The core message behind The Simple Dollar can be boiled down to five simple words, words that have been repeated many times on this site.
Spend less than you earn.
Often, the focus is on the “spend less” part of the equation. It’s a good part to talk about because it provides immediate financial results, it gives people tangible projects to work on and think about, and the strategies apply to almost everyone.
Still, it’s only part of the equation. The other part is all about the money you earn.
A large majority of Americans are employed in some fashion, whether working at a traditional job, working as a freelancer, or building their own business. The wide variety of things that people do to earn money might seem as radically different from each other as different colors in the rainbow, but the truth is that there are a ton of similarities between them.
In fact, there are six skills that pretty much anyone can use to improve their earnings potential at work. No matter what your job is, if you apply these six skills in the workplace, you’re setting yourself up for better pay in the future.
A person with good negotiating skills is capable of simply going to their boss (or their clients), presenting their work in a positive way, and effectively asking for a promotion or a higher rate of pay (or other benefits).
Many people don’t do this, for quite a few reasons. One, they’re afraid of the conversation. Talking to their boss in such a way seems intimidating and they visualize unrealistic negative outcomes. No boss is going to fire you because you ask for a raise; they might say “no,” but no one is getting fired or getting reprimanded for making their case. Two, if they do have the courage to do it, they don’t present their case well. They simply don’t provide any good reasons for getting a raise, which would mean they have some attributes that differentiate them from a random new hire. Three, they easily accept “no” for an answer and don’t negotiate. Often, “no” is just a starting point.
Building this skill is going to help you get more pay for the job you do now and earn better starting pay for the next job that you have. You can start building it by reading a few key books on negotiation – I recommend Pre-Suasion by Robert Cialdini and Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher and William Ury.
Then, practice using those skills in less important situations. Look for any and all situations in your life where you’re negotiating with someone or trying to convince someone to do something and then use the techniques from this book. When you’re a bit practiced, then use them at the negotiating table for your salary.
Courage to Speak Up
In many, many work situations, the prevailing response among employees is to simply say nothing at all about workplace inefficiencies and challenges. Just keep your nose down, do your job, don’t talk about the problems, and most of all, don’t volunteer for anything.
Believe it or not, that’s actually the perfect way to make sure that you never earn another dime and never get a promotion. It makes sure that you stay unnoticed, and the unnoticed person doesn’t get raises. They don’t get promotions. They often lose out when it comes to hours.
Even at the most entry level of jobs, the courage to speak up is vital, and it only gets more vital as you move up the chain.
Be aware, of course, that there’s a difference between speaking up and constantly complaining. Here’s a simple way to tell the difference. Complaining has the focus on benefiting you – it is a complaint about a situation that makes your situation a little more difficult, but may be beneficial to others. Speaking up has the focus on benefiting the business – it is an observation about a situation that may be costing the business money or may be able to improve the efficiency of the business. Complain only when it is extreme; speak up only when it is clearly useful.
It takes courage to speak up, especially when it might mean more work for you in the short run, but it is that very courage to speak up that drastically increases your value as an employee.
No matter what your job is, there are aspects of time management involved. Knowing how to use your time smartly to get all of your required tasks done well in the time allotted to you is something that’s useful no matter what your job is.
Time management allows you to get all of your stuff done without having to work extra (often unpaid time). Time management allows you to do a little extra in order to stand out (or to build good relationships with coworkers). Good time management cuts directly into the stress of working, allowing you to focus better and also feel more calm and in control.
There are lots of simple systems for time management. Most of them tend to be variations on the standard to-do list, where you simply write down the tasks that need to be done, add new ones as they come into your mind or are given to you, and then just focus on the top task on the list and get it done as efficiently as possible. For people with lots of scheduled meetings and the like, a combination of a calendar and a to-do list works best, with the items on the to-do list filling in the gaps between the calendar events. A pocket notebook and a pen handles this very well for most entry-level jobs.
As your job becomes more demanding with a greater variety of tasks, a good to-do list app for your phone that syncs with your computer can be really useful. I really like Todoist in terms of a “bang for the buck” to-do list app (I use Omnifocus, but I don’t think the price difference is worth it – OmniFocus is better, but not that much better), and I absolutely love Google Calendar.
Even if you have the best time management skills in the world, you still have to pair that with the ability to actually get things done. That means you have to be able to just turn to the task at hand and take care of it, then do that over and over and over again. That’s work ethic and it’s probably the most valuable thing you can have in the workplace. It will make you very valuable as an employee (making it much easier to negotiate a raise or a promotion) and it’s also what you need to be able to take on more challenging opportunities.
How do you build work ethic? I think, for many people, one key ingredient that ties into work ethic is focus (I think most people with deeper work ethic issues are probably not reading something called “The Simple Dollar” to improve their finances or career). Most people are willing to work, but many people have difficulty maintaining focus on their task. They get distracted by everything from their phone to their coworkers to a conversation to their daydreams to whatever happens to be going on outside at the moment.
So, then, how does one improve focus? The most effective strategy is to minimize distractions. Close your door and put up a “do not disturb” sign sometimes. Turn off your cell phone and close your web browser and email program. Close the blinds if at all possible. Make it so that there’s almost nothing in your area but you and your task.
