Updated on 09.11.09


Trent Hamm

Many evenings, you’ll find me around my house reading a book or writing a short story or polishing a post for The Simple Dollar or working on a book of my own. I enjoy doing it – the act of writing, and even learning how to improve my writing, is very enjoyable to me. The real kicker, though, is that the more I write, the better I get. It gets easier to come up with ideas, find useful phrases, and put together a sequence of thoughts into something that others might enjoy reading. The better I get, the more enjoyable and pure it becomes – instead of struggling, I can usually turn those ideas in my head into words quite quickly and pretty effectively.

In other words, writing for fun is a synergistic activity for me – not only do I enjoy doing it, but the more I do it, the better I get at it (and thus the more I can potentially earn by doing it). For me, writing is “fun with a kicker” – it’s something I enjoy in the moment as a pastime, but it also builds into a useful skill – and sometimes a useful product.

One of my aunts does something similar. She doesn’t get around too well, but her hands are still steady and precise. In order to fill her hours with something that keeps her hands strong, is personally fulfilling to her, and turns a small profit, she knits and crochets for hours every day, producing blankets and sweaters by the ton. She gives many away as gifts and also sells some of them for pocket money. Her skill has grown to the point where her homemade items are highly prized.

Not too long ago, I also talked about my close friend John, who bought a piece of land to develop slowly entirely by himself. He gets to spend his free time outside doing things he enjoys, but it has a nice “kicker” in that the more he improves the land, the more value it has.

All of these examples are really examples of synergy – things that people enjoy in the now that also add value over the long term. I get to enjoy reading and writing now – but I build my skills as a writer and I sometimes produce things that can actually put cash in my pocket. My aunt enjoys knitting and crocheting – but she also produces gifts and a few things to sell for pocket money, too. John enjoys clearing brush and working outside – but he’s also improving the value of his land.

Over the last few years, I’ve found that the more synergy you add to your life, the easier it is to get ahead. Here are a few additional examples.

I started using a calendar (and carrying a pocket notebook). Until a few years ago, I didn’t really use a calendar at all – I didn’t believe I had enough things to remember. The end result is that I would often have lots of bits of info in my head, floating around, taking up space, and sometimes I’d still wind up slapping my forehead, realizing that I had forgotten something important. Starting a calendar (I use GCal) meant that I could quickly jot down any information that’s stuck in my mind right now (a current benefit, as it means I’m not wasting brain space on keeping things in the front of my mind) and also know what’s coming up on any given day (a future benefit, as I’m no longer forgetting important things). In short, I now believe everyone can really use a calendar. The same basic idea goes for a pocket notebook for writing down those things that aren’t associated with a particular date (ideas, etc.) – it helps me now by clearing out my brainspace and helps me later by allowing me to flawlessly retrieve information and ideas.

I started cooking at home. Cooking at home right now simply means that I get a meal on the table for my family to eat – an obvious short term benefit. Many people think that it ends there, though – you’re just saving a few bucks now compared to eating out. The truth, though, is that there’s a long-term benefit to cooking – you learn how to do it better, faster, and easier. I can now chop vegetables way faster than I used to (but still far slower than actual chefs). I can just throw together many basic dishes without glancing at a recipe, making them faster and more flexible. This makes meals prepared at home today cheaper and faster than meals prepared at home a few years ago – a skill that I’ve built myself that will stick with me forever. And there’s still tons of room for improvement, too – I’ll just keep getting better.

I spend undistracted time with my kids. The cell phone goes off. The iPod Touch stays in the house. The books remain on the shelf (unless I’m intentionally reading in front of them to show them that reading is a normal, healthy adult behavior). In the short term, the time playing with them is a lot of fun – lots of laughter, a bit of exercise, and pure enjoyment. In the long term, though, I’m building a trusting relationship there – one that might not hold up through everything, but is much more likely to sustain through both of our lives than a “relationship” where I do nothing with them.

I clean the house vigorously. About once a week, I’ll turn on the stereo on the main floor, pop in some up-tempo music, and clean like gangbusters for an hour or two. I rush around as fast as I can, getting myself out of breath in the process. I really enjoy this – I tend to get lost in the music and just rush around on a cloud of adrenaline. In the short term, it gets the house clean (or at least presentable) quickly. But there are several kickers to this. I’m quite happy to have guests pop in all the time because the house is almost always presentable, which helps with my social network. I’m also getting exercise (I always wind up really sweaty and out of breath after busting it for a good hour), which improves my long-term health.

