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Simple and Hard
Personal finance success is simple. Personal finance success is hard. Those two things don’t contradict each other in the slightest.
The things that you need to do to be successful when it comes to finances are really simple.
Spend less than you earn. You can do that by either cutting back on your spending or figuring out a way to earn more money. You do this because eventually you won’t be able to or really won’t want to work any more and the leftover money is for that point in the future.
Use the remaining portion to pay off debt. When you don’t have any debt, start stashing the remaining portion away for the future. If you don’t know what to do with it, put it in an index fund so that it’s invested in lots of things.
Literally everything about personal finance is just an expansion on one of those ideas, and even the expansion on those ideas isn’t really very complicated. Everything you really need to know is right there.
- Read more: Everything You Need to Know About Personal Finance Fits on the Back of Five Business Cards
If it’s so simple, why doesn’t everyone do it? Why are 78% of Americans living paycheck to paycheck (source)?
The reason is that actually executing those simple strategies is quite hard, for numerous reasons.
Humans are predispositioned to favor the short term over the long term.
Modern culture surrounds us with seemingly infinite temptation, more easily available than ever.
Financial change requires us to take action to change our behavior, whereas staying in the same place requires nothing from us.
The financial services industry does their best to make simple things seem as complicated as humanly possible so that you feel that you need help with the arcane specifics of money management.
Those elements are individually challenging, but collectively they become quite hard to overcome. It’s the reason that most Americans struggle financially, even people who earn surprisingly high incomes.
It’s not rocket science to know what to do. The challenge comes from actually applying it to your life and doing it.
Most Self-Improvement Is Simple and Hard
This dichotomy of “simple” and “hard” exists with many of the most common things that people want to do to improve themselves.
Losing weight is simple. Eat fewer calories. Done. Actually executing it is hard.
Getting into shape is simple. Move around more and sweat. Done. Actually executing it is hard.
Improving personal relationships is easy. Devote time to that person and really listen to them. Done. Actually executing it is hard.
Acquiring more skills for success is easy. Devote time to study and practice of those specific skills. Done. Actually executing it is hard.
The thing you need to do is simple. Actually doing it is hard. Why?
The reason why improving your finances – or improving other aspects of yourself – is hard to execute (even though the process is simple to understand) is because we have limited resources in life. I’m not talking about money. I’m talking about the fundamental resources we have as living humans. Time. Energy. Focus.
We only have so much time. In a given day, we have perhaps 16 hours of wakefulness. We have to choose between different options to fill the limited time we have.
We only have so much energy. No one can keep going forever. Eventually, we get tired and worn out.
We only have so much focus. Eventually, we hit a wall of decision fatigue. We reach a point where we’re unable to keep stuffing more in our head and we have to rest for a while to recharge.
We aren’t robots, either. We need some downtime and leisure time to feel like we’re not just running through life from task to task.
The real question of self-improvement, whether it’s financial improvement or relationship improvement or physical improvement or anything else, is finding a more effective way to use those resources of time, energy, and focus that we already have.
So how do we use those resources more effectively to improve our financial state?
Many of the most effective ways we have for improving our financial state rely on better time use. It’s due to a seeming lack of time that we rely on restaurants to get us through tight moments. It’s due to a seeming lack of time that we put off things like signing up for a 401(k). It’s due to a seeming lack of time that we hire people to fix things rather than investing the time to do it ourselves. It’s due to a seeming lack of time that we don’t build up our skills at work beyond the minimum.
(The same is, of course, true for other avenues of self improvement.)
We all have the same 24 hours in a day and 168 hours in a week. The difference comes in how we use those hours.
Look, I’m a full fledged member of the “sandwich generation.” I have children at home, a marriage to maintain and strengthen, a career to try to build and maintain, and aging parents, all at once. I want to be involved in the community and also have time for my own personal interests. Yet, through all of that, I find time for things like prepping meals in advance on a Sunday afternoon and getting a home-cooked meal to the table virtually every day and devoting time to professional side projects that can earn more income. I manage to find time to write in a journal and meditate and exercise virtually every day, too.
How do I do all of that? I use a handful of basic time management strategies. Here are the key ones that help me free up room for my career.
I basically don’t do anything that doesn’t have a strong long-term purpose or isn’t intentional leisure. If I find myself doing something like idly web surfing or playing a mindless smartphone game or staring at the television, I either go take a nap (or just go to bed for the night) or make myself go do something else. That’s not to say I don’t play games or watch television, but those are things done with intent – I’m playing a game with some social context or I’m watching a planned television program with my wife that we’re both excited about.
