10 Personal Productivity & Personal Finance Techniques

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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