Turning Three Big Financial Projects from Plan into Action

A few days ago, I wrote an article on becoming a “doer” instead of a “planner.” Many of us are very good at making plans for changing our life, but we’re not as good at actually executing those changes.

A big part of the strategy I offer in that article is clearly defining things to work on, things you can actually take direct action on. Many people have big ideas for changing their life, but those changes are more about “taking away” rather than “finding a new path.” It is the process of “finding a new path” where you’ll actually find success. Merely “taking away” an old routine without creating a strong new routine means you’re likely to get frustrated and snap back to the old routine.

In other words, you’re likely to find success in changing your life by actively doing something new and using those strategies to stick to it than by simply removing an old routine and flailing. Being active, not passive, is the key to becoming a “doer.”

Here are three projects that do just that. I’m going to use the “strategies for becoming a doer” from the earlier post to describe each project and how you can execute it to hit a home run in your life.

Live Out of Your Pantry and Closet

In other words, try to avoid buying anything that is not absolutely essential for as long as possible. Instead, go through your pantry, cupboards, and closet and start using – and using up – all of the stuff you already have on hand. This can cut down on your food budget, your household supplies budget, your clothing budget, and so on for at least the next month – and perhaps forever.

Break Your Plan Down to Tiny Tasks

Rather than focusing entirely on what you’re cutting out, focus on the little things you can do to make this goal work. What can you do in the next fifteen minutes or half an hour to make this goal work?

You can take on things like cleaning out and reorganizing your pantry, cleaning out and reorganizing your closet, cleaning out and reorganizing your bookshelves, going through your hobby supplies and seeing what you actually have on hand, and so on. Those tasks might lead to more things like selling unnecessary stuff on Craigslist or organizing a book swap with your friends.

Even those things might be “big,” so break it down to even smaller tasks. One task might be to pull everything out of one closet, with a follow-up task of putting everything you actually want to keep back in the closet more sensibly and another task of selling that excess stuff. You get the idea – find little things you can do right now.

Eliminate Distractions

Much of my spending comes from the temptations around me – websites devoted to my hobbies, food magazines, catalogs, restaurant reviews, and so on. Those things are very likely to take me away from my positive spending initiatives.

So, what do I do? I toss catalogs. I block websites using StayFocusd. I avoid reading reviews for things just for the sake of reading reviews (which mostly just convince me to buy stuff) and I stop reading publications that are mostly reviews for more stuff.

Those things can convince you to spend more money and they don’t really add anything positive to one’s quality of life. Get rid of them. Not only will you have more time without those things in your life, you’ll also have far less temptation to spend, which makes living off of what you have on hand much easier.

Set Up “Triggers” for Positive Behaviors

In other words, make it as easy as possible for you to not buy things when you might have otherwise done so. Here are three examples of how Sarah and I do this in our own life.

First, I put lists of books I want to read on top of the library books I intend to return. That way, I can use that as a checklist when I go back to the library. I keep that list out on my desk so I can add books to it when I hear about them, which takes the edge off the desire to buy.

Second, we make meals in advance, then pull them out the night before we use them. For example, when we’re actually making lasagna, we’ll make several pans of it and stock the rest in the freezer. Yes, this takes longer – it’s a Saturday project, usually. However, when we have those pans of lasagna in the freezer, we’ll pull one out the night before we want to use it and put it in the refrigerator, giving it 24 hours to thaw. Knowing that there’s a lasagna in the fridge just waiting to be put in the oven makes it pretty easy to “behave” and just use what we have on hand.

Third, my wife grinds coffee and sets up the coffee pot before bed. She gets everything as ready as she can to make a great homemade coffee as soon as she wakes up so that she’s not tempted to just stop at a coffee drive-thru on the way to work. The coffee is ground, the sugar is out, the to-go cup is cleaned and sitting there … all together, this makes it really easy for her in that sleepy rush as she’s getting ready for work.

These things “trigger” positive behavior at a point where we might be tempted to give up on our project by going for the “bad” choice.

Set One Specific Micro-Task to Complete Each Day

When I’m trying to hammer home a project, I make sure to complete at least one small task related to that project each day. Remember earlier, when we talked about breaking the project down into little tasks? Assign yourself one of those little tasks each day.

For example, one day’s micro-task might be to just reorganize a bookshelf, asking yourself which of those books you actually want to keep (for reference or because you might reread it) or you should sell or trade (because you probably won’t ever read it again). Another day’s task might be to make a list of all your sellable or tradable books and listing them on Facebook or Craigslist. Another task might just be to clean out a junk drawer, or reorganize one pantry shelf.

