Making a “Daily Practice” Work for You

The single best idea I’ve learned this year came to me courtesy of James Altucher, who I heard as a guest on Episode 139 of the podcast Gweek. On that episode, Altucher talked about his book Choose Yourself, but also elaborated a bit on an idea he called the “daily practice.”

Simply put, a daily practice is a routine of things that you do every day to maintain or improve the major aspects of your life. Altucher points to four major areas of life to cover: the physical, the emotional, the mental, and the spiritual. (Those areas probably seem familiar to those who know the works of Stephen Covey, as he identifies these four spheres in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.) A daily practice is something that you do each and every day to improve at least one of those areas.

So, let’s work through this piece by piece. We’ll start off with the obvious…

What Does This Have to Do With Money? After All, This Is “The Simple DOLLAR”!

There are several deep connections between the idea of a daily practice and improving one’s personal finance.

First of all, you can choose elements of your daily practice that directly improve your personal finance. Perhaps you can adopt a daily routine of reading a chapter in a personal finance book or maybe you can spend thirty minutes on some task intended to save money (trust me, there are more than enough things people can do to save money to fill half an hour each day).

For another, it’s a lot easier to make good personal finance decisions if your life is in balance. If you’re feeling healthy in both body and mind, your spiritual life is in order, and you’re doing well in your emotional and social life, you’re going to be able to tackle personal finance decisions with a lot more efficiency.

For yet another, nothing that I do for my daily practice costs any money at all. I’ll get into the specifics of my own daily practice later in the article, but suffice it to say that all of it is practically free. That means I’m spending an hour or two a day of non-work time without any costs. I’m not buying stuff. I’m not going out and paying for experiences. In fact, I’d imagine that most daily practices are largely cost-free.

For yet another, some of the elements of a good daily practice can cultivate skills and business ideas. As you’ll see, a good daily practice can really help you build toward better things in your life and many of those better things can result in more income.

The Daily Practice in Action

So, how does this actually work? For me, there are four key elements to the idea of a “daily practice.”

Set aside a block of time for as much of it as is reasonable. I spend about two hours each day going through my daily practice. I usually do it in the early evening, though I have also done it in the morning when my day isn’t going to allow for it. Your exact time commitment might vary.

There are some things that won’t fit into that tidy block of time, like getting up early or going to sleep early. That’s okay – just do those things when they’re appropriate.

Make a checklist. One of the most powerful books I’ve read in the last few years is Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto, which argues that checklists, particularly reusable ones, help people to stay on task and avoid missing vital steps, no matter what they’re doing.

I have a checklist of the things I do each day for my daily practice. It’s mostly to help ensure that I’m actually doing something to help me improve each area of my life.

That checklist is not set in stone. It’s absolutely up for revision at any time. If I find a particular piece isn’t doing anything for me, then I’ll drop it and find something else to replace it with.

Keep the chain. The key to really making this work is to do it every single day, even when you don’t feel like it and even when your day seems to make it quite difficult.

After a while, you’re going to find that you don’t want to break the chain of consecutive days of having completed the practice. It will begin to have its own weird momentum, and when that happens, you’re really onto something good.

Every element should be meaningful. There’s no point in adding something to your daily practice if it doesn’t have meaning for you. If it’s not pushing you toward a better life that you want, then you shouldn’t be doing it.

The purpose of the daily practice is to make the things it takes to build that better life you want into a routine. Keep that in mind as you do it.

The Physical

The idea here is to do something to improve the physical state of your body. Your body needs sleep. It needs healthy food (but not too much). It needs to move around and stretch. If you don’t give your body these things, it’s eventually going to fail, much like an automobile when you ignore the maintenance schedule. If you do give your body those things, it’s far less likely to break down on you.

I’m not going to claim to be a genius about what’s best for one’s body. I mostly just try to stick to those principles above. There are lots of different ideas out there about what’s best for your body and I encourage you to find your own answers in that regard.

My Physical Daily Practice

Here are the two things I’m doing as part of my “daily practice” to improve my physical state.

