you want to “go deep” with, the things you want to be central in your life. How can you actually “go deep” on those things every day, or at least every week? Spend some real time thinking about each item on your list and how you could deeply engage in each of those items today for personal enjoyment and progress on those goals. Remember, the time will come from cleaning out the shallows and the focus is on doing, not spending.

Good luck!

31 Days to Financial Independence: The Complete Series

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.