Persistent Starting, Personal Finance, and the Rest of Your Life

So, like most people my age in the sandwich generation, I have this long list of things I’d like to do but never seem to really have time for. I have a big box full of papers that I really should file. Our pantry has devolved into a disorganized mess. I really need to make a few changes to our kids’ 529 contributions. The closet in my tiny office/bedroom needs a serious cleaning.

The list goes on and on – as it probably does in your life. (The scary thing is that I’m actually a pretty organized person when it comes to my time. These are just my “someday” projects, my “kind of important but not urgent” project list.)

Lately, I’ve been trying a new approach to this list of projects that I need to take care of. It’s called persistent starting. The idea behind it is that people often feel exactly like I do – they feel kind of overwhelmed by the things they’d like to have time for.

Here’s what you do.

Start by making a giant list of the tasks and projects you would like to accomplish. Luckily for me, I already have such a list saved in Evernote. Once you have that list, rank them. Put the one that seems most important at the top, then the next most important one, then the next most important one.

Then, set aside a bit of time each day. It could be five minutes. It could be an hour. Make that time whatever you want it to be. My only recommendation is to leave it open-ended – don’t make it so that you have something incredibly urgent to do on the other end of that time block.

All you do during that time is start. Go to the top item on your list, set a timer for five minutes, and get started on that task. When the timer goes off, decide for yourself whether you want to continue on that task right now or not. If you do, just keep going until you’re tired of it. If you’re ready for something different, go down to the next item on the list, set the timer for five minutes, and repeat. Keep doing this until your block of time is used up.

I’ve started doing this a few weeks ago. I’ve been using an hour in the middle of the day for this, and what I’ve found is that it really helps with making progress on those little projects. You feel like you’re moving forward on the top four or five things on your list and then, every few days, the top one on your list gets crossed off. It’s finished! And it feels great!

Now, some of you will probably run off and start applying this idea to their own long list of undone projects. I know I certainly would if I were in your shoes. However, others might also want a list of ideas to get started with this concept. So, what follows are 15 ideas for personal finance projects that would work well with persistent starting.

This doesn’t have to be your list, not at all. Just copy down the ones that seem compelling to you and do those.

1. Air seal your home. This project is all about reducing and eliminating air leaks in your home so that in the summer, hot air doesn’t leak in, and in the winter, warm air doesn’t leak out. Keeping warm and cool separated helps greatly with your energy bills.

2. Prepare meals in advance for the week. Make a few dinners for the week and put them in the fridge in reusable containers. This is a great Sunday afternoon project, as it can basically eliminate your meal prep time for most of the week.

3. Learn about the investment options in your Roth IRA and 401(k). Many people, when they sign up for a Roth IRA or a 401(k) or a 403(b), essentially choose an investment option at random. They follow someone’s recommendation and then tell themselves that they’ll review the options more later. That time is now.

4. Make some jam or jelly. A jar of jam or jelly in the fridge makes for a great topping for toast or addition to a bowl of oatmeal. It also makes for a great holiday gift. In the past, I’ve described making wine jelly and making caramel apple jam.

5. Read a thought-provoking personal finance or investing book (or any other thought-provoking book). Head down to the library and check out something like Your Money or Your Life or Early Retirement Extreme or my own book. Or choose something else on an entirely different subject.

6. Make some homemade laundry detergent. I’ve made my own homemade laundry detergent many times, and as you can see here it does a pretty good job. It also saves somewhere around $0.30 per load in my latest calculations, so when I make a batch that’s enough for 50 loads, that’s a savings of $15.

7. Make a quadruple batch of a meal and freeze the three extra batches. We do this regularly – in the last month, we’ve made a quadruple batch of our homemade lasagna and a triple batch of our enchiladas. We just freeze the extra batches, pulling them out of the freezer a day in advance so that meal prep the next evening is really easy.

8. Learn a new skill relevant to your profession. The Internet offers endless opportunities for learning new skills. You can take an online class, whether it’s a formal one that might be part of a certification or a degree program or something that you might find on Skillshare or Duolingo. You can simply find a tutorial and practice the material at home yourself.

9. Clean out a closet and sell off everything you haven’t used in a year. Almost everyone has a closet or two… or a rafter in their garage… or a storage shed… where items of all kinds have accumulated. Often, these are things that we think we’ll use later, but it turns out that we never get around to it. Clear out those places. Find things you haven’t used in a year or more, then sell them off. Take that money and do something actually useful with it.

10. Organize and centralize all of your important papers. It’s easy to get your papers disorganized. A central filing system can make things easier, but it takes some time to set up. This is a great project to do in stages – collecting all of your papers, sorting them into groups, organizing each group, then storing all of those papers.

11. Make some homemade soap. Homemade soap is not only a refreshing addition to your own toiletry supply, but it can also make for a wonderful gift for friends and family. In fact, we provided homemade soap as a gift to all guests for a recent wedding of a close friend. Here’s a tutorial on our homemade soap making process. Don’t be afraid to add your own variations to that structure!

12. Make handmade stationery to give as a gift. Homemade stationery makes for a classy gift, plus you can keep a few for yourself for personal use. Stationery like this really stands out from the pack because of the personal touch. Here’s how to make your own homemade stationery, whether you give it away as a gift or keep it for yourself.

13. Get in touch with some of the people in your professional network that you haven’t contacted in a while. It’s as simple as sitting down and sending some emails or personal messages on social media. Simply ask how that person is doing and also perhaps add a positive comment or two about things you’ve seen from them on social media or elsewhere. Make sure you have at least a question or two about them in there to encourage follow-up and perhaps launch a conversation.

14. Make some frozen lunches in small resealable containers. One thing I like to do is make a large batch of soup in the slow cooker in the morning, then package all of it into a bunch of small containers that are sized for individual meals in the evening. I then freeze these containers and then just thaw them whenever I need a nice little lunch. It’s as easy as can be – most of the work happens when you’re at work!

15. Make a reliable database of your family’s favorite meals in Paprika. Paprika is an absolutely essential part of my family’s meal planning routine, but it does require some initial effort to really shine. You really need to have all of your regular family meals in the database in order to make meal planning truly effortless, and adding those recipes takes time. It’s a great project that’s really worth the time.

Regardless of whether you choose to use any of these projects, persistent starting is a powerful tool for getting things accomplished in your life. I’ve become a huge fan of it over the past few weeks and I think it’s going to become a permanent part of my life.

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