I’m doing a rung of the Lifetime Fitness Ladder. As I’ve discussed before, the Lifetime Fitness Ladder is a pretty solid home exercise routine that customizes itself to your level. I’ve made a few substitutions in the specific exercises (mostly to avoid pulling a muscle or two that I seem to easily pull), but what I do is mostly a duplicate of what’s described in that writeup. This takes perhaps ten minutes if I really get down to business.

I’m doing a session of dynamic resistance yoga. I use DDP Yoga for this. This was something that a friend recommended to me to help with lower back pain and with flexibility and it certainly helps with both of those things. It takes about twenty to thirty minutes a day, depending on what I choose.

Overall, I spend thirty to forty minutes of my daily practice on improving my physical condition. I don’t do anything specifically dietary at the moment.

Other Ideas for Physical Daily Practice

Those happen to just be the things that I personally do. Here are a few other ideas that might work well for you.

Take a walk. This is something that I do every day when the weather is decent, but I often don’t do it during the winter months as I avoid the cold. On nicer winter days I do it, but it’s hard to make it a “daily practice” if you dodge the days where the highs are in the teens (or lower).

Take a fitness class. Many gyms and community health centers offer fitness classes of all kinds. Check out what’s available there. If you’re patient and flexible, you can often find good deals. Use the class itself as part of your daily practice, but then find ways to work on what you’ve learned during the other days. Ask your teacher what you should do on “off days.”

Start a basic weightlifting routine. Mild weightlifting can be good for everyone. It improves strength, gets your heart rate pumping, and can easily be done at home with a few barbells that you can get from any secondhand sporting good store. A friend of mine goes out in his backyard each day and flops around a tractor tire for fifteen minutes for this same weightlifting effect.

Improve your diet in some regard. There are almost infinite options here. You can choose to go vegetarian. You can choose to go vegan before six in the evening. You can choose to just skip lunches. Maybe you’re just choosing to eat two bites of fruit or vegetable for every bite of meat. Whatever you choose, that’s a perfect addition to a daily practice. Just make sure that it’s something you value.

The Social/Emotional

I choose to put these together in the same grouping because how you feel about yourself and how you interact with others are heavily tied together. When I’m feeling down on myself, I often lower the amount of contact I have with other people, which may actually be connected to those lower feelings. On the other hand, when I’m feeling happy, my levels of social interaction go way up.

Is there a real connection there? I don’t know, but I do know that I generally feel best when surrounded by people I care about and people who I know care about me.

My Social/Emotional Daily Practice

I do two things each day in this area for my daily practice.

I touch base with an old friend. I choose a friend that I haven’t talked to in a while and send that person a message just to see how they’re doing. Often, this will turn into a conversation that can last for days, but it almost always lifts me up. It only takes a minute or two to get the ball rolling, which is the real part of my daily practice.

I do something purely for fun. Maybe I play a game of solitaire. Maybe I turn on some music I’ve always loved and just dance to it. Maybe I sit down with a page turner that I’m really enjoying for a few minutes. I just devote about fifteen minutes to something I purely enjoy.

Other Ideas for Social/Emotional Daily Practice

Here are a couple more ideas for your own daily practice in the social/emotional sphere.

Help someone. Look for someone who needs help and provide that help. Maybe it’s something as simple as a bit of advice. Maybe someone needs you to run an errand for them. Maybe someone needs something that you just have laying around the house. Just offer that help.

Work on building a positive friendship. If you know someone with whom a positive friendship might be a possibility, spend some time building up that friendship. It might be a good idea to cultivate several friendships at once so that you’re not focusing on one person every single day.

The Mental

Your mind needs exercise just as your body does. Just like your body, your mind gets stuck on certain tracks depending on the nature of your life. There are certain decisions you make and problems you solve all the time and they become easier, but when you face other kinds of problems, they’re quite difficult. A flexible mind should be able to handle almost everything life throws at it.

My Mental Daily Practice

The focus of my mental practice is threefold – learning, creativity, and problem solving.

