Updated on 09.17.14

10 Personal Productivity & Personal Finance Techniques

Trent Hamm

An ongoing discussionIn the past two weeks, several people have written me asking how I manage to get my finances in order, work full time, maintain this blog, be a good father and husband, read two books and a few magazines a week, and not go completely crazy. While this isn’t strictly a personal finance topic, I often feel that putting effort into having a full and flexible life often helps me in keeping my finances and especially my life in great shape.

Here are ten things I do that enable me to stay productive day in and day out. Some of these may work for you; others may not. I do recommend, however, giving each one a fair shake – I give a few pointers for how you can take a baby step to get started with each one.

1. GTD – or at least a subset of it. If you’ve surfed around on the internet much, you’ve probably heard about GTD, a personal productivity philosophy. The concept was introduced by the book Getting Things Done by David Allen, and a lot of people are using it in various ways to organize their crazy lives. I’ll have an opportunity later on this site to wax ecstatic about this book (think books that changed my life), but I will say that for me, a simplified version of what he suggests works well. I use a checklist of tasks that immediately have to be done, and also have a notebook which contains all of my projects, one on each page. On each page, I have a checklist for each one that I go through. Every day or two, I scoop the next item for each project onto my main to-do checklist. This way, I’m always making progress on larger projects.

How can you get started? When you get home, make a list of stuff you’d like to accomplish this evening, then move through it as best you can. You don’t have to do it all tonight, just do as much as you can. Then take the list with you tomorrow and add things to it as you think of them. Eventually, it becomes ongoing, and if you start to latch onto this, Getting Things Done is really a good read.

2. If you start something, finish it Whenever I consider beginning a new task, I ask myself what the likelihood is that I’ll finish it in this sitting. If the answer is no because the project is huge, I try to break it down into pieces that can be accomplished. If the answer is no because of other time commitments (i.e., I only have ten minutes), I find something else to do. To me, a half-finished task is like buying something on a credit card and then not paying the whole balance – you’re going to burn extra time every time you re-start a task. So just don’t do it.

How can you get started? The easiest way is to practice breaking things down into small, manageable chunks, and then completing those small pieces.

3. Proper nutrition, especially vitamins and lots of water I take a multivitamin every morning religiously and most mornings I chase it with a bowl of oatmeal. Then, during the day, I drink six or eight glasses of water. I used to not do this, but since I started, I can’t tell you how alive it makes me feel. Plus, it makes me feel full, which helps me to keep my eating in check, saving both my health and my money.

How can you get started? Drink water every time you feel thirsty at all. Keep a water bottle near you. Also, eat more whole grains and also consider vitamins if appropriate.

4. Lots and lots of notes One problem I used to have was that I would come up with an idea, but then by the time I had an opportunity to look into it further, the idea would be gone from my head. I solved this by carrying around a small pile of notes with a clip and a pen in my pocket (a hipster PDA, sort of) and I just jot down everything I think I need to remember. Later, I go through the pile and piece through them to see what follow-up needs to happen on each one.

How can you get started? Keep a piece of scratch paper and a pen on you at all times, and use it to jot down ideas right when you have them. Then review the paper later.

5. Effective reading, not speedreading Whenever I consider reading something nonfiction, I usually do a thirty second “blitz read” to see whether it’s interesting: a quick skim of the article along with a few random stops in the middle to see if it’s of interest. If I’m not intrigued, I move on. It’s that simple. With fiction, I usually peruse reviews quickly to see if it’s of interest, but my fiction reading generally sticks with personal recommendations, major award winners, and short stories. Any “speed” I have for reading is mostly the result of practice, as I set aside some time each day to read lengthy items (i.e., things longer than a blog post).

How can you get started? If you read something and it seems pointless to you, don’t bother finishing it. You’ve got more useful things to do with your time than trying to dig through something that doesn’t enlighten or excite you.

