Taking control of time and life

The first thing I ask new Get Rich Slowly readers is to develop a personal mission statement. I want them to discover a goal that will keep them motivated long-term, keep them trudging to work every day, keep them saving half their income. What will prompt them to ignore the things modern society says you have to have in order to be happy?

By getting clear on the one thing that matters most to you, it’s so much easier to make smart choices with money, time, fitness, and more. When you know what you really want, everything else is noise.

Recently, I’ve come to realize this same idea can be applied on a smaller scale to everyday circumstances: Whenever you face a mountain of choices, whenever life becomes overwhelming, you can use the “One Thing” principle to give you focus.

The New Normal

On June 29th, after fifteen months and four days traveling the U.S. in our RV, Kim and I arrived home to Portland. In our overly-optimistic minds, we both believed we’d be back to normal work routines by July 1st. Hahahahaha! We were wrong.

The first complication came with fur:


Three weeks before the end of our journey, we picked up a puppy from my cousin in northeast Oklahoma. Tahlequah — named for the town in which she was born — is a good dog…but she’s only four months old. As a high-energy hound, she needs three hours of exercise and attention every day. Sometimes more.

After arriving home, we had to unpack. Three times. Before I could work on Money Boss and Kim could work on her projects, we had to not only extract all of our stuff from the motorhome, but also sort through dozens of boxes we’d crammed into my office before we left. (Our house-sitters had access to the rest of the condo, but we converted my office to a shared storage space.) Plus we had to unpack stuff from the storage unit we’d rented when Kim and I joined households a few years ago.

Meanwhile, our friends wanted to see us. Colleagues wanted favors. We wanted to get back on an exercise program. (During fifteen months on the road, we both packed on the pounds. Now we’ve returned to Crossfit and paleo, and the weight is falling off.) We needed to go shopping. We needed to repair and/or replace all of the many things that managed to break while we were gone. We needed to fix up the Mini Cooper and sell the motorhome. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

Simply put: After we got home, we were overwhelmed. I, especially, bounced from one thing to another without ever finishing any particular task. If this was our new normal, it sucked. Something had to change.

The One Thing

Eventually, I recognized I was making things harder than they had to be. Instead of trying to do many things at once, I ought to be pick one thing to see through to completion — then move on to the next. (“It’s a ‘task snowball’,” I told myself. “Sort of like a debt snowball, but with chores.”)

I’m well aware that multitasking is a myth. Study after study after study has demonstrated that when we try to do more than one thing at once, quality and quantity both suffer. It’s much better to finish one thing before tackling a second. (Did you know that those who claim they’re best at multi-tasking are actually worst? Strange but true.)

Exercise: Here’s one of my favorite demonstrations of how multitasking hinders rather than helps. Grab a pen, a piece of paper, and a stopwatch. First, time yourself as you write the alphabet from A to Z followed by the numbers 1 to 26. Next, time yourself as you alternate between writing the letters and numbers, putting them each in their respective columns (or rows): “A 1 B 2 C 3”. When I tried this just now, it took me 30.49 seconds to complete the first pass (with no errors). It took me 43.57 seconds to complete the second pass (with one error — I wrote F instead of 5.)

Plus, I’ve been reading The ONE Thing by entrepreneur Gary Keller, who advocates relentless focus on a single goal at a time. Specifically, he recommends asking yourself this question: “What’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

Keller writes, “Extraordinary results are directly determined by how narrow you can make your focus…You need to be doing fewer things for more effect instead of doing more things with side effects.”

Last Wednesday, I decided to do something different. Instead of starting the day by randomly drifting from one chore to the next, I picked the one thing that weighed heaviest on my shoulders. I sat down and spent half an hour cancelling an account. Excellent. One job done. Next, I scheduled appointments with my orthodontist and doctor. Great! Two jobs done. I managed to squeeze in a third quick task before Tahlequah told me she needed to go for a walk.

In ninety minutes, I accomplished three small things. Not earth-shattering, I know, but still…I felt productive. Instead of having wasted ninety minutes getting bits and pieces done on several tasks, I’d crossed three items off my list.

On Thursday, I did the same thing (cleaned the motorhome!). And again on Friday (got my motorcycle running!). And again today (I wrote this article!).

Opting to see one task through to completion before moving on to another has not only helped me get more done, it’s also granted me peace of mind. Instead of feeling stressed, I feel like things are under control. Sure, there’s still tons to be done before our “new normal” resembles our “old normal”, but now I know we’ll get there. It’ll just take time.

Prioritizing Prioritization

Over the weekend, I realized there’s one last piece to the puzzle — one more thing I can do to boost productivity. I need to better prioritize which tasks I’m picking to complete. Some items on my to-do list are more important than others. Some are urgent; others are not.

It’s important that I go see my mother, for example, even if it’s not urgent. On the other hand, it’s urgent (but not important) that I proof a couple of books for colleagues. Some tasks are neither urgent nor important. I want to build a classical music playlist, but that can wait until December. Finally, there are a handful of tasks that are both urgent and important. (Prepping for the Money Boss workshop in three weeks is a perfect example!)

I can help myself feel much less swamped if I focus first on the things that are either urgent or important (or both).

Rather than spend too much time deciding what order to do things in, I’ve opted to use Alan Lakein’s ABC method of time management. (This is taken from his awesome book, How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life.) I’ve written each to-do item on a sticky note. Each note goes into one of three columns:

  • The A column is for high-priority or high-value tasks, such as going to see mom or prepping the Money Boss workshop. Or writing this article.
  • The B column is for medium-value tasks, such as selling the motorhome and renewing my passport so that I can travel to Ecuador in October.
  • The C column is for low-value tasks, such as building a playlist of classical music or resuming Spanish lessons.

Going forward, I plan to focus my attention on the A-List. It’s okay if I dip into the B-List at times (I need to submit my passport for renewal ASAP), but the C-List stuff needs to be saved until later.

“Control starts with planning,” Lakein writes. “Effectiveness means selecting the best task to do from all of the possibilities available and then doing it in the best way.”

I may want to do some of the C tasks more than higher-level tasks — I’m eager to get back to Spanish, for instance, while I dread the work of selling the RV — but I know from experience that if I don’t get the A’s and B’s done first, I’ll never escape the feeling of being buried alive.

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