Couch Your Efforts in Positivity

For me, the perfect example of this comes whenever I actually clean out a closet or a pantry shelf. I always rediscover something wonderful that I hadn’t thought about in a long while and that makes me feel excited again as I want to use that item.

I’ll give you two specific examples. Recently, I cleaned out my closet and found a box of old electronic components that I had collected a few years ago when I was working on some electronics projects. Finding that box got me excited and made me want to start working on some new projects – and since I was using this stuff from my closet, it was basically a free activity.

I did almost the exact same thing with a bookshelf. I hadn’t maintained this shelf well and the books were stacked up awkwardly on the shelves, so I took everything off and reorganized it. Lo and behold, I found two books I was excited to read on there, one old and one new – again, they’re providing entertainment without buying anything new.

Think positive thoughts about what you’re doing. Look for cool ways to use the things you discover as you’re cleaning out your closets or your pantry or your cupboards. Consider each day that you don’t buy stuff to be a real accomplishment and feel proud of it. Think of the money you’re saving by not spending it on stuff you don’t need and feel good about that.

Share Your Plans with a Trusted Circle and Ask for Suggestions and Reinforcement

If you’re going to dive into something like this, share it at least with the other people living in your home and get them on board with it. Encourage everyone to dig through their shelves and closets to find interesting things they may have forgotten about or things they can sell. Hand out positive reinforcement to everyone who is actually doing it.

If you’re surrounded by people who are doing this and are feeling positive about it, it’s going to become much, much easier for you to do the same.

Make Your Home More Energy Efficient

A more energy efficient home is going to save you money for as long as you live there. Your energy bills will drop and they’ll stay lower because you’re simply not gobbling up nearly as much energy as before. However, simply improving the energy efficiency of your home can be a big task filled with lots of projects small and large.

Break Your Plan Down to Tiny Tasks

The best way to start a big project like this is to find a checklist like this one of projects, strategies, and tactics for improving the energy efficiency of your home. That page alone provides a great list of smaller projects.

Replace furnace air filters. Replace incandescent bulbs with light-emitting diodes (LEDs). Insulate water heaters and pipes. Seal doors and windows. Clean air ducts. Upgrade your thermostat. Install low-flow toilets and shower heads. Install ceiling fans (and run them in seasonally appropriate ways). Plant deciduous shade trees near the house. Replace leaky windows. Insulate walls and attic. Install solar panels.

Some of those are easy one-shot or two part tasks, but some of them will need further breakdown. Keep chopping the tasks into smaller pieces until you have a big list of things you can do in just a few minutes.

Set Up “Triggers” for Positive Behaviors

Many of these tasks require equipment and materials to complete, so one really effective way to set up a trigger for a positive behavior is to put the equipment and materials needed for a particular task near where they should go, even if you don’t have the time to do it right now.

For example, whenever we buy new LED bulbs (our house is gradually going all-LED as bulbs burn out), we’ll put those new bulbs right next to where the old ones need to be replaced. Often, we don’t have the few minutes right then to change the bulb, but if the bulb is sitting right next to the socket, it’s easy to remember and do it later.

We do the same thing with furnace filter replacement. We’ll just sit it out in the laundry room (which is where the air handling system is) so that the next time we’re in there, the task is really easy to do.

Set One Specific Micro-Task to Complete Each Day

If you’ve done a good job of breaking down that big list of energy improvement tasks into an even bigger list of tiny tasks to complete, make it your goal to mark at least one item off of the big list of tasks each day. You might choose to change out the light bulbs in one bathroom, for example, or install a low-flow shower head in one bathroom (or perhaps even just buy a low-flow shower head kit or just measure the water flow of the shower head).

This is an approach I use whenever I’m trying to take on a big multi-task project like this. I just come up with a huge list of tiny tasks, then add them to my to-do list, one per day. Marking off those tiny tasks ensures a positive step forward toward completing that bigger project.

Couch Your Efforts in Positivity

For me, seeing the results of my efforts causes me to feel good. When I can see a positive change as the result of something I did, I feel really good about it.

So, one great way to do this type of project is to start at the beginning of an energy billing cycle. Figure out what day of the month your energy meter is read for billing, then start on that day by knocking out some energy improvement tasks. When the last “old” bill comes in, save it, then compare it to a “new” bill as well as more bills down the road.

If you want to get even better at it, start reading your own energy meter. Keep track of the number each day and see how it drops over time. Day-to-day energy use is variable, but you’ll see a decline in the average. When I was really into this, I recorded the number each day and then looked at the weekly average and I could notice that weekly average steadily dropping.

It felt good. Why? Because every time that energy usage average dropped, I knew that my efforts had translated into lasting savings for my family. From that point onwards, we were going to be spending less on energy, and that felt good.