6. Natural pick-me-ups When I get the afternoon or evening doldrums, I use a natural pick me up. For me, this is usually something citrusy, like an orange or a fruit blend and some water. I also spend a few minutes just walking at a rapid pace; I’ll get up and just stroll somewhere and come back in about ten minutes right after eating the orange. It’s also a lot cheaper than hitting the vending machine for an artificial pep like Mountain Dew.

How can you get started? Get some oranges and eat one when you start sagging, then go for a stroll to get the blood pumping again.

7. Elimination of distractions It wasn’t all that long ago that I would come home and vegetate in front of the television. Now, our television is rarely ever on; when it is, it’s on to watch a specific program or to obtain specific information (such as a weather report or a school cancellation). When that’s done, the television goes off and stays off. I don’t give myself the opportunity to even get sucked into something; I just leave the thing off and spend my time focusing on things that have a higher value for me.

How can you get started? Leave your television or your internet access (whichever activity is your favorite sedentary evening activity) off for a few nights and instead focus on doing other things that you want to do, particularly those things that require some investment of your mind. Mark a few things off of your list that you made with step one, read a book on a topic of interest to you, work on structuring your finances, or just write some nice handwritten thank-you notes to people. I used to wonder how on earth I would burn my evenings; now I have more ideas than I have time to do.

8. Sleep training I sleep about five to six hours a night. I stay up every night until I literally can’t keep my eyes open, and so my final half an hour is usually filled with tasks that I can do in a sleepy stupor – unloading the dishwasher and stuff. The big advantage is that I’m out like a light very quickly after my head hits the pillow.

How can you get started? The best thing I can suggest is to practice on the weekends a bit. Stay up until you can’t stay awake any more, then set your alarm to get up early and get up. Doing this on Friday night, then following it on Saturday works well.

9. Maximizing my time I try to utilize every second I can to do something worthwhile. The trick is defining what worthwhile is; I view playing with my son as worthwhile, for example, so every minute I do that is something fulfilling. This means I’ll read a newspaper article while I’m using the restroom, or I’ll listen to a book on tape while on my morning or evening commute. This means I practice my piano skills while holding my son on my lap (and he hits the keys between me), or that I plan out blog posts while waiting for someone else to tee off while on the golf course. I try to never let my mind rest unless…

How can you get started? Try listening to a book on tape during your morning and evening commute. Thanks to my local library, I’ve been able to enjoy a number of books this way.

10. Meditate Unless I meditate. I usually meditate for a half an hour or so directly after my evening commute, before my wife and son arrive home. I simply turn on some ambient music, sit, and close my eyes for a while without falling asleep. It’s almost like a brain reboot, and it’s incredible. After I’m done, I simply am completely ready to tackle whatever the evening hands me.

How can you get started? Turn on some quiet music (and turn off everything else) and just try to think about nothing. I usually imagine the small farmstead that I grew up on and how it made me feel when I was young. Then I just drift.

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  1. MFJ says:

    Wow very informative. I dunno if my body could function on 5 hours of sleep though.

  2. Brett says:

    Great post, Trent. Just curious,how early do you get up?

  3. I just love this post. It’s my favorite
    And while reading this article, I
    *drank water
    *made a list
    *meditated on meditating
    *looked for my vitamins

    I also need more than five-six hours of sleep.
    Take Care!

  4. Way to go. Everything on your list is on mine – just you are doing it!

    I need to learn to keep myself from being distracted. Seems the tyranny of the urgent always supersedes the truly important.

  5. Daniel says:

    My body definitely needs a little more sleep than that, but it’s understanding my bodies needs and working with them that makes me productive. I am not the person who stayed up for “all nighters” before exams or projects. If I couldn’t finish something by midnight or so, I went to bed. I could do better work in a smaller amount of time if I went to sleep earlier and woke up early. I’ve written a number of papers for college between the hours of 4 and 7 am.

  6. Nico says:

    I’m going to try some of these things soon. MY personal problem is the internet and pc games. I usually have thousands of better things to do than play counter strike source or surfing the web. So “7. Elimination of distractions” fits perfectly here!
    Unfortunately I made the mistake to join an alliance in some online space strategy game so I had to be online quite often. But the game ends this month and I decided not to ever waste my time this way again :)

    The only thing that wouldn’t work for me is to stay up until you can’t keep your eyes open anymore. If I’d do that, I’d go to bed after lunch or something.