Get the idea? I strive to fill my life with things I enjoy now that have long-term benefits down the road. The more activities with synergy that I choose today, the better my life is in the future.

Not sure how this can work in your life? Here are a few additional examples that you might be able to use yourself.

Enjoy hanging out with others? Start filling your social calendar with inexpensive activities, like dinner parties (even potluck ones), game nights, movie nights, and other such activities where you can invite people over to your house – and perhaps get invitations to others in return. Not only will you find yourself filling your evenings with inexpensive social activities (a big plus), you’ll also find that you’re building a lot of good relationships that will come through for you later (a big plus).

Enjoy sports? Get involved with the parks and recreation department in your town. Participate in as many activities as you can and volunteer to coach youth sports as well. This helps in the short term by giving you tons of activities to participate in, but it also helps in the long run because of the relationships you’ll be building with others – parents, teenagers, and so on. You’ll keep in shape, meet lots of new people, and grow as a person.

Enjoy watching television? Start a blog on those topics, throw a few ads on the site, and post every day. You can get started at Blogspot. Write episode summaries mixed in with your own commentary on your favorite shows. Having a keyboard in front of you typing your reactions to what you see takes something passive (just watching) into something that builds a skill (writing) and potentially turns a profit (the blog). No matter what, it’s better than sitting there just watching time pass.

What are you doing in your life today that’s both fun and synergistic? Are you simply burning through your hours – or are you engaged in enjoyable things that are also building skills, traits, and products that you can utilize in the long run?

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  1. Lee says:

    Very true. If you dive far back into your archives as I have done, you can see all the little improvements over time. I’m not saying your old stuff is bad – far from it, but there is no disputing that as you get to more modern posts, they just keep getting better.

    Writing synergy is real. I’ve only been blogging for a month now, but every post comes just that little bit easier. I started off with a middle but struggled for the beginning and an end. Now it just happens and to me at least, it makes sense and flows reasonably well.

    Here’s to the next 5 years of TSD :)


  2. T'Pol says:

    I recently got “on Writing” by Stephen King per your recommendation. It is truly inspiring. Just wanted to thank you!

  3. Eden Jaeger says:

    Great tips. There are a lot of things I want to get better at, but I don’t really put in the time on a regular basis to make that happen. I need to try to work these things into my daily routine.

    For the ‘On Writing’ commenter- I just finished it about a week ago and absolutely loved it. It left me with the feeling that I should be pursuing that dream I’ve had for many years but always neglected because I never believed someone like me could really do it.

  4. Joan says:

    I made a commitment about two months ago to spend my free time doing things that I enjoy that are also productive or beneficial to my family.

    Sometimes, that just means playing board games with my 9-year-old daughter instead of each of us doing our own thing.

    One example: My biggest hobby is scrapbooking, which not only is FUN for me, it greatly reduces clutter – our photos from decades are getting organized and sorted – but it also blesses my family; we sometimes work together on albums, and we all, even my husband, enjoy sitting down and looking through them.

    Another example is that I do math/logic puzzles to wind down before bed. They keep my mind sharp and are very relaxing, both more so than watching TV.

  5. J.D. Roth says:

    Trent, I am very very confused by your use of the word “synergy” here. I don’t think it means what you think it means. Synergy is when two things blend together in new and exciting ways: “you got your peanut butter in my chocolate”, etc. I don’t have a name for the concept you’re describing, but it’s not synergy.

    Synergy is quite literally the state where the whole is more than the sum its parts. It is not, as you say, “things that people enjoy in the now that also add value over the long term”.

    (This reminds me of your recent tweet about declaring inbox zero when you actually meant you had declared email bankruptcy! Very different things.)

    Am I missing something here?

  6. Kevin says:

    @J.D. – No.

    Perhaps Trent is engaging in a bit of poetic license.


  7. prodgod says:

    I was thinking the same thing, J.D.

    But I love the article, anyway!

