Financial Success Within a System-Oriented Life

One of the most powerful strategies I’ve found for improving my life is the idea of systems.

Basically, rather than setting a goal for yourself, you develop a system of some kind, a set of daily actions that gradually nudge you toward that goal.

For example, instead of saying “I’m going to lose 100 pounds this year,” you ask yourself, “What can I sustainably do each day to lead to gradual but significant weight loss over the course of this year?” At that point, you do some homework to answer that question. The answers might be very different for different people — intermittent fasting, a mostly vegan diet, a keto diet, or an exercise routine.

The point is to have a system of simple tasks you do every day (or nearly every day) that inches you little by little toward your goal.

If your big goal is to write a novel, your system is to write 1,000 words a day. Nothing matters other than that 1,000 words a day.

If your big goal is to build a successful Youtube channel, your system is to make one compelling video a day (or three a week or whatever is reasonable for what you’re aiming for). Nothing matters other than that daily video production.

If your big goal is to run a 5K, your system is to take the next step in a slow and steady 5K training regimen each day. Nothing matters other than that next step in your 5K training regimen.

If your big goal is to be a social media superstar in your field, your system is to write three meaningful tweets a day and respond to your replies in a meaningful, thoughtful way. Nothing matters other than nailing those tweets each day.

It’s all about breaking down that big nebulous goal into a repeatable sequence of simple steps, then executing that sequence of steps every single day. Over time, you’ll tweak those steps a little as you see whether they’re working well, of course, but the key is to stick with them, day in and day out, and not worry about each day’s results too much.

This strategy applies to almost everything you want in life. If you want a clean house, develop a daily system of housecleaning that involves some general cleaning and then some focused deeper cleaning in a particular area. If you want rock-hard abs, develop a daily system of ab exercises that work both the upper and lower abs as well as surrounding support muscles and pair that with a good diet. If you want to be well-read, develop a daily system of deep reading and note-taking.

The daily system is the key. With reasonable daily effort and enough time, you can make amazing transformations in your life.

So, how does this idea relate to financial success?

First, define what exactly your goal is. Are you aiming to get caught up on all of your bills and pay off all of your debt? Are you aiming to rev up your retirement savings? Are you aiming to buy a fixer-upper house and renovate it? There are lots and lots of specific financial goals out there; figure out what yours is.

That goal should excite you. You should want it with every fiber of your being.

Next, ask yourself what kind of daily action will take you closer to that goal. This can change over time, of course; you may choose one type of action and execute it every day and then find that it eventually yields fewer and fewer returns as you eliminate all of the low hanging fruit. At that point, you simply choose another avenue.

Here are some examples of powerful daily steps that will lead you to a lot of different financial goals.

Every day, I will examine one of my regular bills carefully and see what I can do to lower the cost without removing the benefits I need. For example, you might go through your energy bill one day, see what fees are there, and then call your energy company to see which of those fees can be lowered or removed. You might examine your auto insurance and then shop around for a better rate. You might look at your cable or Sling subscription and decide if a less expensive package fits your needs. This will eventually dwindle after a few weeks, but it is a very powerful system to start with.

Every day, I will make our family dinner from basic ingredients. This means that instead of nabbing takeout or popping convenience food in the microwave, you’re actually investing the time to make a meal from scratch. This will take a lot more time, especially at first, as you start building up your home cooking skills, but each meal you make will be far less expensive than takeout or convenience food and, eventually, the process will get easier and easier and you’ll feel more confident in making more complex meals.

Every day, I will work on an energy improvement or home maintenance task. Doing this serves to lower your energy bill and extend the lifespan of every major appliance and significant feature of your home, spreading out the replacement costs. Here’s my home and auto maintenance checklist, which currently lives in my to-do list manager as monthly, quarterly and annual recurring tasks.

Every day, I will spend an hour moving forward on a home improvement project. If you’re trying to fix up your home, spending an hour each day on some kind of home improvement project is a great way to gradually transform your home into something amazing. For example, if you have an unfinished basement, spending one hour a day moving that toward a finished basement by putting up walls, hanging drywall, painting, and so on will increase both the livability and value of your home.

Every day, I will take on a freelance task in my area of expertise on Fiverr. This will sharpen many of your professional skills by having you use them on a variety of tasks while building a reputation for yourself and earning some extra money. It’s also a great baby step toward more freelance work in your field.

Every day, I will build up three professional relationships with people in my field. This might mean going to a professional meeting and getting to know a bunch of new people while shoring up a few key relationships. It might mean reaching out to people in your field that you don’t know well to build up that relationship. It might mean touching base with someone you worked with for years. The purpose of this is to really strengthen your professional support and safety net.

Every day, I will spend an hour learning a new skill for my field. This might be a new computer programming language, a new spoken language, a new technology for your field, or something else entirely. There’s something to be learned in virtually every professional field, and a systematic practice of learning can make you more and more valuable within that field.

No matter what kind of system you choose, the key is to do it every single day. Make time for it in your schedule, block off that time, and make it sacrosanct, only interruptible by a truly major crisis.

Furthermore, don’t worry too much about daily results or weekly results from your system. Focus instead on just getting the task done that you’ve set before yourself.

I like to use weight loss as a good analogy here. If you have a sustainable system that’s ensuring that you’re consuming less calories than you’re burning each day, then you will inevitably lose weight. However, over the short term, there is a ton of variability in that weight. You might weigh yourself on a day where you drank a lot of water and ate something salty. You might weigh yourself while wearing more clothes, or at a different time of the day. The point being that you can’t get upset about your daily result — your weight on the scale — or even your weekly result as long as you are sticking to your daily system that’s permanently sustainable and is actually consuming less calories than you’re burning.

Some systems eventually become a permanent automatic part of your life. For example, if you have a daily system of making a meal for your family, over time that just becomes the default way in which you do things. If you have a daily system of drinking only water as a beverage, eventually you don’t really want any beverage other than water. That’s great!

It’s also worth noting that systems can’t make other people do what you want them to do or cause events outside your control to go a certain way. A system can put you in the best possible position for a raise or a promotion, but it can’t make the boss give you that promotion. A system can get you in much better financial shape, but it’s not going to ensure that you never have a car breakdown or never get a pink slip at work. Systems are about controlling what you can control, but many aspects of our life are outside of that realm of control. Focus on what you can control and accept what you can’t.

Remember, it’s all about executing the daily tasks; results are just an inevitable long term consequence of sticking with that system. If you have a system that results in more money in your checking account without more spending to gobble it up, then you’re going to move in a better financial direction over time. It will happen – it’s inevitable.

It’s that inevitability of a good system that really makes it powerful. It might not take you exactly to where you want to go, but it will most definitely improve your situation and take you toward where you want to go.

Good luck!

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.