  7. Vinaya says:

    Great article. I maintain all my tasks in a simple portable notebook with tear-off sheets. Works like a charm.

  8. Chris says:

    It’d be interesting if you’d review the book:
    “In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed” by Carl Honore and see what you think. Squeezing every minute out of every day and continually multitasking are unhealthy (for most people).

    Also, you rarely mention your family in the list of things that make you most productive. So many of us gain motivation for productive work from our friends and family. I hope that part of your productivity strategy isn’t sacrificing valuable time with them. Why do we measure ourselves so much by our personal output and what our jobs are?

  9. John says:

    The best method of long-term productivity is to treat yourself and your family well and live to a ripe old age of 100 or so. Personally, I wouldn’t be able to manage this, living a life sleeping 5-6 hrs/night and trying to make every second count. I’d probably find myself 45 yrs old either in the intensive care unit following coronary bypass or the psychiatric ward of the closest hospital. Think of it in terms of compounding interest and a long-term investment: let’s say you can stay productive until you’re 75 or 80 (being conservative) vs the alternative – sacrificing health and slowing in productivity by 45 or 50. Those 30 or so yrs would provide a darn good amount of interest and return.

  10. Kevin says:

    I just started taking my blog more seriously. It certainly does take some time out of the day. I also recently started working on a small clothing company. So along with all the usual living stuff that a Dad has to do, I’ve been super busy.

    I have to work on the notepad thing! I’ve been meaning to give it a try. I do the meditation thing in the morning. I sit, close my eyes, and visualize what I want my day and life to be like (and I just dift a bit too).

    This is a great post. Thank-you!

  11. db says:

    My trick for productivity is to keep a running list of things that need doing — sort of a mini project plan for the project that is my life. When I do this and just stay focused on getting things done on the list, it’s amazing what I can do. I keep separate lists for work projects and home projects. “Load dishwasher” is an ok list item!

    Of course, when I don’t work my list I’m a terrible slacker.

  12. plonkee says:

    Another one that needs more than 5 hours sleep. I function well on about 7 hours.

    I find that procrastination is my major problem.
    I have a bunch of things to do (think housekeeping) that I just don’t want to do so I put them off. I guess I just need to work on it.

  13. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Almost every day, the period from 5 PM to about 8:30 PM is untouchable. That is family time, and I spend it preparing dinner for my wife and child, eating with them, playing with my son for a while, putting him to bed (alternating with my wife every other night), cleaning a bit, and just talking with my wife. Before this period is usually when I meditate, and after this period is usually when I crank through my “to-do” list.

  14. Moe says:

    You must live in NY, because here in the “city that never sleeps” life is way too fast. I get around 6 hours of sleep and still feel tired. I never took vitamins, so I will consider that route.

    Also, I hate paper organizers. Having to carry a notebook, or organizer annoys me. I do however have a smartphone and it does keep me organized. I just have to be more “religious” in getting things done.

    I’m also a Husband, Father, full-time employee for a big company, Co-Pastor of a small church with teaching and preaching responsibilities 2 times a week and you can tell how much time I have for myself.

    Having some “alone” time definately helps. We need to make days “26 hours” rather than 24.

  15. TMac says:

    Trent, Great post.

    I have found that I am incredibly more productive when I work out in the morning. About 40 minutes of cardio in the morning usually gives me an incredible feeling or alertness and recptiveness when I get to work.


