Twelve Invaluable Life and Money Hacks: Little Daily Steps for Finding the Money and Time to Get Things Done

davidSince starting The Simple Dollar (and discovering, when it became successful, that it required constant attention) and having two children, I’ve found that getting financially ahead and finding the time to get everything done both became significantly more challenging than before. While the big things really help, it’s the little things – repeated often – that add up to a whole lot.

That being said, here are the twelve little things I do almost every day that make it possible for me to stay in great financial shape, manage The Simple Dollar, spend time with my kids, have some time for personal growth and recreation, work at my regular job, and still maintain my sanity. Each one is coupled with a “take home” that you can try to see if it works for you.

1. I set aside a block of time at the start of the day exclusively to work on The Simple Dollar and related projects.
I look at The Simple Dollar as a side business that requires a significant amount of attention on a daily basis to thrive. Spreading it out into little bits throughout the day didn’t really work – I found that spreading the three hours or so I devote to the site out across the day resulted in much less than three hours of productivity. Thus, I took a block of time to devote to my side projects, the chief of which is The Simple Dollar. This block is about two hours long, stretching from 4:30 AM to 6:30 AM (on average). Most of the intense parts of my projects are handled then – the brainstorming, the writing, and so on. I will often do small tasks in pieces later on, like answering emails, but by setting aside time to get most of the work done in one chunk, I free up the rest of the day to devote to things that are really important.

The take home: Try finding a block of time in your day to devote to a specific project. One common place to find the time is by replacing evening television viewing. Another one – the route I take – is to wake up earlier and do things in the early morning.

2. I do three things before anything else in the morning.
The first thing is take a shower. Immediately upon waking, I find that a shower wakes me up and makes me feel invigorated. I follow that with something healthy for breakfast, be it yogurt or a piece of fruit or some toast. Then, I solve some puzzles to get my brain into gear – I like doing Sudoku or other puzzles on my DS. This, in all, takes about thirty minutes, but when I’m done, I’m in high gear for the day – I can dive right into my block of time for side projects.

The take home: As soon as you wake up in the morning, take a shower and follow it with a bite to eat of something healthy with natural sugars in it, then follow it with something that tickles your brain. A routine to energize you in multiple ways makes all the difference.

3. I pay all bills online via online bill pay at my bank.
As many of you know, I use ING Direct as my primary checking and savings bank. They offer an incredibly nice online banking system that basically allows you to cut a check to anyone you wish just by filling in a simple form. Better yet, they save the address information so you can do it time and time again – you only have to fill in the info on your cell phone bill once, for example, and then next time you just enter the dollar amount and hit submit. Even better, if the amount stays the same every month (like a car or mortgage payment), you only have to fill out that information one time, tell it to pay it automatically every month, and never worry about it again. Seriously, I have not touched my paper checkbook in four months, haven’t used a stamp to send in a bill in even longer, and it takes almost no time at all to do the bills.

The take home: Sign up for a bank account with good online banking and bill pay (here’s a guide for finding a new bank and also a guide for switching your accounts to that bank – I personally recommend ING Direct), then go through and set up all of your bills in the service. Once that’s done, the time to pay bills almost completely vanishes, forever.

4. I automate all of my savings and investments.
Along with that online bill pay, I also automate every bit of my savings and investments. Having an automatic savings plan for large purchases, like a house down payment or a car, is kind of like making early payments on it, except the interest works in your favor (building up in your bank account) instead of against you (interest payments on a loan). Even better, automatic investing is effectively the same as a great investment strategy on its own – dollar cost averaging. I just set up an automatic investment – a certain dollar amount every week or every month – and then I don’t even look at the investment except once in a great while when I make sure my portfolio is how I want it to be. My money builds with no effort.

The take home: Don’t make it a “goal” to save, just make it happen automatically. That way, you’re doing the financially prudent thing and you don’t even have to think about it. For starters, use your online banking service and have it set up to deposit a certain amount each week into a savings account – even if it’s a small amount – and forget about it for a while. When you look, you’ll be pleasantly surprised – it just works like magic.

5. I have only two email sessions a day, and I empty my email inbox at the end of every email session.
I used to keep hundreds of emails in my inbox, but I found that this lack of organization was often distracting and kept me from keeping on the tasks that I needed to get done – plus, it was psychologically overwhelming to see all of those messages all the time. Even worse – I kept my email program open all the time and I’d be interrupted from my current task by the latest messages. No more. I now check my email in two batches – once early in the morning, first thing, and once later in the day. At the end of each session, I make sure my inbox is empty and that I’ve got copies of any emails related to tasks I need to work on – and I close the program. No more interruptions. No more despair at the mountains of email. No more lost tasks – I file the messages appropriately and use a “TO DO” folder.

The take home: Go through your entire inbox and file away everything that isn’t pressing. Everything that is pressing should become a to-do list in a separate place. Close your email program when you’re not answering email, and only deal with it once or twice a day. Anything more than that is just distraction from real work.

6. Whenever I have an idea of any sort, I write it down.
This has saved me more times than I can count. I simply keep a notebook (or voice recorder) open (or available) wherever I’m at. Then, when I have an idea of any kind – from something to get at the grocery store or a reminder to pack a new blanket in my daughter’s daycare bag to a post idea for The Simple Dollar or a innovative idea for the workplace or a topic I want to learn more about – I jot it down immediately. I don’t hesitate – if I do, there’s a decent chance that core idea will float right out of my head. I try to jot down as much detail as I can quickly so I’m not distracted from whatever task is at hand, and then I forget about the idea until later, confidently knowing that I have it recorded. Later in the day, I go through these jotted-down ideas, designating some of them for action, discarding a few, doing research on a few others.