I block off time for things that are “important but not urgent.” I keep a weekly calendar and on that calendar I have time blocked off for things that I consider important but aren’t urgent. I have blocks of time for calling my parents. I have blocks of time for focused activities with my kids. I have a “date night” blocked off with Sarah. I have a “game night” blocked off to play tabletop games with some close friends. I have a block most weekends where I literally do frugal tasks and financial tasks, like prep meals or do small home repair or maintenance projects or pay the bills and read statements.
I prioritize “important but not urgent” over “urgent but not important.” I’ll often postpone things like perfect house cleaning to call my parents. I look at the mail once every two weeks or so and chuck most of it at a glance – it’s all “urgent but not important.” I barely read social media outside of the postings of real-life friends – instead, I do a lot of little tasks so I can spend real-world time with those real-life friends. Not only that, I spend time thinking about how I’m spending my time, which seems fairly “meta,” but when I recognize that I’m spending time on things that aren’t really important, I try to toss those things out of my life.
I do a lot of “time blocking.” I trust in my calendar. I block off time at the start of each day for the things I want to complete that day (starting from a generic “weekday,” “Saturday,” and “Sunday” template). For example, I’m in the midst of a “writing” block right now, one that I have tagged with the specific task of finishing this article. If I finish this article before the end of the “writing” block, I turn to my to-do list of smaller tasks and handle anything on it that’s tagged with “writing” (which is mostly brainstorming, reading, research, or outlining). When that time block is up, I stop. I try to never have my life in a situation where I have to disrupt that block because something is urgently due – I work ahead as much as I can.
I de-commit from things that decrease in importance to me. I’m not the person I was five years ago. Things I thought were important then, things I strongly committed to, aren’t necessarily the things I’m committed to now. Yet, sometimes, I have big lagging responsibilities and routines from that earlier era. The best thing I can do, both for me and for that thing to which I’m less passionate and committed, is to properly transition that thing into the hands of someone else. If I find that I’m less committed to something like coaching youth soccer or serving a charity than I once was, I make the conscious choice to back away while ensuring that it’s left in good hands.
These strategies all together help me find time for the things I find important in my life, and one of the things I find very important is doing what I can to build a strong financial foundation for my family and my own future. For example, I literally have a “time block” that’s set aside for financial and frugal tasks each weekend when we’re not traveling.
Like a lot of people, there are times when life just leaves me feeling burnt out and exhausted. No matter what kind of time management magic I can weave, I can’t help the fact that my energy level surges and flags throughout the day. Here are some of the things I do to help accommodate this, so that I have energy left over for doing a frugal task or paying attention to a bill or being mindful at the grocery store.
I get plenty of sleep. I go to bed pretty early most nights, usually around 9 PM. This is so that I can wake up when I naturally want to arise and feel deeply refreshed from a night of sleep (this usually happens between 4 and 5 AM). It is very rare that I feel genuinely tired during the day, though I will often find my energy flagging after 8 PM. I get plenty of sleep so that I can execute the rest of the day with lots of energy and focus. I’d far, far rather have 15 or 16 hours of energized activity in a day than 18 or 19 hours of activity where I’m tired and can’t focus.
I’m aware that I’m a morning person and that I flag badly in the early afternoon and late evening, so I schedule tasks accordingly. I start off the day with a morning routine and then a period of intense work, because I know my energy and focus are high in the morning. In the early afternoon, I do mindless tasks like going on a long walk or doing household chores. After that period of time passes, I usually have another block of productive work until the kids get home. In the late evening, my energy flags pretty badly, so I usually finish the day with a few mindless tasks (emptying the dishwasher) right before bed.
I consistently exercise. I find that if I stick to a consistent exercise routine, my energy level throughout the day is higher, and that if I let that exercise routine fade away, after a few days, my energy level starts to slide, too. Thus, I find it’s worthwhile to block off some time each day for some form of exercise. My goal is to get myself sweaty and make at least one muscle group sore the next day (though I don’t try to make the same muscle group sore multiple days in a row). I don’t aim to kill myself or do anything I don’t enjoy.
I try to eat a healthy diet. I’m not perfect at this, but I make it my goal to ensure that the vast majority of what’s on my plate at each meal is plant based, which seems to help a lot with my energy level, particularly mental energy. I find that when I overeat “heavier” foods, I end up in a bit of a mental fog for a while, so I try to avoid doing that. I eat mostly lighter meals with some snacks here and there.
Together these strategies help to ensure that I have plenty of energy for the things I want to do during the day, which, given the time management elements described above, result in having time and energy for tasks that I want to achieve.
Focus refers to one’s ability to stay on task. You’re not distracted and you get the task done efficiently and effectively. So much of the modern world eats away at our natural focus – constant interruptions and notifications from our smartphones and the convenience of the internet and social media being chief among them. Being able to focus on a task not only gets it done quickly and done well, but it frees up time for other things. An improved ability to focus also improves your ability to make good decisions, especially later in the day.