  8. Steven says:

    I gotta agree with J.D. because synergy isn’t being used correctly here.

    In two examples, writing and cooking, you are practicing and developing a skill.

    “I strive to fill my life with things I enjoy now that have long-term benefits down the road.”

    Words that come to mind: efficient, fufilling, productive, multitask, and enrichment.

  9. Steven says:

    Ack… need an edit button…

    Thought I’d chime in that it was a great article, and this is just semantics. I just re-read what I wrote, after hitting submit, that it might sound a little condescending and didn’t mean it that way.

  10. Jenzer says:

    When I read this, I thought of the term “multi-purposing.” If you go to the Backwoods Home web site and look up the article “Simplifying Simplicity,” the author describes multi-purposing as “mak[ing] one activity serve several purposes.”

  11. Michelle says:

    Writing for the examiner has been my thing recently. Your blog inspired me to start writing and now I can write about what interests me most–sexual health. You can make a little bit of money every month. It’s not a lot, but the better you get at putting articles together, the more money you make. I’m planning on buying a domain for my own blog one day but until then, I have this.

  12. russds says:

    I love the idea of synergy. In fact, i recently started writing about how I’ve noticed that when my wife and i work with synergy we accomplish twice as much in half the time. It’s a great tool, and should utilized as much as possible.

  13. I’ve managed to make my frugality, fitness, decluttering and foody obsessions synergistic by
    forcing myself not to spend more than 20 Euro a week on food. I am eating mostly vegetarian food, emptying out my kitchen cabinets (a whole cabinet has been reclaimed for pans that used to be piled up under the sink), I’m not snacking because there’s nothing to snack on, and I’m forced to get creative with what I cook.

    I’m beginning to think my running is also finally becoming synergistic in the sense that Trent is tlking about.

  14. Chelsea says:

    So very true, although you didn’t mention the most obvious thing (to me)- playing a musical instrument.

    I’m not a writer, but I’ve this same phenomenon in my life. Cooking at home has made me a better cook, and while I’ll never be a foodie, I know how to throw together a quick and tasty dinner. Also in my job I do a lot of SAS programming. When I started I “knew” how to program, but I was constantly getting frustrated by error messages. While I academically understood how SAS was supposed to work before, it took a year of pretty much daily programming before I truly understood how it worked and could use it efficiently.

    Reminds me of that book… I think it’s called 10,000 hours where it takes 10,000 hours of practice at something to get really good at it.

  15. In the Money says:

    I agree with JD here in that you are not using the concept of synergy in the right way here. JD is right in defining it as “the whole is more than the sum of the parts.” Still, I really enjoyed your post. I think it is very nice that you can enjoy yourself doing the things you love. Maybe this concept is more leveraging the things you love to do to enhance your life and further build your skills.

  16. MoneyEnergy says:

    It’s synergy as cooperation – synergy in the sense that you can be fulfilling more than one goal at a time – your several goals can be working together “synergistically” in one activity and thus produce a larger outcome than you might expect.

    Oh, I think commenter #14 is referring to the book _Outliers_ – 10,000 hours of practice is outlined in there as what you need to really break a stride of expertise with something.

  17. Susan says:

    Cooking at home is synergistic. Not only does one improve one’s skills, save money, etc but it provides quality time and relationship building with family. Trent’s children will have fond memories of their father cooking for them and the meals and good times spent together. We parent in much the same way that our parents parented. Trent’s children will be more likely to value preparing nutritious meals for their families as well. In the shorter term, Trent’s children will bring their friends home some day and having good food around will encourage youthful congregation in their home. Trent and his wife will get to know their children’s friends, hear what is happening in their lives and have a positive influence in the lives of the young people who visit thier home. They are creating the beginnings of what my husband and I call a ‘kid magnet’ home. As a parent, this is a good thing.

  18. Johanna says:

    The way I read it, it sounds like Trent’s talking about sort of a “self-syngergy” – the productivity of two hours of writing is more than the productivity of one hour of writing plus one hour of writing, just like, say, the deliciousness of peanut butter and chocolate is more than the deliciousness of peanut butter plus the deliciousness of chocolate.

  19. Really good advice.

    I always have a small notebook and almost always have my calendar with me– always have since college.

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