Developing systems that work

In my fantasy life, I’m an organized guy. In the real world, that’s just not the case. I do my best to stay on top of things — I make lists, use a calendar, ask Kris for help — but there always seems to be something slipping through the cracks.

Before we left for Africa, for example, I hid my wallet. I always do this when we go on a long trip. (I don’t use my wallet when I travel.) And every time, I have trouble finding it when I get home. You’d think I’d develop a system — but no.

I’m not the only one with problems like this. Sure, there are folks out there like Kris and her sister — people who never let anything fall through the cracks — but they’re few and far between. Most of us need to develop systems to help our lives run smoothly.

Developing Systems That Work

I’ve read dozens of books on time management, coping with clutter, and getting things done. But I’ve never found a magic cure-all for disorganization. The trouble is, as with personal finance, there’s no one right answer. Each of us is different. We have different strengths, different weakness, and different aims in life. There’s no one system that’s going to work for every person.

For years, my motto at Get Rich Slowly has been do what works for you. I don’t mean by this that one choice is as good as another. There are best practices for paying off debt, saving for retirement, and buying a used car. What I mean is that there’s no one system that works for everyone. The debt snowball helped me get out of debt, but it may have you treading water.

I’ve found that the key to developing systems that work for me is to take bits and pieces from other people’s ideas, and to remix them in ways that fit my goals and strengths. This is true for all aspects of my life, including fitness, finance, writing, travel, and more.

I’ve noticed, though, that there are three elements that seem to be part of every successful system in my life: routine, automation, and simplicity.

The Power of Routine

By far the most important key to my success is establishing routines. Why have I managed to lose so much weight in the past year? Because I made it a habit to get up at 5:30 every morning so that I could be at the gym by 6:30. How did I manage to buy my Mini? I made saving a routine.

Valuable financial habits or routines include:

When something becomes routine, it becomes a natural part of your life. It’s not something you have to force yourself to do. It’s almost automatic, which makes it easier to do the right thing instead of letting your emotions get the better of you.

I’ve also had great success by foisting my routines onto the poor, unsuspecting computers around me. Automation helps my systems run smoothly.

The Power of Automation

When I was younger, I had a heck of a time remembering to pay my bills on time. Even when I had a set routine — for years, I paid bills on the first Saturday of every month — I’d sometimes forget to follow it. So, whenever I find a way to automate some part of my life, I do it.

Removing me from the equation just makes thing run so much more smoothly. That’s why I’ve spent the past several years developing a paperless personal finance system, which includes:

  • Automatic bill payments. All of my regular bills are automatically paid electronically.
  • Automatic saving. Every month, I have money automatically transferred to my savings accounts. (Remember, I keep multiple savings accounts to pursue different goals.)
  • Automatic investing. Well, I don’t actually do this now — I’m making manual investments at the end of every tax year — but for a long time, my retirement accounts automatically pulled from my paycheck and/or checking account.

This automation is an essential part of my financial system. It helps prevent stupid errors — like forgetting to pay a bill before vacation. Plus, I’ve found the automation keeps me motivated. The money for my bills is going to be pulled on specific dates, so I’d better be sure my accounts are funded.

Note: Yes, I know my resistance to Mint and Yodlee and other online money-management tools goes against this quest for automation. I’m manually updating Quicken instead. That’s okay. Sometimes other considerations outweigh automation.

The Power Simplicity

Simplicity is a final key to most of my successful systems.

The reason David Allen’s Getting Things Done system never worked for me is that it’s too bloody complicated. It’s a system that requires maps and a flowchart, files and folders, and plenty of time. I’m sure it works for some people, but it doesn’t work for me. (Or hasn’t, anyhow, the three times I’ve tried to implement it.)

I’ve developed my own alternative to Getting Things Done. I carry a notebook with me. Whenever I need to remember something, I write it down. Whenever I get a new task or appointment, I add it to the bottom of my daily list. As I complete tasks, I cross them off the list. Every morning, I copy this list onto a new page, and begin adding things to the bottom again. Simple. This is a system that works for me. And it works because it’s mostly transparent.

Simple financial systems seem to work best for me, too. I don’t want to spend a lot of time picking stocks or researching retirement accounts. Some folks juggle six different credit cards to maximize their rewards; I have one debit card and one credit card. Anything more makes my brain hurt. The best kinds of systems are those that don’t seem like systems at all. They just become a natural part of the way I live my life.

Note: On Monday, April wrote about her quest to find an expense-tracking system that works for her. She, too, is drawn to simplicity.


Even with the systems I’ve created, I still have trouble sometimes. I lose my wallet or forget to pay a bill. There’s always another improvement to be made. But systems reduce the frequency and impact of these user errors.

I’d love to hear about some of the systems you use to keep your financial life running smoothly. Have you found that there are certain features in common among your successful systems? Or are you one of the lucky few who can get by without using any sort of organizational system at all?

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