The take home: Leave an open notebook and a pen on your desk, and just write down anything that seems remotely important that drifts into your head. At the end of the day, deal with that list of stuff you jotted down.

7. I spread out my eating, particularly to enjoy an energy-rich snack in the early afternoon.
This seems crazy, but it really works. I used to run into the problem of the “afternoon doldrums” – an energy valley around two in the afternoon. Since a nap didn’t really fit, I tried various tactics until I hit upon one that worked. Instead of eating three meals a day, I often eat only one “large” meal in a day – dinner with my wife and children. The rest of the day consists of four small meals – one in the early morning, one in the late morning, one in the early afternoon, and one mid-to-late afternoon. The key ones seem to be the early morning one (mentioned earlier) and the early afternoon one – both of these are great times to eat an energy-rich snack or small meal. I usually eat yogurt or a piece of fresh fruit. The late morning one is usually a small sampling of leftovers from supper the last few nights, and the later afternoon one is usually something small right when I arrive home. This keeps my energy level pretty constant throughout the day.

The take home: Eat a smaller lunch, then eat an energy-rich snack a bit later, like a piece of fresh fruit. This will help keep away the afternoon doldrums.

8. I utilize my lunch break for other tasks.
Since I can easily eat the small “snacks” at my desk, I don’t have to use my lunch break for actual lunch. Instead, I use that time to run errands or complete other tasks that need done. Without the obstacle of lunch, that hour (I have an hour-long mandatory lunch break, though my exact time for taking it can vary) is a great time to go shop for staples at the grocery store, ship a package, or just do something uplifting like writing a long, handwritten letter to an old friend. That hour during the day to take care of “stuff” is invaluable.

The take home: Don’t always look at the lunch break as being “the time when you eat lunch.” Instead, look at your day with a bit more creativity.

9. I drive a slightly longer route to and from work in order to avoid temptation.
The most direct route from my home to my workplace and back takes me past several tempting places to stop. On the way in, there are three coffee shops and a bagel shop. On the way out, there are two bookstores, a used video game shop, and at least two electronics stores. It used to be very easy for me to slip into one of those places, burn some time, and even worse, burn some money I didn’t really need to spend. When I realized how quickly cash was slipping away from me, I studied my route and found a slightly longer route to work – I just took the next exit and backtracked for about five blocks through some parks and a light residential area. What happened? On average, I started getting home about twenty minutes earlier each night and spending about $40 less a week – and I didn’t really miss it at all.

The take home: If there’s a place you consistently stop on your normal commute that wastes time and/or money, look for an alternate route to take that avoids these distractions, even if that alternate route is slightly longer.

10. I meditate once a day, to clear the “work” cruft from my mind and prepare for a family evening.
When I first arrive home from work, I go into the guest bedroom, do a few stretches, then meditate. I just try to clear out all of the things that were on my mind and stressing me from my work day and replace them with… well, nothing at all. That way, I’m relaxed and ready to spend time with my family when they arrive home. What exactly do I do? I do a few basic stress relieving yoga stretches, then I do some basic meditation. In all, I spend about twenty minutes doing this and I suddenly feel like a new person.

The take home: When you first get home from work, don’t vegetate in front of the television or dive straight into household tasks. Instead, take just a few minutes in a quiet place to completely and totally unwind. I recommend closing your eyes, then specifically relaxing each part of your body. It reinvigorates you and cleans out much of the stress of the day.

11. I don’t allow anything to interrupt my “core” evening.
From the time my children get home to the time my son finally falls asleep, nothing interrupts my family time. That is the most valuable time in my day, the time where I get to fully enjoy the people I’m with. I work hard so that I can provide a good home and a good life for my family – to not spend valuable, uninterrupted time with them each day basically undermines why I do these things. It keeps me emotionally and spiritually centered, and I honestly believe I learn as much from my children as they learn from me. In other words, I work to live, not live to work.

The take home: Figure out what’s most important in your life. Maybe it’s your children or your spouse. Maybe it’s mastering an artistic medium. Maybe it’s volunteer work. When you have it figured out, set aside a block of time for that each day. Realize that you work to live, not live to work, and life will seem substantially better.

12. I save small, menial tasks for the hour before bed.
That final hour before bed, when I’m getting sleepy, is the best time for me to get menial tasks done, ones that don’t require a lot of mental concentration. I save things like cleaning up supper dishes, taking out the trash, answering simple emails, and so on for that last hour. This serves two purposes. First, my more “alert” time earlier in the day is spent on more important tasks. Second, by giving myself a checklist of stuff to do right before bed, I use the desire to go to bed and get some sleep as a “carrot” to get these tasks done. I think, “when I do the dishes, make my daughter’s daycare bottles, wipe off the table, pick up the Legos in the living room, write back to my editor, and answer any other trivial emails that are around, I can then go to bed.” That way, the joy of falling asleep is a final reward for a good day.

The take home: Save the mindless tasks for when you’re mindless. Do something enjoyable and mentally engaging earlier in the evening and then do the mindless tasks like loading the dishwasher just before bed.

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