Here are four things I do to help maintain my focus.
I kill distracting things. I turn my smartphone off for most of the day. As I write this, my smartphone has been off for hours. I have my computer set with all kinds of different blocking tools so that the only thing I can really do with it is write. I’m listening to audio intended to help me focus in my headphones to block out distracting sounds. When my kids come home, we read together for half an hour – I put my phone in “do not disturb” mode and set a half an hour timer and just get lost in a book with them. In other words, when I have a task to do, I do everything I can to focus just on that task and not let distractions interrupt me. I check on potential distractions and interruptions when the task is done. During the task, I keep a notebook open near me to jot down stray thoughts I want to work on later. I do that as much as humanly possible.
I block off time each day to meditate. I practice mindfulness meditation for about 15 minutes each morning and about 10 minutes each evening. It is probably the single best discovery I’ve made in the last five years or so. This simple practice of stopping and focusing on my breathing as intently as I can has made it so much easier to focus on tasks throughout the day. I just sit in a comfortable chair, focus on my breathing, bring my mind back to the breathing if my mind floats away, and let the world pass by until a timer stops me. I find that if I chain a lot of days of meditation together, it builds on itself – one or two days doesn’t really change anything, but a chain of 60 days makes a profound difference. Like exercise, it can fade if you don’t keep up with it, but it’s really powerful if you let it build.
I listen to focus-enhancing audio during many tasks. I like listening to white noise, chillhop, or ambient electronic music – basically anything that’s downtempo without lyrics or simply nonintrusive white noise works. It seems to work magic at helping me focus on whatever it is I’m doing at the moment.
I constantly use “do not disturb” mode on my phone. This keeps my phone from delivering notifications to me and also blocks phone calls except from a very small list of key numbers that are okay for interrupting me (like my children’s schools). I turn this on all the time so I can stay focused on what I’m doing. There are very, very few things in life that are simultaneously important and urgent enough to cut through my ability to focus on a chosen task. What I’m doing right now is important or else I wouldn’t be doing it, so why let it be interrupted by silly small things?
A final area that’s really worth noting is what I like to call “thought influence.” We fill our world with things that influence our thinking, both positively and negatively. If we fill our world with thoughts that point in a certain direction, our own thoughts are going to inevitably point that way. You’ve probably seen this in the world around you, how people are heavily influenced by the media they consume and the people they surround themselves with.
I want to surround myself with things that influence me to make good decisions regarding the things I care about most in life – good financial choices, for example. Here are a few ways I achieve that.
I intentionally choose close friends that practice frugality and are reasonable with their spending. At this point, it is prohibitively hard for a big spender to build a close friendship with me. While I enjoy having a group of friends that think differently in a lot of ways, what I don’t want in my life are friends that influence me to spend money unnecessarily. If there’s an aspect of my life that I’m really working on, I’m going to accentuate friendships with people who are successful in that area and tone down friendships with people who are bad influences in that area.
I basically avoid the news and only use social media for professional reasons and to directly contact real-life friends. There’s almost nothing positive brought into my life by the wilds of social media or by the news media. It doesn’t inform me and it doesn’t make me feel good about myself or other people. I prefer to be informed by reading good reporting (which takes time), thoughtful books, and by having thoughtful conversations with good friends, so I stick to those things in terms of being informed. The most valuable thing on the internet for me is Wikipedia, because it’s a good tool for getting a quick peer-reviewed summary of a topic.
I don’t really care what other people think of me. This may be an aspect of getting older, but I just really don’t worry about being seen as “cool” by other people. I’m okay with being the guy who’s exercising and sweating in his backyard. I’m okay with being the guy who makes his own laundry soap. I’m okay with being the guy who basically doesn’t watch television and has no idea what’s going on on the latest shows. I treat other people exactly as I would like to be treated. This not only helps in terms of how I’m influenced by others, but that also turns into much less of a motivation to spend any money to impress others.
The goal with all of these things is to take something that’s simple and hard – personal finance, fitness, weight management, whatever you’d like – and keep it simple while making it less difficult. I do this by amplifying the resources I already have for tackling hard things in my life – my time, my energy, my focus, and the things I allow to influence me.
If I put in the effort to maximize those things, then it becomes much easier to accomplish the things I want to accomplish in life. If I have time, if I have focus, if I have energy, and if I have good influences, it becomes far easier to tackle something that seems “hard” like improving one’s finances. It’s still not easy – it still requires attention and behavior improvement – but it’s not as hard if you come at it with plenty of resources in hand, and these strategies are how you get the resources you need to do it.
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