The More List and the Less List

A long time reader named Janice recently suggested an exercise to me that I tried out at the beginning of the month and have found to be really insightful and useful. I’m not sure where Janice came across this tactic originally, but here it is, in her words.

Sit down with two sheets of paper. Write “do more” at the top of one sheet and “do less” at the top of another sheet. On the “do more” sheet, list things you want to be doing more of in your life. It can be fun stuff or self improvement stuff – whatever. This list will probably be easy. On the “do less” sheet, do the opposite and list things you want to be doing less of in your life. This one is harder and it is sometimes filled with things that you can’t really change, but try to think of things. Try to list ten things at least on each list. Then go back through them and mark two or three on each list that really resonate with you that seem to be in the realm of things that are possible. Your goal for the next few months should be to do more of the highlighted things on the “do more” list and do less of the highlighted things on the “do less” list. Your life will feel way better! I do this every three months on the first of each quarter and those 5 or so things are the focus of that quarter.

I received this note from Janice in June and decided to give this a try for myself at the start of July, as it is the start of the third quarter of the year, and see how it went. I actually made my list at the end of June so I would know what I wanted to work on right at the start, and I was intending to lean more on things I wanted to do “less” of than things I wanted to do “more” of.

So, I made those big lists. I came up with about fifteen things on my first “do more” list (which was way easier, as Janice predicted) and about ten things on my first “do less” list (which took about three times as long to come up with as the longer “do more” list).

Here were five of the items on my “do more” list:
– Spend more time meditating and doing spiritual/religious study and reflection
– Read more challenging books
– Spend more one-on-one time with my wife, which is tricky to do with three kids
– Make more meals for the freezer to stock up for fall because we’re running pretty low
– Exercise more, particularly with a focus on improving my kicking height (for taekwondo), core strength, and balance

… and here were five of the items on my “do less” list:
– Spend less time using my phone
– Buy fewer Kindle books
– Spend less time playing Fortnite (and find other non-electronic ways to spend time with my children)
– Eat less unhealthy food (and fewer calories in general)
– Spend less time web browsing without real purpose

Once I had those lists, I went through and marked three or four on each list that really resonated with me. I just read through each list a few times, went on a walk while thinking about them, and when I came back, it was pretty obvious which ones I should mark.

I then took those seven things I had marked and tried to create three SMARTER goals for the next three months that incorporated as many of those things as possible.

So, a quick refresher on SMARTER goals. SMARTER is an acronym to describe goals that live up to the following standards.

“S” means specific. A specific goal is one that establishes exactly what actions you are going to take to make this successful. What is it you want to accomplish? What exactly are you going to do to make it happen?

“M” means measurable. A measurable goal is one where you can tell very clearly whether you’ve achieved success or not. For example, “I’m going to get fit” is not measurable at all, while, on the other hand, “I’m going to run a 5K in 20 minutes” is very measurable. It is extremely clear whether or not you can run a 5K in 20 minutes or not.

“A” means attainable. Is this something you can really do? The best way to ensure attainability is to take on something that is mostly under your control and is a natural outcome of your effort but is something that will really challenge you to make it happen. Don’t make a goal reliant on the choices and actions of others.

“R” means relevant. Does this goal, when you achieve it, bring about specific things you want in your life? Is this a worthwhile goal? Is it in line with what you want in your broader life?

“T” means time-specific. This just means you’re committing to completing it within a certain timeframe. By simply adding a timeframe to a goal, you make it time specific.

“E” means evaluate. This means you step back regularly and consider how your progress toward your goal is going and whether or not you need to alter your plans. A good goal has a regular evaluation as a part of it.

“R” means review. If your evaluation isn’t good, what can you change about your goal and your plan to get there to make it better? That’s what review is all about.

I wanted to define three goals for the next three months that incorporated as much of the really meaningful “more” and really meaningful “less” items that I could, and so here’s what I came up with.

I’m leaving my smartphone on my bedside table most days unless I need it for a specific errand outside the house. This nails a lot of my “less” list all in one swoop. If I need to check for messages or something like that when I’m not working, I go upstairs to check them and then leave the phone on the bedside table. My phone only goes in my pocket if I’m leaving the house, and when I’m out and about, unless I need the phone for a specific purpose, I leave it in the vehicle when I’m doing whatever it is that I need to be doing.

I’m adopting a morning routine of meditation/prayer and exercise. I’m doing a 20 minute exercise routine each day (or trying to, anyway) that focuses on stretching, core strength, and flexibility above all else. I’m also committing to a 15 minute morning meditation and a 10 minute meditation in the evening.

I adopted a “summer” reading list of 20 challenging books I already have on hand and have set aside an hour a day for reading these hard books. This is all about both reading more challenging things and avoiding the urge to buy books on the Kindle because my upcoming reading list is set in stone and already on hand.

Where is the time coming from for the exercise, meditation, and reading? It’s coming from the time I’m not spending in front of screens. By simply not having my phone around everywhere, I’ve found that I have a lot more time in my life than I thought I did. I’ve been moving back to relying on my pocket notebook more and more, whereas I have been using my smartphone directly for many of the things I used to jot down in my notebook. I’ve also found that I’m much more present in the moment all of the time, due to (I think) a mix of the lack of smartphone use and the increase in mindful meditation.

It’s probably obvious by now how one could use this strategy to come up with really great personal goals, but how does it tie to improving one’s finances? It’s simple. As long as at least one of your “more” or “less” items is about financial improvement in some fashion (such as spending less or more frugal projects or more professional development time), you can define a goal for yourself that incorporates that element into your life.

For example, for me, one of the goals was to buy fewer Kindle books, as I feel like I’ve been spending too much of my hobby budget on things to read on the Kindle lately. I found a goal that incorporated that desire directly – developing a reading list of books I already have and setting aside time to actually read them – and another goal that incorporated that desire indirectly – spending less time on my phone, where I would sometimes buy Kindle books serendipitously.

Although I didn’t have a goal of directly reducing my buying of Kindle books, I’ve found that my Kindle book buying has taken a tremendous nosedive. I’ve spent less than 10% on Kindle books through the first third of July as I spent in the first third of June. Why? I’m focused on what I already have to read rather than stumbling on new things to read, and the tool I often used to buy books spontaneously now mostly resides in another room rather than constantly in my pocket.

Try this for yourself. Make up a “more” list and a “less” list, figure out a few on each list that really resonate with you, and define three goals for yourself over the next three months that scoop in as many of those resonating items as possible. Try to include as much “less” as possible in those goals so that you have enough room in your life for the “more” elements. Then, stick to those goals. You’ll find that they naturally have meaning and you naturally want to achieve them.

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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