I’m spending thirty minutes (at least) on learning. I take a lot of free online classes through the online course offerings presented by many colleges. Right now, I’m working steadily through the material in Yale’s Introduction to Political Philosophy class, for example. I strive to spend thirty minutes each day on the class, listening to the lectures, taking notes, and pausing things when I want to think or look other things up.

I’m generating a list of ten ideas. Basically, I come up with a target for brainstorming – it really could be anything – and I try to make a list of at least ten ideas associated with it. Usually, these aren’t ideas I go on to actually use in my life, but they strengthen my ability to brainstorm when I do need ideas, such as creating a meal plan or coming up with article ideas for The Simple Dollar. For example, yesterday’s list of ten ideas was simply a list of the pieces I find missing in the book reviews I see online, which basically points to making a better book review (at least, for what I want out of a review).

I’m solving (or working on solving) a challenging puzzle. This sometimes takes the form of playing a solitaire game. At other times, I literally open a puzzle book and work on a puzzle there. I try to work on different types of puzzles on different days – a number puzzle one day, a logic puzzle the next day, a solitaire game the following day, and maybe a cryptic crossword the day after that. The goal is to constantly stretch my mind in different directions.

Other Ideas for Mental Daily Practice

Here are some other ideas for mental daily practice that might work well for you.

Read a chapter of a challenging book. Pick a book on a topic that really interests you but might be just a bit beyond your level of understanding. Then, tackle it, a chapter or a section at a time. Stop whenever you’re confused and look up explanations for the words or ideas being presented.

Learn a language. You can use a free program like Duolingo to teach yourself a new language in your spare time. Just challenge yourself to complete one or two lessons per day.

Read (and take notes on) a Wikipedia article on a challenging but interesting topic. Look up a subject on Wikipedia you’ve always wanted to understand more clearly, then work slowly through the entry, taking notes as you go and clicking through on terms or concepts that you don’t quite understand.

Write a computer program. Writing a computer program is great mental exercise. It forces you to keep breaking down a problem into the simplest of steps and translating those simple steps into a different language.

The Spiritual

The word “spiritual” has different meanings for different people. For some, it may refer to a deeper connection with their god. For others, it may involve a deeper study of their chosen religion. For yet others, it may simply mean a deeper connection to the world around you. None of those answers are strictly wrong or right, but they all do involve a deeper connection to the world.

My Spiritual Daily Practice

My spiritual daily practice involves trying to understand Christianity better as well as a meditation/prayer session.

I’m slowly studying the Bible with commentary. Each day, I’m reading one chapter of one book of the Bible (the NIV translation, for now) as well as some of the commentaries that go along with that chapter. The goal, for me, is to try to understand the messages being presented more deeply, not just for myself, but also to understand how it has shaped society, particularly today. How is this document influencing the world as a whole right now?

I’m meditating/praying for five minutes. For me, the line – if there is one – between meditation and prayer is awfully blurry. Whatever it is, I spend five minutes doing it each day.

Other Ideas for Spiritual Daily Practice

Here are a few other ideas for your own spiritual daily practice.

Make a list of five good things that happened to you today. This serves to deepen your connection to the world around you and help you find some gratitude for the many, many things the world gives you.

Show gratitude to someone who has done something for you (or for society at large). A simple “thank you” is a great way to start, but you’ll find that as you look for ways to show gratitude, there are a lot of things you can do that will really have a positive impact on the other person.

Read a chapter of any holy book. A deeper understanding of any widely-held religious tradition can deepen your own convictions and understanding. I fully intend to read the holy books of several other faiths once my own Biblical study is finished.

Final Thoughts

The purpose of a daily practice is simple: it’s all about devoting some time each day to putting your mind, body, and soul in a better place. When you do that, you make it much easier for yourself to blaze a better path in all avenues of life – professionally, personally, financially, socially, and so on.

Find a daily practice that works for you – even if it’s a simple one that only takes a few minutes per day. Whatever you choose to do, chances are that it will improve you in some vital way.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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