  16. Nuno Castro says:

    Until recently, I thought I couldn’t sleep less than 7-8 hours a day, mainly because about everybody says that you need to sleep 8 hours a day, but also because when I slept less than that, i felt drowsy and sleepy during the day.
    The thing is you can sleep about 5-6 hours a day and feel more energic than you do with 8 hours. Of course you can’t change that suddently. The reason is that your sleep has several cycles, and each of these has a different depth. If you wake up in the middle of a cycle, you will be sleepy during the day. If you wake up at the end of a cycle, you will be ok. That’s why sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night, and feel like ready to go, nonetheless it’s still 5 am. The deeper sleep period is the first 4-5 hours.
    So my advice is that you reduce your sleep by 10 minutes each day until about 6 hours a day. Every person has different sleep cycles so then you can adjust the time by decreasing or increasing it by 10 or 20 minutes, and see how you feel.
    In the beginning it may cost a little, and i recommend you take a short nap (no more than one hour, otherwise you will enter a deeper sleep level) during the day, and you will feel ready to kick off !

  17. mike says:

    Everybody seems to be focusing in on the sleep element here, as I did. I’d love to be able to only sleep 5-6 hours a night and still feel fully funcational. Does anyone else have any info on that, in line with what the person above said? Maybe some scientific expertise?

  18. Vinit says:

    Excellent post, Trent !!

    I like what you mentioned about taking the tasks that you can complete within the time frame. I’ve lost so much time leaving tasks halfway and putting them off for later.

    Regarding sleep, I noticed that I used to need about 8 hours of sleep and when I made exercise a part of my daily routine, I had more satisfying sleep even though it was less than 7 hours. Also used to feel energetic after work and my day was more productive overall, which was not the case before I started working out.

  19. Andrew says:

    “Everybody seems to be focusing in on the sleep element here, as I did. I’d love to be able to only sleep 5-6 hours a night and still feel fully funcational. Does anyone else have any info on that, in line with what the person above said? Maybe some scientific expertise?”

    While I have no scientific expertise, I remember reading an article about the guy (steve something?) that set all kinds of records traveling in a hot air balloon.

    For sleep he would take short power naps that ranged from 20 seconds to a minute or two. That’s all he did to sustain himself and apparently science seems to back him up that power naps are the most useful kind.

    Nice post.

  20. Tony says:

    I enjoyed reading your comments and can relate. I am in the midst of completing an MBA program and have to utilize time management to get anything done. Your final note on meditation; I listen to a free meditation download (20 minutes) to help rejuvenate myself. Whenever I feel I need it. e.g.-home, lunch, break

    The link if anyone is interested:

  21. Amit says:

    This is an excellent article because it elicit strategies that you employ inside your head and it explains that process so that anyone who wants similar results can model it.

    It would be helpful if you would take snapshots of ur to do list and show how it related to one of ur major projects.

  22. Helen says:

    I have no scientific expertise, but as a sleep-deprived mother, I’ve researched it a bit and learned that poor sleep is as debilitating as alcohol and related to numerous health issues. Go google it and you’ll find news articles and scientific papers.

    You need good quality sleep. I’d say a good strategy is to avoid sleep disruptors – no caffeine after 4pm, avoid alcohol, and turn off the TV an hour before bed – sleep in a good quality bed, and share the parenting duties. Don’t try to squeeze productivity out of time when you should be sleeping – it will shorten your life.

    I’m also a bit wary of multi-tasking. You end up spending your life feeling that you should be doing something other than what you are doing at that moment. You are always torn between things and never fully attentive on the matter at hand.

    I liked the reminders about good nutrition and exercise, and minimal timewasters like TV.


  23. Callum says:

    A quick search for “sleep life expectancy” reveals a bunch of stuff about how sleeping less shortens your lifespan. As somebody mentioned earlier on this post, it’s a bit like compound interest.

    Here’s an article from the BBC about how sleep is the key to longer life. I’d warmly encourage anyone to explore this subject in more depth and then get a bit more sleep. :)

  24. bills says:

    For me, without a list of things to do, I would get very little done. It’s like out of site, out of mind. A list of things to do is a constant reminder.

  25. Ciligriessy says:

    You don’t really need or want that lifestyle, it might hurt y’all slowly more…….Just tell him you
    don’t wanna repeat something your not too proud of z7uas.

  26. bill free says:

    I like the one about vitamins and water. I, notice too, that when I eat healther, drink lots of water that I am much more alert and therefore, more productive.

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