Another thing I find incredibly useful when it comes to focus is mindful meditation. It’s basically the equivalent of going to the gym, except that you’re exercising your mental muscle that you use when you’re focusing. It’s really easy to do and it takes just five minutes, though the benefits really only start to appear if you do it daily (or multiple times a day). Just sit in a comfortable place, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. Your mind is flat-out going to wander when you do this, and that’s fine. Just notice your mind wandering and then bring it back to your breath. Every time you notice it and bring attention back to your breath, you’re basically flexing your mental focusing “muscle,” and it works like a champ. It helps me with being calm, it helps me with staying focused on the task at hand, and it helps me with dealing with a sense of being overwhelmed. I can’t recommend doing this highly enough.
Another key aspect of work ethic is simple commitment to the job. The key thing to always remember is that someone is paying you for the work you produce and if you wish to be paid more for that work, you’ve got to produce more than the other guy. You’ve got to produce more than someone off the street. Because, like it or not, that’s how your employer views you on some level. You’re an exchange of money for some type of production, and if someone else can produce as much for less money or can produce more for the same money, it’s hard to make a case for you. Put yourself in their shoes – would you rather hire the guy that can produce three things a day for $100 in pay or the guy that can produce four? If you want that raise, you’ve got to work for it. Don’t slack off at work. Prepare your mind to focus on the task at hand. Get down to business.
By positive networking, I simply mean establishing relationships with other workers that are purely positive in nature, meaning that they don’t revolve around building negative feelings or negative relationships with others.
The truth is that, no matter what you do, you’re never going to be universally liked and you’re never going to universally like everyone. That’s just the reality of life. The question isn’t how you feel or how others feel about you, but about how you present those feelings.
The reality is that very few people want relationships with people who consistently express negativity. In some workplaces, you might find a person or two with a big chip on their shoulder. You may even find that those people have a close circle around them, a few sycophants who agree and support the negative person. In reality, though? You don’t want them around. Others don’t want them around. Often, unless they have some sort of special claim to power, their days are numbered.
Instead, the person that most people want to work with is the person that is friendly and positive to everyone. That doesn’t mean excessive cheeriness; it means acknowledging others, listening to others, offering useful ideas and feedback when asked, participating in conversations, and never offering up negative criticism unless it’s privately given.
I’ll give you an example. I once worked with a person who would never, ever say a negative word about you around anyone else. You would never hear him speak negatively about another person, whether that person was present or not. The only time he ever uttered anything that was critical would be in a one-on-one situation or by email, and it was usually delivered side by side with positive things and in a way that was obviously intended to make you better off.
That guy was a very ordinary looking guy. He didn’t always speak well. He was a bit overweight and had some seriously nerdy interests. But everyone loved him. Everyone valued his advice. He basically had a job for life and was often rewarded with raises and no one minded in the least.
It was because he was incredibly good at positive networking. He made an effort to build a positive back-and-forth relationship with everyone in the office and he simply avoided criticism. If someone came to him and was critical about someone else, he usually would just say nothing at all or he’d gently point out something positive about the person or he’d redirect the complaint to an actual supervisor. If you wanted to just have a conversation about anything, he was almost always open for it. If you asked for feedback on something, he’d dig deep to find some positive things to say to pair with the criticism if he felt the need to criticize.
I have occasionally worked with people who behaved like this at work and every single time it was a genuine pleasure to work with them. Every single time, those people were rewarded with sustained employment, raises, and promotions.
Be that person. Don’t engage in negativity in the workplace, ever. If you have to criticize someone, do it privately and couch it in the things they do well. Make an effort to establish a positive relationship with everyone. If someone else is negative in a conversation, don’t participate in the negativity.
This is the final skill you can practice in the workplace that will help you improve your income and it’s perhaps the most important of all of them. Leadership simply means being the person that steps up when something is needed by a group of people. It means being the person willing to come up with a plan or to take action on behalf of a team of people.
It doesn’t mean being the manager. In fact, quite often, the best kind of leadership doesn’t come from a manager.
Think about your workplace. Think about the person there you go to when there’s a problem or a challenge or you need help figuring out a plan. Think about the person everyone looks at when there’s a workplace challenge or a big project. That person is the leader. Why is that person the leader? That person is the one who comes up with a plan. That person is the one who goes around, figures out the consensus, and says it.
In a nutshell, being a leader is basically a combination of the other skills presented here. A good leader is a positive networker, with good relationships with everyone. A good leader isn’t afraid to speak up. A good leader is good at managing their time. A good leader has a good work ethic. A good leader can negotiate. If you combine all of those traits into one person, you add up to someone who is naturally going to become a leader.
If you’d like to get started trying to wrap your hands and your mind around leadership, I suggest starting with the book Start With Why by Simon Sinek, which is itself based on Sinek’s amazing TED talk based on that same topic which you can watch for free.
As I said in the section on leadership, these elements are all rather interconnected. All six of these behaviors tend to reinforce each other. Time management reinforces a good work ethic, and vice versa. Positive networking tends to feed right into leadership. Negotiation skills tend to lend themselves directly to the courage to speak up, as you’re burning your fear of hearing “no.” These skills all help each other.
More importantly, though, they all collectively boost you. They make you into a better liked and more valuable employee no matter where you’re working. They make you into a person that is not only more personally productive, but boosts the productivity of others. They make you into a person who leans into challenges rather than leaning away from them.
Those are the traits that every company in the world is looking for and they will pay for them. Practice these skills and build them. Make them part of how you naturally behave in the workplace. Rewards will follow, no matter what your job is.