Share Your Plans with a Trusted Circle and Ask for Suggestions and Reinforcement

This is the type of project that works really well in conjunction with friends. Hop onto Facebook and post a message looking for ways to cut back on home energy use, particularly local tips. Mention the energy company you use.

You’ll be surprised how many of your friends jump in with suggestions and ideas. Many of your other friends will actually use those suggestions as well for their own ends, so your simple post won’t just help you, but will help other people that you know.

Prepare More Food at Home

Preparing food at home is one of those “self-fulfilling prophecy” kind of projects. The more you do it, the better you get at it and the more appealing it is to eat food at home. However, if you keep putting that idea off, you never get good at it and it always seems more challenging than it needs to be. It can be a real challenge to switch tracks, but you can use some of the “doer” strategies to make it happen.

Break Your Plan Down to Tiny Tasks

Cooking really is a series of tiny tasks. Meal planning is one task. Gathering ingredients is another. Actual meal preparation is yet another.

These tasks aren’t particularly hard themselves. They don’t feel nearly as daunting individually, at least compared to “making meals at home for the next month.”

So, your first step in cooking at home should be to make a meal plan for a week (or two). Decide what you’ll have for each meal, and make those first meals pretty easy to prepare. If you’re unsure what to do, look at your grocery store flyer and use the on-sale ingredients as inspiration.

Then, make a big list from that meal plan and flyer and buy everything you need.

Other tiny tasks include simply setting out all of the items and equipment you’ll need for a meal, preparing the meal, packing up leftovers, and so on.

When you start breaking things down into little manageable pieces, everything seems easier and comes together.

Eliminate Distractions

Throw away that takeout/delivery menu that’s on your refrigerator. Get rid of it. Delete the phone numbers for delivery places on your phone. Those things beg you to just call them up for convenience, which is not only more expensive but runs counter to your entire project. You don’t need those kinds of distractions.

We sometimes get food advertisements in the mail, usually with a delivery or takeout menu attached. Those things go straight in the trash, as they just encourage extra spending that we don’t really need to do.

Set Up “Triggers” for Positive Behaviors

One thing that we often do is leave the ingredients out for a meal the night before we prepare it (as late evenings are the most common time for household tasks). This is particularly true if we’re assembling a slow cooker meal the next morning for dinner the next evening.

Another nice trigger we often use is pre-cooking a large amount of beans. I’ll cook up a pound of dry black beans (making something like three pounds of cooked beans) for two or three different recipes all at once. Simply having those cooked beans triggers my desire and ability to use them in recipes (because beans you cooked and seasoned yourself blow away beans from a can in texture and flavor).

Another useful trigger is to buy fresh ingredients that don’t require refrigerator storage and just leave them out on the table so you remember to use them. We have a big fruit bowl that we use just for this purpose – and that fruit bowl will sometimes have some vegetables in there for just this reason.

Set One Specific Micro-Task to Complete Each Day

Your goal today is to make supper at home and then pack the leftovers for lunch on a future day. That’s a very specific task, one you can make even more specific with the aid of a meal plan.

You can make that task really simple – and, at first, I’d encourage you to do so. Make something really easy, like spaghetti with pasta sauce or scrambled eggs. Don’t worry about more complex dishes – worry about those when you’ve mastered the techniques of easier ones.

The best way to do this is to get a great learning cookbook, like Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, and focus on the earlier recipes that really build technique that will make later recipes better.

Couch Your Efforts in Positivity

When you make a meal for yourself, be proud of it. You didn’t pay someone else to make this for you. You didn’t burn the time to go to a restaurant where you sit around twiddling your thumbs to pay too much for a meal and then have to also tip the waitstaff.

You did it yourself, at home. There’s no wear and tear on the car. There’s no time spent traveling back and forth. There’s no tip or restaurant “premium.”

There’s just you, and the meal you made. And it’s cheaper and probably tastier and healthier than a similar meal at a restaurant anyway.

Be proud of that. That’s awesome. Don’t be afraid to feel good about it. You should.

Share Your Plans with a Trusted Circle and Ask for Suggestions and Reinforcement

You can make this type of activity very social by simply asking your friends for recipe ideas and meal suggestions on social media or when you see them.

Even better, make it into a direct social event by having your good friends over for a meal or by hosting a potluck dinner where everyone brings or makes something. This is a very inexpensive way to host a social event.

Final Thoughts

You can have all of the great plans in the world when it comes to cutting your spending or getting your finances in order, but if those plans aren’t met with action, they don’t really add up to too much.

Make plans, sure, but take action. That’s where the real difference is made.

Loading Disqus Comments ...