When I sit back, take a breather, and evaluate the things I have on my plate, I often find that lots of little personal finance tasks have built up.
I’d like to finish my emergency information binder.
I’d like to spend some more time researching various Vanguard index funds.
I’d like to get caught up on my filing – I have a few months’ worth of papers just sitting in a box, unorganized.
I’d like to actually give Quicken for Mac a fair shake.
I’d like to sit down and run some serious numbers about our savings for our children’s college and see if it will be adequate for how much we want to help them.
The list goes on and on, actually.
With each of these tasks, I’d feel quite good if I was able to finish it up. Getting those papers to file out of the way would be very nice. Filling up my emergency information binder and getting it safely put away would provide some real peace of mind.
The problem is time. I look at each of these projects, think about them for a second, decide that I really don’t have time to tackle it right now, and move on to something else – writing an article (like this one), playing with my kids, working on a book draft, or something similar.
Yet, lately, I’ve actually been moving forward on each of these tasks. They’re not yet complete, but each one is seeing real forward progress. How? Here’s my method for digging through my personal finance chore list.
First, I just write down every such task that comes to mind. I don’t let them stay in my head at all – I get them down on paper. This is a basic tenet of the “Getting Things Done” philosophy, and I use it in almost every aspect of my life.
Second, when I have a nice long list, I break each item down into tiny bite-sized chunks of activity. An individual activity shouldn’t take more than five minutes at a time. So, for each task, I might have one activity that I’ll repeat a bunch of times, or a series of very simple steps. In either case, it guides me to the conclusion that I want.
Here’s examples from each of the five tasks I mention above.
For the emergency information binder, a simple action would be to simply fill out one item in the binder in detail. That’s it – just fill in one piece.
For the research, I just pledge to look up one fund and note the pieces of information I’m looking for for each one – just a handful of things.
For the filing, each action is simple – file five items out of my “to be filed” box.
For Quicken, the steps are easy – the first one is to simply run the installer program, then each action after that is to hook up a single account into the system.
The children’s savings issue is a bit more complicated, but it can still be broken down: get all the data I need for each account (the balance, the investments, the history of those investments), build a spreadsheet piece by piece to do the calculations I need, then run the numbers. Each piece of the spreadsheet could be a separate step.
When I have this giant list of easy five minute tasks, it’s a lot easier to convince myself to burn five minutes to do just one of them. Instead of sighing and thinking that I don’t have time to deal with three months’ worth of filing, I think “I have five minutes and I can make some progress right now!”
Then I jump up and get to work.
Why don’t you try the same thing? Make a big list of all of the personal finance tasks you’d like to get done, but haven’t. All of those tasks that you think about during idle moments but put them off because they seem overwhelming? Write them down.
For each one, come up with a few tasks you can do to move yourself forward – but make sure those tasks are quick. Tiny little things that you can do in five minutes are what you’re looking for.
Then, over time, use these little tasks to fill in the gaps. Do one during a commercial during Lost. Do another one while the rice is boiling on the stove. Do another one while your daughter is working on a math problem independently.
Before you know it, those big tasks will be done – and you’ll enjoy some real peace of mind knowing that another piece of your financial future is in place.